Prachi Chourey

Where the sun placed

Posted on: May 24, 2013


2011 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 14,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 5 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Springtime for Spacetime

Imagine you’re looking out onto a canal and see two insects on the surface of the water. Their weight presses down and causes a dip into which anything rolling on the surface could fall in towards them. This is how mass creates gravitational attraction by curving space-time – the bigger the insect, the larger the dip and the stronger the gravity. Now imagine the insects are moving about or spinning around. They can create small ripples on the water. Each ripple is like a small dip travelling out from the middle. Anything on the water’s surface the ripple passes under will be jiggled about, falling into the dips and pushed out by the peaks of the ripples. Space-time is a lot more rigid and the ripples a lot smaller, but it is that jiggling that missions like LISA are looking for.

Watching Saturn at Opposition

The ringed planet Saturn is at opposition – ie it is at the part of its orbit that brings it closest to the Earth. This in turn makes it a good time to have a look at this most stunning planet.

Global Astronomy Month has also begun and they started things off with a live view of Saturn. For those wanting to look at how the professionals do it, Tom Stallard and Henrik Melin of Leicester University are presently stuck up Mauna Kea in Hawaii measuring the aurora with the Infrared Telescope Facility and have also put that online.

They’ve blogged about what they’re doing here and will be broadcasting 11am-5pm BST every day of their observations at this page.

Auroral blog on ROG Blog

Max Alexander, the photographer behind the Explorers of the Universe exhibition has been featured in a blog entry for the Royal Observatory Greenwich site. The entry includes a photograph of two auroral filaments (paths taken by the impacting electrons) intertwined by the complex electromagnetic interactions of the involved currents. The entry signs off with an infrared image of Saturn’s aurora, featured in the ROG’s new planetarium show Meet the Neighbours.

The skies over Kendal in October

We’re moving into the darker, colder and usually rather cloudy nights of the end of the year. As ever, this post is illustrated with a few sky charts showing midnight on the first, last and fifteenth day of the month. The dots represent brighter stars, green circles are star clusters, nebulae, galaxies and the like and the very brightest stars, the Moon and the planets are named when they appear. Sky charts provided using Stellarium.

Solar system

The Moon will be in the last quarter phase on the 1st, new on the 7th, first quarter on the 14th and full on the 23rd. On the 14th, the Moon will occult the star 50 Sagittarii at around 8:10pm for northern observers.

The middle of the month sees the start of the Orionid meteor shower, which will peak on the 21st. Peak rates are low and a full Moon will blot out all but the brightest. Orionids are fast and leave persistent trails. They are best seen before dawn.

Heavens above presently lists two comets above magnitude 12 and seven asteroids above magnitude 10 in the hours of darkness. The comets are: 103P Hartley at 5.6 – approaching visibility – in Cassiopeia and 10P Tempel 2 at 10.1 in Cetus. Details on the future movements and changing brightness of the comets can be found here. The asteroids are 6 Hebe at 7.8 in Cetus; 4 Vesta at 7.9 in Virgo; 8 Flora at 8.6 in Aquarius; 1 Ceres at 8.9 in Sagittarius; 7 Iris at 9.4 in Gemini; 39 Laetitia at 9.5 in Aquarius and 471 Papagena at 9.8 in Cetus – rather a busy constellation this month.

The Planets

Mars is usually lost in atmospheric haze now. It shines at +1.5, appearing in the south-west, only to set an hour after the Sun.

Venus is seen just below Mars as the Sun sets, shining much brighter, but also lower, requiring a very low horizon to the West to see it.

Mercury for the next day or two, Mercury is visible in the Eastern horizon shortly before the Sun rises, though it will appear dimmer than its +1.3 magnitude suggests due to the bright sky around it.

Saturn returns to the skies at the end of the month, making an appearance shortly before dawn with rings now angled such that they look more like rings. The planet will shine at a magnitude of 0.7.

Jupiter continues to shine brightly as ‘that star in the East’. It shines at a magnitude of -2.9 and is in an empty part of the sky. Its inclination is such that transits of satellites happen quite a bit. Times of some of these and appearances of the Great Red Spot are here.

Uranus lies a couple of degrees west of Jupiter, plus a little above, and shines at 5.7.

Neptune is also in the morning skies, on the border of Capricorn and Aquarius.

A few things outside the solar system

The constellations of Leo, Virgo and the Big Dipper are all home to galaxies,details here. This is not a good month to look at faint things as the all-night twilight obliterates detail and contrast.

The Usual Stuff

If you want to watch satellites flaring or passing in the sky (even sometimes during the day), then go to Heavens Above to get times and directions. If you need assistance in deciding where things are in the sky, why not install the free program Stellarium, which does all the work for you? Finally, to avoid the dreaded clouds, Met Check gives a quick forecast and the Met satellites or other satellites can be used to track breaks in the cloud. For an indication of auroral or solar activity, SpaceWeather.com is an invaluable resource. If the stars aren’t available, there’s always solar astronomy. Projections of the Sun onto white card can show sunspots, when properly focused. A good filter (not an eyepiece filter) or a dedicated solar telescope will show better details. Never observe the Sun without filters and never with an inadequate, inappropriate or old (and therefore possibly with holes in) filter.

Public events

For young astronomers (ages 9-16) Space Explorers is run in Kendal Museumon the third Saturday of most months from 2:30-4:00 pm. The next meeting is on Saturday the 23rd. The Society for Popular Astronomy also has a sky map for young astronomers here.

Plus why not pop along to the Eddington Society, which meets at Kendal Museum on the first Monday of each month, this month it is on the 4th, with member’s projects the subject of the meeting. There will also be a public observing event at The Brewery Arts Centre on the 15th from 6:30pm.

Don’t forget to check back here and on my twitter account for the latest astronomical events in this area.

FITS liberator now stand alone

FITS Liberator is a thing that allows you to download, view and manipulate images in the complex FITS and PDS data formats, produce pretty pictures with them and render them in the simpler and more common jpeg and other image formats. Before now, it operated as an add on to Adobe Photoshop. Now, however, it has been released as a stand-alone free program.

Download it here.

What has ESO got hidden?

The European Southern Observatory, which operates a number of high end observatories in the southern hemisphere, has put up a rather enticing webpage. It promises to open up and reveal ‘ESO’s hidden treasures’ on Monday, 4th of October.

We wait to see what they are…

Pan-STARRS spots hazard in space

The Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System, or Pan-STARRS 1, is a 1.8 metre telescope with a 1.4 gigapixel camera mounted on it, constantly surveying the sky. It hunts stars, galaxies and also anything that moves from moment to moment, specifically comets, trans-Neptunian objects and asteroids. Now it has managed to capture an asteroid that may or may not pose a future hazard.

2010 STS3 is a 45 metre wide asteroid, capable of causing regional disruption on a par with the object believed responsible for the Tunguska explosion, which flattened trees after a similar sized object exploded in the atmosphere above the sparsely inhabited region.

The object poses no immediate risk, but as it is passing close to us, it will be monitored and its orbital parameter derived from dedicated follow up observations to help determine more precisely where it will be. Presently, there is a small chance of an impact in 2098, but the margin of error on the orbital parameters is too high to make any warnings relevant.

The main significance of 2010 ST3 was that Pan-STARRS saw it first, proving its ability to detect these things when they appear. Pan-STARRS 1 is set to be supplemented by Pan-STARRS 4, a larger, more sensitive observatory, which will assist in surveying the skies.

