I tawt I taw a pwanet!

I did, I did, I did taw a pwanet. It seems that the Very Large Telescope (VLT) image of a planet candidate around a star other than the Sun, has been confirmed as a planet. Phil Plait has a good description of finding planets on the Bad Astronomy blog. According to the extra-solar planet encyclopedia there are now 155 confirmed planets in 136 planetary systems. These are exciting times.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 30th Apr 2005 (15:10 UTC) | Permalink

Last flight of the Skylark

Although it is apparently one of the most successful rocket programmes of all time, I had never heard of Skylark rockets until today. That is rather unfortunate as the last one gets launched tomorrow. They were developed by the Royal Aeronautical Establishment, Farnborough and the Rocket Propulsion Establishment, Westcott. The motors were produced by Royal Ordnance Bridgewater and Westcott so they are a British design which was initially funded by the UK government. Skylark has been operated on a commercial basis since 1966 with the last motors were produced in 1994. The company that launches the Skylark has been running out ever since. Tomorrow sees the launch of the 441st Skylark rocket, carrying a package of science experiments, named MASER 10, which will study the effects of microgravity. It is quite British for all the bits of the rocket to be named after birds; the boosters have had names like cuckoo and goldfinch with sustainers named raven, gosling and waxwing.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 29th Apr 2005 (17:35 UTC) | Permalink

So long and thanks for all the sheep

I've just been on the Jodrell Bank trip to the showing of the new Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy film. All the press were there (well, a reporter and photographer from the Knutsford Guardian) to interview the Jodrell 'background actors' whose performances were greatly appreciated by the cutting room floor. Only the local sheep and renegade goat (which the sheep all follow it around like, well, sheep) made the final cut. Curse that pesky goat.

Despite the obvious disappointment of the missing scene in the control room, the film was OK. It wasn't brilliant, but it wasn't as bad as Vogon poetry or as awful as M J Simpson seemed to think in his short review. There were a few points where the whole of the cinema (OK, it was a small cinema) laughed out loud. Of course, fitting the radio series/books/tv series/bath towel into a 110 minute film is about as difficult as calculating the ultimate question to life, the Universe and everything, so there was always going to be a lot cut out. As all the versions are slightly different anyway (especially the bath towel version which unfortunately had most of the plot removed to increase its drying ability) lots of jokes were missing. This was a shame, but I found myself automatically adding them in anyway. I did like the fact that Simon Jones (the original Arthur Dent from the radio and tv series) appeared as the Magrathean greeting hologram and got some good lines. I suggest that you take some red/green 3D glasses to the cinema with you for that bit. I also thought that the Magrathean factory floor was a visually stunning scene.

There was quite a lot of dry humour and I'm not sure how it will play with American audiences. They have left an opening for a second film based on the Restaurant at the end of the Universe, but I don't know if the film will be successful enough to generate a sequel. Still, I think it is worth seeing. I'll be buying the DVD version in September.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 28th Apr 2005 (22:19 UTC) | Permalink

Dust repellant

In 1972, one of the Apollo astronauts got the first sniff of lunar soil. Of course this wasn't while working on the surface as he was in a sealed suit; it was inside the Lunar Module with the suit off. Apparently, it smelt a bit like gunpowder.

Fine dust such as that found on the Moon or Mars may leave burn marks on the skin and potentially cause health problems for future manned missions. So, NASA are about to start funding Project Dust. The project will study thin-film coatings that repel dust from tools and other surfaces, and electrostatic techniques for shaking or otherwise removing dust from spacesuits. Perhaps the dust repelling book jacket from Back to the Future II isn't too far away.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 28th Apr 2005 (17:46 UTC) | Permalink

What do politicians know?

