Awful waste of space

The students that went to the Very Large Array (VLA) summer school this year, decided to Google bomb the interferometer. If you search Google for the words awful waste of space, you will find that the VLA comes second on the list of results.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 26th Nov 2004 (17:53 UTC) | Permalink

Shooting the stars

What happens if you shoot a telescope? Although this may seem like a strange question to ask, it is what happened at the Mc Donald Observatory, on the summit of Mt. Locke in Texas, in 1970.

Apparently, a new employee of the observatory suffered a breakdown and took a gun with him to the observing floor. There he took a shot at his supervisor and shot the rest of the bullets at the primary mirror of the 107" Harlan-Smith telescope. Luckily, the mirror didn't break but left some impact craters. The craters were bored out and the holes were painted black.

As the mirror is not in the focal plane, this doesn't produce 'bullet holes' in the image; it just reduces the amount of light collected and so reduces the effective size of the mirror down to about 105". If you have a telescope, try obscuring part of the aperture and then look at the image. You should see that it looks the same but is just dimmer.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 22nd Nov 2004 (13:49 UTC) | Permalink

Spot the difference

Macclesfield Astronomical Society have a very nice looking website, which isn't too surprising when you realise that their chairman, Andrew, does that kind of thing for a living. I was just admiring the banner image of the Keyhole nebula when I noticed something odd about it. Was there something missing or was I imagining it?

Off I went to the Hubble Heritage website to find a copy of the original image. Sure enough, the Macc. Astro version was subtly different; if you look in the top left of the image, you will see that a pillar of dust is missing from the Macc. Astro version. Why might they erase an innocent pillar of dust from the image? Well, the ability for humans to recognise shapes or even faces in inanimate objects, could result in some people being slightly offended. Although APoD think it looks like a superhero flying through a cloud, others think it may look like a human finger making a rude gesture. I guess Andrew decided people might see the later, so put it through Photoshop to make it more acceptable.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 21st Nov 2004 (00:46 UTC) | Permalink

How many constellations could you point out?

This week Megan has been asking various astronomers and aspiring astronomers (read students), how many constellations they could point out in the night sky (in either hemisphere). Only one person did extremely well at over 20, whereas most other people were either in the range 8-10 or around three. Those that have been around schools with the inflatable planetarium seemed to do better as far as I can tell. Is this a sorry reflection on the state of (radio) astronomers today, or is it just a symptom of the amount of light pollution?

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 20th Nov 2004 (23:30 UTC) | Permalink

Night sky from the Lakes

As if the excitement of the aurora wasn't enough, I managed to get away to the Lake District at the weekend and was rewarded with some fantastic, clear skies. I was staying at High Close Youth Hostel in Langdale which gets very dark at night making it possible to see the Milky Way.

I had a great night on Friday, showing people different constellations that were visible as well as pointing out Saturn and the Pleiades. A few years ago I could only point out about three constellations - Orion, Ursa Major and Cassiopeia - but now I know quite a few more and even some ancient Greek myths about them as well. As I had my camera with me, I was able to take some long exposure pictures of several constellations including a nice photograph of Orion, the Hunter.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 17th Nov 2004 (20:33 UTC) | Permalink

The Aurora

WOW! That is what I said out loud when I saw the aurora tonight. I had never seen aurora in real life before so it was an amazing sight to see - especially from the middle of Cheshire!

I hadn't seen the news last night about the solar activity and I had been up early this morning so that I could take the inflatable planetarium to a school near Stockport. Megan and I spent the day there and decided to go back to Jodrell to catch the Wednesday afternoon colloquium. The heavy traffic meant that we missed the first half hour and we wondered if it was worth going to the rest. We did and it was quite an interesting talk about the interstellar medium and star formation.

Afterwards we went to the Crown in Goostrey for the after lecture dinner and I got talking to one of the other students. I was suprised to find out that he didn't know lots of basic astronomy facts; the sort that your friends and family ask or that appear in pub quizzes. After dinner, in the pub carpark, we decided to show him some constellations. While we were pointing out the Plough, Megan noticed a faint cloud that faded away. She thought that she had been seeing things but I saw the same thing a few seconds later. We thought it was either the northern lights or car headlights reflecting off some low level fog patches.

Whatever it had been, we decided to go to Jodrell to get a better view of the stars with Megan's small optical telescope. On arriving we set ourselves up next to the Lovell telescope and had a look at the old favourites such as Orion, the Plough, Cassiopeia etc. As I was pointing out Taurus (the Bull), we spotted a shooting star (a meteor) which must have been a Taurid. Shortly after that, looking north, we were then treated to several fantastic shows of the northern lights.

The northern lights are caused when charged particles from the Sun, interact with the upper atmosphere. They are usually seen at much higher latitudes than Cheshire (think the Arctic). From the latest data on the web there is definitly a lot of auroral activity at the moment and the USAF/NOAA have put out a report of solar and geophysical activity which details a very active area on the Sun. It seems that the activity is associated with sunspot region 696 (on the right in the image) which will rotate out of view on 13th November. The solar ejections that are associated with this region will then be directed away from the Earth and so the aurora will lessen. However, that does mean that we can probably expect some more fantastic light shows until Saturday. I must take my camera with me next time!

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 11th Nov 2004 (01:12 UTC) | Permalink
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