Predicting the weather

The BBC are running a series of comparisons and validations of various weather prediction services against one another in an effort to see if the Met Office is providing a sufficient service. It’s a semi public thing, with members of the public asked to send in their ideas of better weather prediction services and a public meeting planned for the 12th of October in London. Details here.

Vote for your favourate photowalk

On the 7th of August, five particle physics institutions opened their doors to the public and their cameras. Each institution has chosen three of the resulting photographs taken on their premises and these fifteen pictures have gone to the public vote to decide which is the best. You have until the 8th of October to view them and vote here.

Dance of the galaxies

The Milky Way appears to have been let off in the case of the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds.

The two orbitting dwarf galaxies are presently ensnared in the gravity of the much large Milky Way, but observations show they are linked by a stream of gas and stars. Initial thoughts were this was part of the tearing and chewing process the Milky Way invokes in absorbing the smaller bodies, however, studies of the dynamics of galaxy interactions have shown this is unlikely to have been the case. It is more likely that the two clouds came together before meeting the Milky Way and so became an interacting binary. Then they arrived at our local galaxy and are either in an unusually large orbit or have only just, in galactic lifetime terms, arrived. Full details here.

Meanwhile, researchers at the Argonne National Laboratory have been studying and simulating the collision and merger of galaxy clusters to derive the role, if any, that dark matter plays in the dynamics of the collisions. The particular one being studied is the evolution of the Bullet Cluster. The simulation looks a little like this:

Satellite launch problems

The $424 million Glory mission to study the impact of aerosols on climate variability has been delayed due to problems with the mechanisms operating its solar panels. Originally slated for a 22nd of November launch, it has now been pushed back to the 23rd of February to allow time to correct the problem. This will mean the satellite will launch almost a year after the same rocket type exploded, destroying another climate satellite.

Meanwhile, hot on the heels of the announcement of launch dates closing in for the human spaceflight aspect of Virgin Galactic, it appears the satellite launch part of the business is being allowed to slide for the time being, with its head departing and no replacement currently in sight. Branson talked up the utility of satellite launches for the education sector in his recent press event, but more as a speculative venture.

Some IoP news

The Institute of Physics has a new President in the form of UCL materials physicist and Emeritus Professor Marshall Stoneham. Further details here.

Professor Brian Cox has also been presented with the Kelvin Award for his outreach activities.

Icy happenings out there

An animation of Comet Hartley 2 (which can be found via this chart) has been doing the rounds. No idea of attribution, although it’s on a website hosted byPatrick Wiggins, but this shows the comet travelling through the skies (not yet visible to the naked eye):

Meanwhile the photograph below was taken by Will Gater:

Cassini, not to be left out, has also been taking snaps of watery happenings in space, with this image of Saturn’s satellite Enceladus leaking from its geysers.

Some more IYA updates

Some more updates have come through on projects related to the International Year of Astronomy, 2009.

There’s a few events coming up. World Space Week will be held from the 4th-10th of October, coordinating space outreach activities across the globe. Shortly afterward, UCL will be hosting Your Universe, from the 15th-17th of October, with demonstrations on a range of astrophysical phenomena. And finally, Dark Matter Awareness Week hopes to raise awareness of, well, you guessed it, that stuff we’re unawares of, from the 1st-8th December.

The Galileo Teacher Training Programme has, in conjunction with the The Europlanet Outreach Team and Steering Committee, have released best practice guidelines for outreach activities.

One piece of outreach, Einstein@Home, has registered a success. The screensaver based cloud computing effort originally searched for the signatures of gravitational waves in data from the LIGO observatory, but also expanded into a pulsar hunt, finding a new rogue pulsar wandering through the skies 17,000 light years from us.

Having completed the final report of official IYA2009 activities, the website now wants to hear from all the events and happenings linked to IYA2009, but not included in the official census. Send your reports this way.

A couple more articles on the new exoplanet…

There seems to have been two press conferences going on when the discovery of the planet Gliese 581g was announced…

The first press conference was the announcement of a scientific study of the motions of the star Gliese 581 (also known as Gliese 581a). These motions, studied over eleven years, have suggested the existence of a planet 3.1-4.3 times the mass of the Earth orbitting the red dwarf in around 37 days, putting it within the ‘habitable’ zone of the star in terms of equilibrium temperature derived from the radiative balance of the system. This press conference included some ruminations on what would be needed to find the signals of life, such as spectroscopy of the atmosphere, which due to the alignment of the system, cannot happen with present techniques. This aspect of that press conference and the implications for the search for life outside the solar system are discussed here.

The second press conference focuses on what seems to be either over-excitement by discoverer Steve Vogt or over excitement by those reporting his thoughts and words when discussing the inevitability of life on the planet Zarmina. It is entirely common for authors of a study to contemplate the implications it could have and the possibilities it opens, and obviously where life in the cold recesses of space are concerned, the possibilities are particularly enticing, but in order to prevent more canals of Mars, Venusian cities and other such hostages to fortune, it helps to avoid statements such as life being 100% certain. But if you do want to get lost in the imagery, Vogt expands on it here.

Some spaceflight stuff

There’s a lot of activity in the space sector at the minute in anticipation of the ending of one era and the start of another.

The end of the Hayabusa asteroid sample return mission will have to wait a little longer. Although the Japanese satellite made it back from the asteroid, got its canister back to Earth and the scientists recovered it and have identified particles inside the first collection chamber, the results of analysis of the particles are not likely until February or March next year.

The start of the third and final era of the Cassini mission. The satellite entered Saturn orbit in 2004 and conducted its four year mission with few problems. Since 2008, it has been running the Equinox mission extension. Now that has run out and the satellite has begun the seven year Solstice mission, which should see it to a spectacular end in the clouds of the ringed gas giant.

The Interstellar Boundary Explorer, or IBEX space telescope studies an unusual target. Rather than gathering light like an ordinary telescope, it looks at particles. In particular, it studies neutral particles created by the collision of the solar wind outflow from the Sun with the material between the stars. Last year, it saw the image of a ribbon in space, interpreted as a magnetic flux tube. Further studies in the intervening time have shown this pattern to be altering on the six month timescale of the new observations. The ribbon is becoming a simpler pattern, with fewer loops and twists. This is rather faster than the eleven year solar activity cycle impacting on a uniform medium would suggest, giving us an interesting glimpse of what is happening out there. Details are reported here andhere.

CryoSat is a satellite at the start of its life. The polar explorer is presently in orbit gaining data on the thickness of ice around the globe. That data needs to be calibrated and validated before full operations can go ahead. The commissioning phase will be completed in mid-October, but further validation will be required and will have to be done on the job. A validation workshop will therefore be held in ESA/ESRIN in Frascati (Rome), Italy from the 1st – 3rd February 2011.Details and flyer here.

Another satellite even earlier in its life is China’s latest Lunar satellite, Chang’e-2, which blasted off on a Long March 3C rocket earlier today (1st of October) –video here. The satellite, the second of China’s lunar program, is set to arrive in orbit in around five days and is being tracked by China with the help of ESA. The probe’s spaceframe was created as a spare for the first lunar probe, but rather than create an entirely new probe for the second mission, researchers pinned the new technology onto the old spaceframeThe probe includes a laser altimeter, a CCD camera and an impacter. It is designed to gather data for future missions and test key technologies. The next lunar mission is aiming to put a rover on the lunar surface and eventually the program hopes to put a man on the Moon.