The UK General Election is being held next Thursday, so it is getting a lot of coverage at the moment. The Guardian's Life section decided to quiz the science spokesmen, of the three main partys, to see what they know about science. Unfortunately, the current Science Minister (Lord Sainsbury) refused to take part as he thought he might be caught out by a tricky question. Surprisingly perhaps, six of the ten questions were astronomy/physics related. They included:

  • "Does the sun go round the Earth, or the Earth round the sun?"
  • "How long does the Earth take to complete a lap around the sun?"
  • "Is Mars nearer the sun than we are, or further away?"
  • "Name one moon in the solar system with a substantial atmosphere."
  • "Dark matter is ... the stuff inside a black hole, undetectable galactic material or what makes coal absorb light but emit heat."
  • "Albert Einstein proposed 100 years ago that a) light travelled in little packets; b) atoms were real and molecules could be observed in Brownian motion; c) the energy of matter could be calculated by multiplying its mass by the speed of light squared; d) all of those; e) none of those."
The Conservative science spokesman got 7 out of 10 and the Lib. Dem. spokesman got 9 out of 10 although neither of them knew what Einstein got the Nobel prize for. I wonder how many of those questions an average politician would get right. Not many I suspect.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 28th Apr 2005 (15:18 UTC) | Permalink


If you ever feel brave, and want to read some heavy duty astronomy research papers, the place to start from is the Astrophysics Data System (ADS) run by NASA. It lets you search for papers in a very comprehensive way. Last year I joked that it would soon be like Amazon with a "people who read about Active Galactic Nuclei also read..." feature. Although I was joking at the time, it seems that it has actually happened, as the good people at ADS have launched myADS. This lets you perform two custom searches and get the results on a webpage, by email and even as an RSS feed.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 26th Apr 2005 (15:36 UTC) | Permalink

HST at 15

Yesterday was the 15th anniversary of the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) from the Shuttle. Plenty of people have commented on the anniversary and some have talked about their own observations with it. For the anniversary, STScI have released new images of the Whirlpool Galaxy and the Eagle Nebula. What caught my eye wasn't one of the spectacular images (actually they did catch my eye), but a plot of all the observations made by the HST during its 15 year lifetime up to 23rd March 2005.

Location of HST observations

IMAGE: NASA, ESA, and R. Thompson (CSC/STScI)

The image shows a rugby ball (American football) shaped view of the entire sky in galactic coordinates. What that means is that the very centre is in the direction of the centre of the Galaxy; a horizontal line across the centre of the image is the plane of the Galaxy; the direction in the sky away from the centre of the Galaxy is at the left and right edges (the image wraps around on the edges); the north galactic pole is at the top and the south galactic pole is at the bottom.

The observations of objects in the Solar System (e.g. planets/asteroids etc) show up as the s-shaped line called the ecliptic (basically the plane/disk of the Solar System). Comparing the plot with Axel Mellinger's optical all sky image, you can also see that the HST has made plenty of observations of the large and small Magellanic clouds (bottom right) and I guess that the splodge of red dots towards the top of the image must be of various galaxies in the Virgo Cluster. The Virgo Cluster (in the direction of the constellation Virgo) contains over 1300 galaxies and sits at the centre of the Local Supercluster of galaxies. You may also have noticed that most of the red dots are towards the bottom and top of the image. That is because in these directions, we are looking through a thinner chunk of the galaxy, so find it easier to see out towards other galaxies.

The HST has certainly not observed the entire sky, although it has made a good attempt. Hopefully it will be saved and allow astronomers to keep doing great astronomy until the James Webb Space Telescope gets going.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 26th Apr 2005 (14:31 UTC) | Permalink

Cereal Astronomy

Keeping on the theme of supermarket astronomy, I found a post, by Barb of My Silly Life, describing the bad astronomy on the back of a box of cereal. Not only does the box have some typos (start chart and Sagitarius) but it claims that you can see galaxies that are 2 1/2 light years away. Of course they can't be expected to get everything quite right, but getting it wrong by a factor of 1,000,000 is pretty bad. I would also take issue with their constellation drawings which are very confusing as they are in completely the wrong positions; the pointers are pointing to Sagittarius and Scorpius is next to Canis Major which is above Leo! Luckily, Tom has a much better set of star charts for printing out.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 26th Apr 2005 (12:30 UTC) | Permalink

Supermarket Astronomy

Last night I went to the supermarket to buy some food. However, the lady at the checkout was unusually talkative and it turned out that she was going to start a course in law, in the near future. To be polite, she asked me what I do, and I rather sheepishly said that I studied astronomy.

I like the reaction I get from people when I say that; they usually perk up and say something along the lines of "Oooh, really? Do you know Patrick Moore?". (For those not from the UK, Patrick Moore has presented a television programme about astronomy on the BBC for almost fifty years. He is probably the only astronomer that most people in this country could name.) I was then asked about the 'thing' that happened in 1999 ("Was it a full moon or something?"). "Oh you mean the total eclipse of the Sun" I said, and she got excited and insisted that I repeat it so that she could write it down. It turns out that her son (I think) was born during the solar eclipse of 1999. I did explain that eclipses weren't as rare as she thought, with one usually occuring every eighteen months or so, but it is rare to see them from the UK. I then went on to demonstrate how an eclipse works using two packets of crisps.