From launched missions to scheduled to launch missions. The updated manifestfor the final launch of the space shuttle and construction of the International Space Station has been announced. ESA plans the launch of ATV2 on the 15th of February, with NASA launching the final shuttle missionSTS-134, on the 27th of February. Roscosmos is looking into extra Soyuz launch and landing slots to add capacity if needed. Meanwhile, STS-133 still has to be launched and the 1st of November mission will be previewed in a press conference on the 21st of October. Details here.

Also set to blast off in November, the Hylas-1 satellite has been undergoing tests in India and is now set to be shipped to the launch pad in French Guiana, ESA’s spaceport ArianeSpace. The satellite is a public-private partnership between ESA and Avanti Communications to provide broadband capacity to customers in the EU, part of the EU’s commitment to universal 25mps broadband by 2025. The spaceframe has been purchased from India with Avanti providing the communications technology.

Some satellites aren’t yet scheduled for launch, but need to be shipped here and there to get them tested and together. Three different space telescopes are presently at different stages of this process. The LISA pathfinder mission, which will test the technologies to be deployed on the LISA gravitational wave observatory, has spent the summer having its electromagnetic fields and responses tested and checked. LISA will use precisely controlled spacecraft to hunt for the tiniest variations in position and as such need an extremely high level of knowledge about where each part of the spacecraft is and what it is doing. Parts of the spacecraft have also undergone thermal testing to see how the proximity and direction of the Sun will alter the spaceframe. Meanwhile MIRI, the Mid InfraRed Instrument, of the James Webb Space Telescope, a massive venture that will act as a Hubble Space Telescope equivalent in the infrared, has arrived at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory for pressure testing. Finally, the Mechanical Service Module, which will act as the control system for the Gaia space telescope, which will perform precise astrometry, measuring the positions and motions of a billion stars in the Milky Way, has been put together. The thing now needs integrating with other parts that are scattered across the globe in various stages of construction and testing.

Onto future spacecraft and ESA has been asked to make a decision. Presently, it has the use of the ATV (Automatic Transfer Vehicle), an automated vehicle that can deliver stuff to the ISS, but then gets burnt up on reentry. A new vehicle, the ARV (Automatic Reusable Vehicle) has been proposed, which replaces the cargo module on the front of the ATV with a reentry capsule and also upgrades the service module. This would enable things to be returned from the ISS to the ground – such as science experiments and the like. However, there is some opposition to the craft, which some say has no future as the ATV is seemingly adequate for the jobs required of it and development of the ARV to full production capacity would probably leave little time before the ISS is decommissioned and the vehicle needing a new mission.

One possible new mission could be the development of private space hotels. There’s been a few proposals and actual launched vehicles from the USA, but now a consortium in Russia has announced plans to put up a space station. The CSS, or Commercial Space Station, will provide space for up to seven people (one commander and six non professionals) performing commercial research or just lounging about. The four room guesthouse will be supplied by Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft, taking advantage of the lack of alternatives in getting people into space and Russia’s enhanced relative capabilities when others around do start popping up with new launch vehicles – all of which will also be able to partner with the station. Orbital Technologies has teamed up with a state run company and the Russian space agency to make the project a reality. The station is, unlike the ISS’s modular creation, expected to be launched on a single rocket. Construction is expected in 2012 or 2013.

Meanwhile, SpaceShipTwo, the space tourism craft operated by Virgin Galactic, has been built and is expected to begin operations in around eighteen months. Sir Richard Branson’s sights are also turning toward providing commercial satellites for the education sector as well as potentially space hotels (getting crowded up there…) and eventually a lunar habitat.

Surrey Satellite Technologies Limited has announced three Earth Observation satellites, costing £100 million are to be built and launched in 2013 to provide data commercially as well as a £10 million satellite construction and testing facility in Guildford.

Now onto conceptual spacecraft and one NASA plan to create a heavy lifting spacecraft from modified shuttle boosters, fuel tanks and engines has beenobtained by a website. At present, NASA works on the Ares rocket, derived from the solid rocket boosters that appear at the sides of the big orange fuel tanks that supply the stuff that the shuttles burn to get into orbit. This new design would lose the shuttle, move the engines from the orbiter to the fuel tank and stick a capsule on top, with some other frills. A power system has been developed that would see energy taken from the solar wind. The satellite has the capability of taking charge from the stream of ions and electrons that constantly whiz from the Sun to the outer regions of the solar system, but at present there’s no way to transfer the power back to Earth or any passing spacecraft that could use it.

And for some words on the future of spaceflight from those in whose hands it may potentially lie, the head of the UK Space Agency has been giving his view in an interview, as has the Director General of ESA.

Things to do

There’s a few things happening in the offline world (I hear from friends – or at least twitter followers – that there is such a place). So here’s a couple I’ve noticed flying about:

Monday the Fourth of October at 7:00pm sees a meeting of the Eddington Society at Kendal Museum. A talk will be given on Refraction from Atmosphere to Gravisphere.

Tuesday/Wednesday the Fifth/Sixth of October are dates designated as possible star parties (one date will be used if clear that night) held by the Bristol Astronomical Society. Details here.

Saturday the Ninth of October sees the Science is Vital March for Science to demonstrate against cuts to the science budget. Details here.

Friday the Fifteenth of October at 6:30pm sees a meeting of the Eddington Society at the Brewery Arts Centre for an observing night – weather permitting.

Tuesday the 9th of November sees the start of a season of showings of the play Bright Star, running until Saturday the 27th of November, on the life of Beatrice Tinsley at the Tabard Theatre in London, including two dates with scientists answering questions raised by the play. Details here.

And finally, if the March gets you in the mood for moving about more, then there’s a Solar Eclipse Marathon to be held in Australia on the 14th of November 2012. The race begins as the Sun emerges from behind the Moon. Details here.

Some more #SciCuts stuff

As the spending review draws closer and the impending cuts to the science budget loom ever more, a spate of further articles have been produced in opposition to them.

The Guardian reports on the potentially exacerbated Brain Drain caused by the relatively poor conditions for research in a given field in the UK compared to other countries. Meanwhile, UCL mentions a new report out showing the career paths of PhD educated individuals and hence the areas of the economy enriched by the skills learnt.

Meanwhile, the contribution of the field of chemistry to the economy is £250 billion a year, according to a report commissioned by the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

And the BBC reports on how a small seed of money has grown into a sprawling oak as the Earth Observation market has become well developed enough to need no subsidy. The case the report hinges on is Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd‘s growth from a small subsidy run venture to one that has just announced it will be spending £100 million on three new satellites built and operated by itself, paid for by the licensing of observational data they will gather (immediate capital coming from sales of already generated data). This means that through the tax system, the subsidy has now reversed flow from government coffers to industry, now going from industry back into government coffers, but the initial seed was required to get the ball rolling on this.

If you’re a company looking for that sort of a start up opportunity for some scientific development, the STFC may have some help. The research council is offering prizes of fixed term free use of facilities and scientists for appropriate research. Details on the application process are here. Of course, if you can think of research requiring longer terms, different facilities or just miss out on the competition, then you can always try hiring the facilities. Researchers are cash hungry and often open to industrial partnerships relevant to their work.

Further details on the 9th of October Science is Vital march have been put on the web.

Some astronomy publications

A new month and a new quarter have broken, meaning there’s a fair few new things out to be read.

The Sky at Night Magazine have put out a preview of what’s in their October issue to wet your appetites.