Unfortunately, the conversation then inevitably turned to astrology. I find it depressing that people can tell you their 'star-sign' (and most of her family's star-signs too) but don't know how a total eclipse occurs, or know that you can see planets without looking through a telescope. People who think that the planets and stars govern their lives (according to Watching the English, 31% of the UK population believe in astrology), often know very little about the Universe around them.

Part of the trouble these days is that fact that it is harder and harder to see stars from within our cities, so people have stopped looking upwards at the beauty and spectacle of the Universe. The people who turn to astrology to add magic to their lives, should try looking though a telescope. I have found that people are always amazed the first time they see Saturn or Jupiter through a reasonably sized telescope. I think I'm going to have to do some pavement astronomy in the supermarket car park.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 26th Apr 2005 (10:26 UTC) | Permalink

By Jupiter!

As I don't have access to a telescope at the moment, I thought I would see what my digital camera could do all by itself. I attached it to my tripod and took it out into the back yard. My camera is a Fuji Finepix S602Z which I got mainly because it had an optical zoom and could do exposures of up to 15 seconds. So I pointed it at the Moon and took some images. The Moon is very bright at the moment so there was no need for long exposures. The result was a fairly reasonable picture:

Not far from the Moon in the sky, is the planet Jupiter which is currently in the constellation of Virgo. Not expecting much, I turned my camera towards it, turned the zoom to maximum and tried an exposure of about 5 seconds.

I took a look at the image and spotted three dots of light to the west of the planet. Could those be the moons I thought? I rushed to my laptop to check with Stellarium and sure enough, all four Galilean moons are currently west of Jupiter. So I think my image shows - moving out from Jupiter - Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. I think Io is too close to the planet to see. In case you are wondering what the black object is in the bottom of the image, it is a drainpipe on the roof of my neighbour's house. I must try mounting my camera on a good telescope next.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 21st Apr 2005 (23:01 UTC) | Permalink

Solid Core

I know astronomy is concerned with things over our heads, but I just noticed a story concerning something in the opposite direction. It seems that seismologists have finally detected evidence for the Earth having a solid core by studying P waves from earthquakes. The research was published in the Journal, Science and shows that the solid core is very small; perhaps 1% of the volume of the planet.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 21st Apr 2005 (17:03 UTC) | Permalink

Lunar Eclipse

This Sunday there will be a penumbral lunar eclipse with a maximum at about 09:55 UT. Unfortunately, the UK is on the wrong side of the planet to see any of it, even though lasts over four hours in total. However, if you live in the Americas, Australasia, Japan, China or the eastern coast of Russia, you should be able to see it at moonrise or moonset. To make matters worse, the UK (and Europe/Africa) will also miss out on this October's partial lunar eclipse.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 21st Apr 2005 (16:52 UTC) | Permalink

View from Space

In 2003 Yang Liwei became the first Chinese astronaut in orbit and claimed that he couldn't see the Great Wall. Many people think that the Great Wall is the only man-made structure that can be seen from space. Now, Leroy Chiao claims to have photographed the Great Wall from on board the ISS. However, you need to know where to look and plenty of other things can be seen in the photographs taken by Chiao. He has seen the Pyramids, airports, dams and the Chinese rocket launch pad from his vantage point on board the ISS. China Daily eloquently say that "seeing the Great Wall would be like spotting a particular koi swimming in a gigantic glimmering Japanese pond of multi-coloured fish heading in all directions".

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 19th Apr 2005 (23:08 UTC) | Permalink

Ring of light

In the preparations for the World Year of Physics - or Einstein year as some people call it - some bright sparks thought it would be a good idea to commemorate the death of Einstein, on 18th April 1955, with a 'flash of light' encircling the globe. The plan was not supported by the UK's Institute of Physics because it "set a bad precedence, for example to commercial organisations that might wish to illuminate the night sky with advertising". The result was that the UK did not participate in the event so it almost passed me by. The light started in Princeton and travelled westwards to the Pacific. It travelled to China's Shangdong Province, and to Taipai where E=mc² was written in lights on the world's tallest building.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 19th Apr 2005 (22:42 UTC) | Permalink

Einstein Limerick

Some time ago, Peter, Megan and I were trying to come up with a limerick for the British Association's Universe poetry competition. The deadline has long since passed by and we never came up with anything that was good. We did write four lines of a limerick about Einstein but couldn't think of a last one. So, just for fun, I thought I would see if anyone out there can finish it.