Four centuries after conception and a hundred years or so after its use was occasionally demonstrated as after dinner entertainment, a book called Calculus Doesn’t Suck has appeared (along with podcasts and the like) to show the many varied uses of the mathematical methodology.

The British Astronomical Association has put out the latest issue of its journal. There’s a lot about the recent solar eclipse, including unusual shadow bands seenand a trip report by Francisco Diego.

The BAA has also released an entirely new publication from its double star group. Both of the BAA publications are free to download.

For those interested in planetary science, a Geophysics twitter newspaper has been launched. Such publications are websites drawing more in depth stories from the twitter feed of those followed by the editor.

Meanwhile, Astronomy Now has been looking back over September’s images. Just to be different.

For those who prefer a little more audio, then Under British Skies, the UKAstronomy.fm show, has a few more episodes out including this one on the planets and this one on citizen science.

ESA has also released an edition of its Euronews Space Magazine vodcast, which can be seen here, discussing science and science fiction. This is quite topical given the appearance of this interview with the scientific advisor to The Big Bang Theory as well as ruminations in Discovery on Disney’s updating and rereleasing of the not even aiming for accuracy 1979 film Black Hole.

Finally, the much vaunted Geek Calendar (in support of Libel Reform) is on its way and a trailer has been released. Close eyes now…

Some observing alerts

Jupiter remains king in the sky at the moment, as Will Gater’s image, showing a transit of Io shortly after my own observations of it, illustrates:

That black dot is the shadow of the satellite, a vast area of eclipse moving over the cloudtops of that giant planet.

The two most distant major planets of the solar system are also available to be found at the moment.

We also have a comet in Cassiopeia, comet Hartley, now edging onto the visible end of the brightness range. Finder chart here.

And for more advanced observers, there’s a faint blue star in Auriga presently up in brightness by about five orders of magnitude (taking it to around 16). Further details and a finder’s chart are here.

Finally, slightly more advance warning has come in about how the proper motion of the stars will alter the appearance of constellations over the next 50,000 years (yes, they can write this knowing no-one’s going to take it up with them if they get it wrong).

More on the new planet

A quick roundup of articles on newly discovered habitable zone extrasolar rocky planet. Start off at the overoptimistic end with the Telegraph’s article, taking Vogt’s rather dodgy assumption that it is certain there’s life there at face value… Then there’s Skymania, which mentions the possibilities of life on the planet, while stressing these are just possibilities. Discovery puts in a line suggesting life is so certain, it would be harder to prove it isn’t there. Next to fall in line is the BBC article, mostly neutral but pushing the life angle hard. Then onto the more neutral press release from the University that hosts the researchers involved. Finally, Universe Today hosted a twitter debate on whether or not Vogt was right to be confident of life’s appearance on the planet. It did not tilt in his favour to say the least…

Planet found in an alien star’s habitable zone

Gliese 581 is a name well known and repeated in exoplanetary circles. Lying 20.3 light years from us in the constellation of Libra, it is a red dwarf star now known to have at least six planets. Twice before, the star has been in the news with one of its planets declared close to the habitable zone – the slender band of orbits around the star where the stellar radiation is high enough to melt ice, but low enough not to boil water. Planet C was close, but on the hot side, too close to the star. Planet D was close, but on the cold side. Now a planet G has appeared and it is right in the middle of the habitable zone.

Appearing in this region around a star is not in any way proof that a planet can support life, it is merely a suggestion that it is likely to fulfill at least one of the prerequisites – the balance of radiation from its host star is sufficient to sustain liquid water. But further properties derived from observations of the star are quite positive. The planet is 3-4 times the mass of the Earth, suggesting a rocky planet with a defined surface, which at a similar density would put it at 1.2-1.4 Earth masses, giving a surface gravity not that dissimilar to our own. That would imply sufficient gravity to hold an atmosphere. But the similarities with the development of our own world do seem to end there.

The planet orbits its host star in 37 days. The low luminosity of Gliese 581 means that to be in the habitable zone in terms of radiation, the planet must crowd close to the star. This means the star has sufficient gravitational effect to tidally lock its satellite – meaning as with the Moon in orbit of the Earth, the same face of the planet always points toward the star. This would imply a searingly hot one face and freezing cold dark side, with winds racing from one side to the other. At the day night boundary, buffeted by these winds, more moderate climates would be seen at the different latitudes, where life could start, possibly evolving to take advantage of less temperate spaces on the planet after leaving the cradle. Red Dwarfs are long lived stars, so the time will also be there to do it.

But gravity and photons aren’t all a star can put out. Gliese 581 isn’t a flare star, that is, it isn’t known for sudden massive bursts of material from its surface, but it will still lose mass through slow stellar winds. It is believed that planets in close orbits to their host stars tend to lose their magnetic fields, or see them closely affiliated with that of their host stars. The protective magnetosphere, the magnetic sheath that protects us against the particle radiation that results from hot matter essentially expanding off the surface of our Sun, may not be replicated in this new place.

Whether or not there is life in this increasingly diverse place, the careful measurements carried out by the team, who measured the Doppler shifts of the light from the wobbling star to an amazing precision, do show that pulling out rocky planets in the habitable zones is within reach of modern technology. However, with the actual light from the planet lost in the glare of the star, it will take time and new technology to tease out the signal of life within that light, should it be there.

The paper announcing the discovery of the planet is here and one submitted at the same time detailing modelling of planet D’s atmosphere to determine whether or not its properties are sufficient to insulate the bitter cold and foster life is here.

Further reports on the story are herehere and here.

Lost Apollo 11 footage found… and released a year ago.

Space and physics news tends to consist of many, many small sparks of inspiration doing the rounds and dying down for a bit. So many, that occasionally, should a spark previously lost amid a sea of news activity re-emerge in times of lower headline flux, it can be mistaken for new news.

A few websites such as Discovery picked up on the story of new cleaned up footage of the early moments of Apollo 11, thought lost by NASA, but recorded by other stations. The reports state the footage has been painstakingly reassembled. All this is true, except for one minor problem – the footage was released during the 2009 celebrations of 40 years since the 1969 missions, as Universe Today noted.

ISS crewmembers land successfully

Three crewmembers from the International Space Station have successfully undocked from the station and landed in Kazakhstan in vehicle Soyuz TMA-18. The event brings to an end the crew configuration known as Expedition 24. The new crew configuration, Expedition 25, will commence when three new crewmembers join the three still on the station. This is expected to happen on the 9th of October, with the arrival of Soyuz TMA-01M.

The Soyuz undocked at 03:02 BST today. It carried out a separation burn to put distance between it and the station. At 05:31, it performed a four minute twenty one second deorbital burn, slowing it down sufficiently to drop out of the skies. The three segments of the vehicle separated at 05:56 and the crew continued towards the ground in the descent module, which entered the atmosphere at 05:59. It landed near Arkalyk, in Northern Kazakhstan, at 06:23. Pictures like the one shown below are at NASA’s flickr photo stream:

Events were also captured on NASA TV and archived to their youtube channel, from which the following, showing the change of command, the aborted landing, farewells and the actual undocking and landing, were taken:

Quick Observing report

The cold air tonight reminded me that there actually sometimes is a starry sky above my head. Seeing the clear, star pricked night, I assembled the Celestron 130SLT and eyepieces and quickly set it up outside. Not quick enough as a band of fast moving cloud headed between me and the targets. Defeated, I returned inside.

Not too long afterward, I returned and set up under a clearer sky with slower clouds. I took with me the Greenkat spotting scope as well. My three intended targets for the night were Jupiter, Uranus and the Comet 103P Hartley, which is breaching the magnitude 6.5 according to Heavens Above (finder chart here). My intention was to direct the main telescope straight onto Jupiter and Uranus and use the spotting scope’s wider field of view to scan for the comet before zooming in on it later, as I have done with previous ones.

This didn’t go quite to plan as a combination of the strong light of the Moon and neighbours popping by for a look meant the comet hunt was eventually called off. Although I did get a glimpse of Hartley, it didn’t seem quite good enough for a swing round of the Celestron.

Instead I concentrated on the brighter objects, taking in the turquoise Uranus before showing off Jupiter and the four Galilean moons to four neighbours. Three of the satellites were arranged in a similar way to the handle of the plough, all on one side of the planet. The fourth, Io, sat just off the limb, easily resolvable in the 9mm and 4mm eyepieces, but too close for the 24mm one to pick out. Just passed opposition, the giant planet is enormous in the eyepiece. As well as the remaining equatorial band, detail could be seen of the zones and caps, which is quite unusual for me to spot.

After this, a neighbour wanted to look at the just passed full Moon, so we swung onto that, with views of shadowed craters on the limb to see. With that done and the cold biting into everyone, the session was wrapped up and we headed back into our houses.

IYA2009 update

Some news on the ever continuing International Year of Astronomy, 2009.

The World At Night photography project has released a book of its best images as well as photography articles. Magic of the Stars is only presently available in German and Dutch, but may be translated to other languages soon. Meanwhile,their regular newsletter has been released – this time in English.

Global Hands On Universe and the Galileo Teacher Training Project have also released a joint newsletter on their efforts to spread good practise in astronomy education. The next ESA GTTP session will be held during the 7th-10th of December in the Netherlands. Teachers of students aged 11-19 will be encouraged to apply from the 1st of October. Full details here.

A forthcoming conference will examine the interaction between the New Media and Learning to determine best practise and how to go forward, using one to compliment the other. The event will take place in Brussels on the 25th and 26th of November. Details here.

And finally, the International Astronomical Union will be hosting a Middle East and Africa Regional meeting on the 10th-15th of April 2011, in Cape Town, South Africa. The meeting will discuss the use and opportunities afforded by new facilities in the region. Full details here.

Outreach funding deadline approaches

A funding deadline approaches for large outreach projects. The UK Space Agency is looking to award up to £5,000 to projects that will bring space to the masses. The total amount to be distributed is £35,000 and the deadline for applications is the 1st of October. Details on eligibility and the sort of projects funded last year are available here, along with all forms required for a successful submission.

Want to get back to basics in astronomy?

The British Astronomical Association is holding a basic introduction to astronomy session in Cardiff on the 16th of October. The series of talks and discussions on techniques will take place from 9:30am-6pm. Further details on cost, how to book and venue are here.

Two lunar views

Scientists at the European Planetary Science Congress 2010 have released a map of how the solar wind impacts differently on different parts of the lunar surface. Mapping how many solar wind protons are deflected by magnetic anomalies, the researchers found up to 20% of incoming solar wind particles were bounced away. Furthermore, maps of energetic hydrogen atoms created by the interaction of the 80% of solar wind protons that make it through and strike the ground show holes where the magnetic anomalies resisted the interactions. The size of the holes varies with the force of the solar wind, which blows with changing intensities, but the general outlook is one of areas of the lunar surface relatively protected from the ion flux and so less likely to be producing the minute amount of water that results from the interactions. Details here.

Someone who himself was once deflected on his way to the Moon is Jim Lovell of Apollo 13 fame (and previously Apollo 8, which orbitted but did not intend to land on the Moon). He discussed the future of spaceflight and other things over on Universe Today, the interview is here.

A couple of previews

On their facebook page, Astronomy Now have published this picture, a preview of the new heavy duty EQ7 tripod by Skywatcher.

Meanwhile Chris Lintott has published this picture of Patrick Moore in costume for the upcoming Sky at Night episode…

…and if you want a real movie preview, the film Monsters will be shown at an event at the Greenwich Observatory. They are hosting an astrobiology event, discussing aliens in science, fiction and comedy. During the event, which includes games, discussion, meteorite handling and possible observations of the potentially life bearing moon of Jupiter, Europa (weather permitting), attendees will be selected at random and offered the chance to watch the preview in one of the limited number of available seats in the planetarium. More details here.

More on Saturn’s aurora

Following Tom Stallard’s EPSC 2010 presentation on videos of the changes in Saturn’s aurora (including faint auroral signals) and linking that to events in the magnetosphere in general, there’s been a couple of news items in magazines. New Scientist managed to get the wrong end of the stick, believing the infrared aurora to be the new thing (it isn’t, just the video of it and the faintness of the signal) whereas Astronomy Now gave a more proper writeup, including a genuinely new thing from the same session on the detection of Saturn’s radio aurora. Radio emissions come from charged particles getting deflected by magnetic fields, which is what happens when auroral particles head to the auroral regions of a planet. Satellites have long been able to put themselves in the thin zone of emissions from Earth, Jovian observers have detected the Io current associated auroral radio signals, but Saturn has been more elusive to satellites in its region until now.

Soyuz landing tonight

This post might seem like a repeat…

Last night’s undocking of the Soyuz vehicle that would bring three astronauts back to the ground was halted after ground control in Moscow received a signalsuggesting the International Space Station had not been made airtight as the hatches between the two vehicles closed. Once this had been resolved, the vehicle refused to unhook itself from the ISS when the command was given, sothe undocking was cancelled and repairs carried out.

Now the three crewmembers are sat back in the vehicle. The hatches are closed and everything’s registering as airtight. Undocking is expected at 3:02 am BST and landing at 6:22 am BST, all broadcast on NASA TV, if this time it happens…

The replacement crewmembers are expected on October 9th.

Intergalactic magnetic fields blur our views

Images of black hole candidates viewed in x-rays have been blurred by primordial magnetic fields lying around the universe according to a new study. 170 images of black hole candidates were investigated and a blurring effect relative to the expected nice clean x-ray images reported. The mechanism for doing this lies in how x-rays interact with background radiation in the universe. Occasionally, an x-ray will interact by becoming an electron-positron pair. This pair of oppositely charged particles will travel for a little while before being attracted back together and forming a new x-ray. If nothing happens to deflect the e-p pair, the new x-ray will continue on the same path as the old one with the same energy. Magnetic fields will however alter the path of the charged particles and hence the properties of the recombined x-ray – if they recombine. More details here.

Dance of the planets in the dust

Spotting exoplanets is very hard to do directly. The best bet is to find an indirect method, such as the amount of light they block from their host star, the gravitational lens they produce as they pass between us and another object, or the amount they pull their host star about. Another suggestion is to look for how they alter the distribution of debris in their version of the solar system. Round these parts, the outer debris ring is the Kuiper Edgeworth belt, and just like Saturn’s rings are shepherded by Saturn’s moons, so this belt is kept in line by the planet Neptune. Looking for well kept borders enables some idea that a planet may be available, but when looking at even earlier times in a solar system’s formation, the evidence of an outer planet’s influence can be even easier to spot.

NASA researchers have now modelled the effect of Neptune on the belt, going back to the earliest times in the solar system’s history. They find a well kept belt forms in around 15 million years. The researchers plan to extend their findings to researching the main asteroid belt as well as the capture of Trojan asteroids by gravitational sources associated with Jupiter. They will also investigate models of dusty rings seen in other planetary systems to see what information can be obtained. Further information and a video of the creation of our outer ring can be seen here.