While pond'ring the nature of light
A German had sudden insight
For Einstein declared
That E's m c squared

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 19th Apr 2005 (13:34 UTC) | Permalink

Astronomer on call

Tonight I took on the role of a support astronomer. It was a very clear night with no wind and the undergraduates wanted to use the telescope. Their normal supervisor was away at a conference so I was called upon instead. Since they are working at height (top of a building) and in the dark (obviously!) we have to consider Health and Safety, although this has got stricter since last year.

For the last few months, a supervisor has been required to be present the whole time that the students are using the telescope. This pretty much depends on how long the weather holds for and makes it very demanding on the supervisor; you give up your night at the whim of someone else. Despite the fact that I don't get to control the telescope myself, (otherwise they wouldn't be learning), I do occasionally suggest objects to observe. I also get to see the CCD images they take, which are suprisingly good considering the terrible light pollution of Manchester.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 19th Apr 2005 (00:54 UTC) | Permalink

Time for a nice relaxing cup of tea

"Miles above the surface of the planet the huge yellow somethings began to fan out. At Jodrell Bank, someone decided it was time for a nice relaxing cup of tea."

Don't panic! The image above (courtesy of Disney) shows two Vogon spaceships hanging in the sky over the Lovell telescope in much the same way that bricks don't. It is a clip from the movie of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy which is officially released on 29th April. You can download an almost wallpaper sized version of the above image from Jodrell Bank's website.

As Jodrell Bank gets mentioned twice in the books, it also gets to appear in the film. However this time, it is Jodrell Bank staff that get to communicate with the Vogons to tell them that we never saw the plans for the hyperspace bypass. The scenes were shot on location at Jodrell using real Jodrell staff as extras (two of the telescope controllers have already appeared in the trailer) and real sheep in the neighbouring fields. The sheep above are actually running towards the local farmer who is shaking a bucket of feed.

One thing to look out for, in the scenes of the telescope control room, are yellow post-it notes mentioning the lack of biros!

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 18th Apr 2005 (12:24 UTC) | Permalink

Torino Scale Changes

After the public concern over asteroid 2004 MN4 a few months ago, a working group of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has decided to revise the wording of the Torino scale. The scale, agreed in Torino, Italy in 1999, is a rating of the danger posed by an asteroid and is supposed to be comparable to the Richter scale used for earthquakes. Unfortunately, when 2004 MN4 was initially given a rating of 4, this caused some panic.

The scale itself has not been changed, but some of the descriptions have been altered. Level 4 was previously labelled "meriting concern" but has now been changed to "a close encounter, meriting attention by astronomers". The working group also make an attempt to point out that Torino ratings are subject to change (usually down) once more observations are taken. Unlike the movie Deep Impact, you can't predict an entire orbit from one observation. As the aim is to reduce public concern, perhaps it wasn't a great idea to colour-code the scale so that it resembles the US Homeland Security Advisory system.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 14th Apr 2005 (20:33 UTC) | Permalink

Shuttle Launch

The Space Shuttle Discovery is being prepared for launch window between 15th May and 3rd June. It has already started the 4.2 mile journey from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch pad. To find out all the latest information on the Shuttle launch and the imminent Soyuz TMA-6 launch, have a look at Tom's Astronomy Blog.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 13th Apr 2005 (23:08 UTC) | Permalink

Telescopes on the move

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to move a radio telescope to a completely different location? Perhaps not, but that is something that has been done for the new Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy (CARMA). In fact, they have already moved around 11 dishes up to the site at Cedar Flat, Inyo County, California which is 8000 feet (2400 m) above sea level.