How fast does your clock run?

In Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, one of the surprising predictions was that a clock close to a strong gravitational source will tick faster than one observed farther away. Similarly, one clock moving relative to another will also appear to tick at a different rate. These effects have been measured using pairs of atomic clocks, one on the ground the other on aircraft and spacecraft before, but advances in technology have enabled the difference in altitude to be made a little smaller. So now the difference in clock speeds when one is 35cm above the other, or travelling at 20mph have been measured. The difference is measurable, but tiny – one part in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 – so no need to keep altering bedroom alarm clocks to keep up with the clock in the living room. Further details were broadcast on a radio show, which can be read about and heard here.

Planetary studies on the ocean

A NASA oceanographer, who uses boats to study climate change, has been interviewed about what makes him tick.

Telescope maintenance blog up

A blog discussing the maintenance of telescopes used by the American Association of Variable Star Observers to compliment the observations made by amateurs has been put up. Here’s one of the entries, giving a flavour of what’s to come.

New ESO magazine out

The European Southern Observatory‘s quarterly journal, The Messenger, has put out its latest edition. The indepth astronomy magazine is free to download from here and contains information on the latest research at ESO facilities, technical adjustments to the telescopes as well as general issues on observing, such as how ‘seeing’ and ‘image quality’ are considered.

Soyuz crew drop to take place soon

A trio of astronauts from the International Space Station are preparing to take an elevator ride they’ll never forget. They are presently sitting in a Soyuz capsule waiting for the OK to decouple and head off towards Earth. A problem with the couplings has delayed things for a while, but undocking burn is expected at 00:40 EDT (5:40 BST), deorbital burn at 3:14 EDT (8:14 BST) and landing north of Arkalyk around 4:05 EDT (9:05 BST). Coverage on NASA TVwill resume at midnight EDT (5am BST).

Space probe roundup

There’s a few probes out there, gathering data in the solar system, so starting from the inner planets, today’s news includes:

Venus Express has been watching a vortex playing in the atmosphere above the south pole of Venus. In 1979, the Pioneer Venus mission spotted a vortex above the north pole and on arrival in 2006, Venus Express found its southern twin. However, continuous recording of the phenomenon has shown that the double-eyed appearance of the vortex was simply a coincidence. Other vortices have since come and gone at the south, leaving the double eyed feature nowhere to be found. Full details are here.

Sticking with Venus Express, but delving lower into the atmosphere, lightning discharges on the second planet from the Sun have been confirmed as happening as frequently on Venus – one hundred times a day – as on Earth. The storms are strongest on the dayside, where the Sun provides the energy for cloud particles to collide and rub together, and also strongest towards the equator, for the same reason. The signals, previous detected by other probes using different instrumentation, were detected using Venus Express’s magnetometer and were apparent from the earliest times after insertion into orbit. Full details here.

Onto Earth now and a crater seen in satellite images bundled into the Google Earth software has been confirmed as being an impact feature. The feature was spotted in 2008 in images of the Egyptian desert and has been measured at 45 metres diameter and 16m deep. The crater was forged by the impact of a 1.3m meteorite weighing in at 10 tonnes (one tonne of which has now been collected up) sometime in the last several thousand years. The crater has evaded the geological processes that tend to erode such features and seems to have also escaped notice from human eyes in all that time. More on the discovery and confirmation of Kamil crater (including a google maps page showing the thing)can be seen here.

Three years of data from the SMART-1 mission to look at the Moon have beenreleased by ESA. The three scientific instruments on board the probe were: the Advanced Moon micro-Imager Experiment (AMIE), which was a camera in visible and near infrared light, which watched the terrain changing as the shadows changed and so mapped the southern pole of the Moon to a resolution of 40m per pixel; the SMART-1 InfraRed Spectrometer (SIR), which watched the spectrum of the Moon in the 0.9-2.6 micrometer wavelength range, enabling mapping of pyroxene and olivine in solidified lunar magma exposed by asteroid impacts; the Demonstration of a Compact Imaging X-ray Spectrometer (D-CIXS), which mapped the Moon in the 0.5-10keV photon energy range, enabling x-ray reflection spectroscopy of some heavy elements. Fortunately for D-CIXS, a high energy solar flare provided additional x-ray flux enabling some of the elements that would normally be producing very dim signals to shine brightly enough to be confirmed. The data can be found here.

Further out and Mars Express has been used to examine the unusual behaviour of carbon dioxide ice in the Martian polar cap. Observations of the ice showed unusual behaviour as the cap receded in warmer times. The signal of the CO2 is seen to weaken and vanish as it sublimates from ice to gas, but then not long after, the signal suddenly returns before vanishing again. This fade in, it was hypothesised, could be due to a protective layer of dust or water ice protecting the underlying CO2. As there was no change in brightness, as there would be if white ice gave way to dark dust, researchers concluded water ice, invisible to the instruments they were using, must be the insulating layer. The Martian polar caps contain a mixture of water ice and CO2 ice. CO2 sublimates at a lower temperature, so what was happening was the exposed CO2 vanished, leaving a water ice shell (added to by condensing water ice from warmer, lower latitudes) and underlying CO2. Then there came the problem of why the water ice was suddenly stripped away revealing lots of CO2 to provide the second signal. Models of downward flowing winds created by the warming showed that these were capable of doing the stripping, lending the final piece of the theory. Full details here.

The Rosetta probe is set for a date with the Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in May 2014. Computer models of the three dimensional shape and motion of the comet have been used to assess what part of it will be least prone to outgassing as the block of rock and ice closes in on the Sun. The results suggest the southern hemisphere will be the best place for Philae, the lander delivered by the probe, to hook on and sample the comet material. Before the probe meets the comet, this hemisphere will receive the largest amount of sunshine, eroding the outer crust and exposing pristine material within. By the time the probe meets the comet, and after delivery of the lander, the north pole of the comet will be in the glare of the Sun, and so most prone to outbursts. The lander will use harpoons and jets to hook onto the comet during its studies. Full details here.

Cassini will be performing the first in a series of Titan flybys over the next eighteen months later today. The aim will be to supplement climate studies of the distant satellite of Saturn, more details here.

Cassini has also been taking a good look at the parent body in the infrared. Using the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer, Tom Stallard of Leicester (and formerly UCL) has been observing changes in the southern lights of Saturn to compare with other processes going on in Saturn’s magnetosphere, the aim being to connect the two. The aurora of Saturn are complex and involve both large scale motions of the magnetosphere – contractions and expansions caused by the uneven passage of the pulsed solar wind – and small scale structure such as disruption of particle and energy flows by the moons of Saturn inside the magnetosphere. More details of his infrared work are here and some images of ultraviolet auroral signals from Saturn and Jupiter by the Hubble Space Telescope are here.

Explorers of the Universe reaches Cardiff

Containing a pleasantly large selection of UCL astronomers, the Explorers of the Universe series of portraits by Max Alexander has arrived in Cardiff. It will be exhibited until the 28th of November, 10am-5pm, Tuesday to Sunday each week along with models of the Herschel and Planck satellites. The exhibition is situated at the National Museum and further details can be seen here.

Your Universe – back at UCL

University College London will be hosting another session of Your Universe. The event will showcase telescopes, talks and demonstrations of a variety of concepts in astronomy, astrophysics and space science.

Your Universe will happen on the 15th-17th of October and further details are here.

Get Brian Cox for your school

Professor Brian Cox will be teaching a science lesson somewhere in a school in the UK. To decide which school the TV presenter and CERN scientist will be unveiling the wonders of the universe in, click here and follow the instructions to nominate your own.

More #SciCuts stuff

The Science is Vital campaign, which aims to halt cuts to the science budget now has a new website, including links to petitions and other such stuff.

Meanwhile a poll currently being carried out in the Economist has been looking at whether or not readers of that magazine favour protecting the science budget. The results from the first day show readers backed science by 70% to 30% in favour of not protecting the area. This ratio has improved in favour of science in the days since then and presently looks closer to 74% to 26%. The ongoing debate is here.

A similar poll a similar result in Scientific American. Details here.

Have a bilingual chat with a ground based NASA pilot

How can you be a pilot when never leaving the comfort of your office? The answer lies in the kind of unmanned drones flown by NASA. Herman Posada flies these full scale aircraft as they test the limits of aeronautics and carry out dangerous imaging missions. He will be discussing his role in an online chat to be carried out in both English and Spanish at 8pm BST (3pm EDT) today as part of NASA’s regular Ask the Expert program at this website.

Willets warned over science cuts

David Willets, the Science Minister, has been warned over cutting the science budget in a letter sent by the Lords Science and Technology Committee, which articulated the views of the heads of six leading universities. Metrics showing the increase in early stage researchers heading abroad as other countries increased, or were perceived as increasing, their science budgets were cited. Alongside this was a warning about damage to the research base on which the government intends to build a new hitech economy.

What goes up must, well, erm…

Anti matter seems to be fairly well understood. We see it in cosmic ray collisions with particles in the upper atmosphere. We use it in PET scans in hospitals. We create it in the Large Hadron Collider to smash into ordinary matter and investigate the inner workings of both.

Antimatter is known to have the opposite electric charge and other properties to its ordinary matter equivalent. We know there’s more matter than antimatter, but don’t know why. But while we can investigate strong forces like electromagnetism, another mystery arises when considering a very weak force – gravity.

In most of the situations we see antimatter, it is zipping along at a great speed and its momentum is hardly affected by accelerations due to gravity. In most cases the deflection due to magnetic fields is too great for gravitational effects to be measured in the short life of the stuff. To put it bluntly, we’ve never really just let antimatter go and seen whether it goes up, down or stays put.

Now an experiment has been devised to help explore this.

Virtual particles and antiparticles are constantly being created and destroyed in pairs. Hawking suggested that should this happen on the boundary of a black hole, the gravity should be sufficient to rip out one of the pair before it is attracted to its antiparticle and they annihilate. As such particle radiation would be detectable. Now other researchers have suggested that if antimatter does interact with mass differently to ordinary matter, the signature will be heavy in anti matter.

Their specific example was the creation and destruction of neutrinos, which are affected only by gravity. Close enough to a black hole and the matter one would be pulled in while the antimatter one, if the hypothesis is right, should be pushed out. The IceCube Neutrino observatory should be able to spot black holes shining bright in antineutrinos. However, there are other hypotheses that can produce such a signal, so even if the detectors did see such an event, they would need further work to determine if antimatter really does run away from mass.

Big astronautics conference soon

The 61st International Astronautical Congress (IAC) will be held in Prague, the Czech Republic from the 27th September until the 1st October under the theme of Space for Human Benefit and Exploration. This gathering of 3,000 top spaceflight experts is drawn from the space agencies, industry and academia. There will be a media day as well as chances for younger researchers to meet with the top brass of the field. ESA will also be putting on an exhibition on the theme of Space for Earth.

Details here.

New job at Greenwich

The National Maritime Museum is searching for a Senior Web Developer to assist its Head of Digital Media/Digital Project Manager in the production of digital content for the place. The successful candidate will have experience and evidence of previous such work to a high standard. Full details of what’s required are here.

Changing seasons of Titan explored again

Studies of the seasons on Saturn’s largest natural satellite Titan have been a rich source of studies during the long years of the Cassini mission. The tilt of the satellite to the Sun changes over the course of Saturn’s orbit, making seasons last seven years. As one full season since Cassini began studying the rock draws closer to the end, the changing cloud patterns have been revealed.

Clouds of ethane appear at 30-50km. At the beginning of the season, they clustered at the North Pole, with a thin covering at the South Pole and a band centred at a southern latitude of 40 degrees. Now, the polar clouds are thinning away and the band is getting stronger, as predicted by computer models.

Cassini has been allowed to continue through to 2017, allowing the majority of a second season at Titan to be enjoyed close up from Earth.

On pad 39A, Discovery awaits

The space shuttle Discovery will be the next vehicle to have a final scheduled flight to the International Space Station. In preparation for November’s mission, the shuttle has already mounted launchpad 39A and been visited by photographers on the pad. The results are here.

Galileoscope gets a new bit

Posted on 23/09/2010 | 1 Comment

The Galileoscope was created during the International Year of Astronomy, 2009 as a low cost, relatively high quality refracting telescope available to the masses. To achieve that goal, various luxuries – such as a tripod – common to other telescopes were missed out in the package. It was also self assembly, with suggested physics practicals to do to the pieces before putting them together.

Now a new piece has arrived – a diagonal. Diagonals are prisms that allow eyepieces to be at a ninety degree angle to the axis of the telescope, allowing more comfortable viewing for overhead targets. The diagonal can be seen here.

Space probe recreated in Lego

In order to help students visualise the challenges and mission of the comet chasing Rosetta probe, a version of the device has been created using the computerised Lego Mindstorms system. This high tech equivalent to the plastic blocks of yore enables moving parts controlled by home PCs to be used in the demonstration. The full story of the education set prototype and videos showing it in action are here. One of the videos is shown below:

Red rock seen on red planet by greyish white rover

Another potential meteorite has been spotted on the surface of Mars by the Opportunity Mars Rover. The metallic rock, around the size of a toaster, has been named Oileán Ruaidh after Red Island off the coast of North West Ireland.If confirmed, it will be Oppy’s fifth meteorite. Stuart Atkinson has produced an enhanced image of the rock here.

UK’s bit of LoFar opened for business

The UK branch of the Low Frequency Array has been officially opened by Pulsar discoverer Dame Jocelyn Bell-Burnell.

The radio telescope, which has stations dotted around Europe, will combine signals in a process called interferometry to create a single large telescope operating in the 1-10m wavelength. This aperture synthesis will allow higher resolution images than an individual station would be able to achieve. This is necessary as resolution depends on wavelength and the diameter of a telescope. At metre wavelengths, the size of a telescope required is enormous. LoFAr’s arrangement is such that the combined signal will be equivalent to a telescope the size of the separation of the individual stations, while the sensitivity will be equivalent to the combined sensitivity of the observatories.

Aperture synthesis is routinely used in radio astronomy to counter the poor resolution of radio waves, but rarely on this scale. It has also been used in shorter wavelengths, but this is more difficult as the higher frequencies of light make adding the signals more complex. Telescopes like Keck and Subaru are designed to use large single observatories in pairs to achieve larger synthetic observatories in infrared and even optical light.

Each new wavelength regime observed opens a new chapter in astronomy. Higher energy events are seen at low wavelengths, with things as hot as stars and aurorae generally in ultraviolet and mostly optical regimes. Newly forming protostars, existing planets and asteroids are seen to glow brightest in the infrared and dust as well as the background hiss of the afterglow of the formation of the optically thin universe, the CMB, are seen in the microwave. Radio wavelengths most often show the emissions from charged particles deflected by magnetic and other fields. As such, the new telescope can be used to observe magnetic fields on the cosmic scale, the interaction of the solar plasma with objects in the solar system, cosmic rays hitting our atmosphere and processes involved in star formation and the growth of black holes, all of which involve or are revealed by the deflection of charged particles to a greater or lesser extent.

Close Encounters of the Scientific Kind

The Royal Albert Hall is hosting a series of things under the umbrella of theClose Encounters project. Including tours of the history of the RAH, the events list, occurring at the end of October, includes Lunar based workshops, music on the theme of space, discussions of the UK X-files, film viewings, planetarium shows, talks by scientists, space themed food and drink and a free exhibition of views of the Universe.

March for Science

With budget cuts looming on top of the damage done by maladministration at the STFC on two occasions, organised resistance to further cuts to science has begun to be formed.

The group is presently organised by the Science is Vital facebook page (they’ll have a website ‘soon’, apparently) and the march on Central London has been set for 2-4pm on the 9th of October, details here. Lobbying will occur in Parliament, Early Day Motions are being mooted too as well as a campaign of letter writing to MPs.

They’re also getting a bit of attention in the press.

More info on events leading up to all this is here.

Skylon gets an airing

The UK Space Agency has been hosting a meeting investigating the possibility of a single stage to orbit launch vehicle using the SABRE air breathing rocket technology. SABRE essentially runs as a jet in high air pressure then slowly switches to pure rocket thrust when air becomes more sparse, enabling, in the Skylon concept, deployment of satellite payloads before returning to predesignated landing coordinates.

More on the meeting is here.

New website for the Schools Observatory

The National Schools Observatory, which provides access for schools to the robotic Liverpool Telescope, has relaunched its website. The site includes information on the telescope, activities to do with it and offline projects that can be downloaded for various age groups. There are also general astronomy learning sections, bits for teachers and webcams on the La Palma site.

The Sky at Night needs YOU!

The venerable program The Sky at Night is approaching is 700th episode. The March 2011 episode will pay tribute to this by being in an unusual format. There will be a question and answer session with an expert panel on one side and an audience of Sky at Night viewers on the other, asking questions in the following categories:

  • Observing
  • The Solar System
  • Space Missions
  • Cosmology
  • Manned Space Exploration
  • The Sky at Night programme
  • The Bizarre and Unexplained

Further details on this event are here.

Phobos might be a little bit of Mars

Our Moon is believed to have been formed when a Mars sized body struck an early Earth and blasted out material into orbit, leaving it with such a recoil that even billions of years after the material collected into a body, our satellite is still edging nervously away from us.

The origins of other satellites around other planets have long been less clear. An example in point are the irregularly shaped Phobos and Deimos, pieces of rubble in orbit of Mars. Now research carried out comparing the minerals present on Phobos seem to suggest that it too was once a part of the planet it now orbits.

Analysis of the composition of the satellite shows more similarities to Mars than to asteroids in the belt between Mars and Jupiter (where another hypothesis suggested the body might have originated). Further to this, minerals associated with the presence of water and silicates have been seen. As something as small as Phobos would’ve lost heat too quickly alone in the early solar system to have had enough time for such reactions to take place, this suggests that the satellite contains material once part of a bigger and wetter body, or had a presently unknown internal heat mechanism. Phobos is also a lot spongier than an asteroid surviving capture by Mars would likely be as well as being in a more circular, more equatorial orbit than chance would suggest (a characteristic shared by Deimos).

The observations were made with the Mars Express vehicle and presented in the European Planetary Science Congress 2010 in Rome. A report by the BBC is here and one by Discovery is here.

Shuttle Art

To commemorate the shuttle program, NASA has unveiled five imagesdedicated to the five vehicles, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour, involved in the program (poor Enterprise…). The images depict significant events in each shuttle’s history and include the mission badges of all flown missions. I guess some people don’t want Atlantis flying one final mission…

The images can be viewed and downloaded from here.

More aurora stuff

Liam Fox’s speech has been making a few waves, with the Sun giving a report(plus the ‘news in briefs’ item giving a rather suspect take on it), Newsnight doing a piece (including Chris Davis of SolarStormWatch) and astronomy picture of the day giving a nice auroral view.

Get your space pictures in…

The BBC’s website is running a series of photo competitions wherebye it puts up a theme and asks for photos on that theme. One upcoming theme is ‘The Night’ – a perfect opportunity to get those starry photos in the news.

Aurora in the news again

With a solar activity maximum expected in 2013, when disruption of radio signals and damage to satellites will be at its highest for the decade or so long solar activity cycle, the dangers of a large burst of space weather hitting our digitised world have filtered through to the political world.

On the 24th of July, I noted that briefings on space weather had been prepared by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. Two explanations for this are that they were an updated general training document or, more usually, had been ordered by a minister. This is the area of physics hammered by cuts during 2007 during the formation of the STFC (research council in charge of astronomy and particle physics funding), whose concentration on space weather was described at the time as ‘bizare’ by parliament.

Now it seems the Secretary of State for Defence, Dr Sir Liam Fox, is in at least partial agreement. At a conference organised by the Electric Infrastructure Security Council and the Henry Jackson Society (a political think tank), he argued that the increasing complexity of modern technology married to the threat of a high impact, low frequency event puts the country at risk. Measures taken to mitigate the risk must be put in place to prevent enemies exploiting such a thing.

Of course, if you want the aurora to be seen as a thing of beauty rather than an ominous sign of disturbances in space, then there’s always this website, known as AuroraMax and created by the Canadian Space Agency, showing auroral activity in Canada.

Some timelapse videos

I seem to be collecting these things today… sped up videos of various things to see in the sky.

First off, as the night draws in, a thin crescent Moon heads for the horizon in the west in this recent video:

Secondly, the Moon again, this time during the day as it passed in front of Venus as seen from some parts of the Earth. This daylight occultation was caught in South Africa in a series of images showing the crescent Venus reemerging from the body of the crescent Moon:

Deeper into the daytime and sundogs are making appearances either side of the Sun from a number of locations at the moment. Here’s a timelapse of one changing as the clouds blow through its area:

But of course, there are timelapse events happening in the world of research too, such as the latest image of supernova 1987A by Hubble, which has photographed the same supernova before. The reason? To see how such a thing modifies on the timescale of a human lifetime, giving some idea of the complexities involved in expanding nebulae and their interactions with external gas.

Of course sometimes it helps to vary sources of information to get even older data on an object with time. Researchers believe they have unearthed the oldest mention so far of Halley’s comet being visible in the skies. The observations, made by ancient Greeks in 466BC, predate the previous earliest accepted observation, by Chinese astronomers in 240BC, by three orbits. The Greeks write about a comet being visible in the west for around 75 days (simulations suggest up to 80 days of visibility of Halley’s comet, depending on atmospheric conditions, at this time) in the same year as a massive meteorite fell that then became a tourist attraction for half a millennia. The records, unlike the later Chinese ones, aren’t very detailed, and are second hand at best.

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Prachi Chourey

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Prachi Chourey

Prachi Chourey

This is my first blog. Would like to blog about anything I like to share.. Some thoughts, something nice to share, recipes, upcoming events or like anything.. My latest Hobby is Cake Decoration and something more about it.. Prachi Chourey

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