The new facility is built from two previously existing arrays; the Owens Valley Radio Observatory (OVRO) millimeter array and the Berkeley-Illinois-Maryland Association (BIMA) millmeter array. Telescopes observing at millimetre wavelengths have to worry about the atmosphere as it starts to cause problems due to emission and absorption by the oxygen and turbulent water vapour. By going to 2400 m, the amount of atmosphere that you have to 'look' through is reduced and you can make better observations. CARMA will observe radio emission from molecules and dust, nearby starburst galaxies, blue dwarf galaxies, nearby molecular clouds forming clusters of stars, newly-born stars emerging from their present clouds, comets, and the cosmic radiation left-over from the Big Bang.

The image above shows the first of the OVRO 10 m dishes being transported to the site.


Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 13th Apr 2005 (17:15 UTC) | Permalink

White on black

It didn't take long. I finally decided that my experiment with white text on a black background just wasn't working. I had come to that conclusion years ago but just thought I would give it one more chance to redeem itself. It didn't, but I didn't want to remove my nice star/telescopes image either so I have reached a compromise. Hopefully this is a bit easier on the eyes.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 13th Apr 2005 (01:34 UTC) | Permalink

Phil Plait on Slacker

From the people who brought you the VLA in audio form and "Galaxies in Gangs Wear Red", comes: "The Big Bad Astronomer". You'll laugh. You'll cry. You'll hear about Phil Plait running naked through his house. All in the name of astronomy. Check out the latest Slacker Astronomy podcast which comes in bite-sized and unplugged versions.

The gang (what is the collective noun for podcasters?) discuss the many misconceptions that are listed on the Bad Astronomy website. Phil also talks about what it is like to be treated as a celebrity (amongst a very small group of people) and the problems of discovering that you are an astronomer with an arch-nemesis. Not many people can say that. We also get treated to a Dr Nick impression and finally find out how you actually pronounce Ophiuchus. Well, actually, as Pamela seems to have a bit of trouble pronouncing names, perhaps we don't.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 12th Apr 2005 (23:16 UTC) | Permalink

Bigger is better

In astronomy, size is important. As you make the diameter of your telescope larger, you benefit in two ways. Firstly, just like a large bucket collects more rain than a small one, you can collect more light from the objects you are trying to study. The second benefit is that the resolution of the image you take increases.

Over the years, the telescopes got larger (in diameter) and larger until astronomers noticed a problem. Over a certain size, the resolution of the images was no longer increasing. This is because there is a wobbling atmosphere is the way which distorts the image and ultimately limits the resolution of your images. From the ground, the best resolution you can get is about half an arcsecond - one arcsecond is equivalent to angular size of a 10 pence piece or US dime at a distance of 2 km - and this has been one of the limits to building telescopes larger than a few meters.

One way to get around the problem is to go into space. Since it was launched (and fixed), the Hubble Space Telescope has produced thousands of amazing images better than any from the ground even though at 2.4m in diameter, it is smaller than many professional telescopes. However, putting a telescope in space brings its own problems. Apart from putting observing trips out of the question, it's harder to fix, it costs a lot of money and your observatory may be at risk if the guy in charge of the funding decides to go to Mars instead.

Now the HST has been great, but there is only ever going to be a limited number of people that can use it. Wouldn't it be good if we could somehow remove the effect of the atmosphere from the images that are taken by bigger (and much cheaper) telescopes on the ground? In recent years this has become possible and goes by the name of adaptive optics. Basically, the telescope's mirror gets distorted many times a second in order to take out the distortion caused by the atmosphere.

European Southern Observatory concept image of the 100m Over-Whelmingly Large (OWL) telescope
These advances have allowed us to think about creating truly gigantic telescopes with diameters of 50 to 100m. There have been several proposals for these massive telescopes and these fall under the label ELT or extremely large telescope. At NAM on Friday, Dr Isobel Hook (who talked about the big rip last year) discussed the scientific case for these ELTs. Just think, a 100 m telescope would have a resolution 40 times better than the HST. It would be able to observe Earth-like planets around other stars as well as the earliest galaxies and supernova explosions. But is it even possible? Apparently, initial studies are positive but it doesn't come cheaply; the price tag is about one billion Euros. If it does get financed, it will be a gigantic engineering challenge.

As a final note, I should point out that it isn't just optical astronomy that is going big. Radio astronomers have joined up their telescopes as interferometers for years, giving a telescope of diameter equivalent to the size of the planet Earth. Although this very long baseline interferometry (VLBI) has got the resolution, it doesn't have the collecting area. One plan, imaginitively called the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), is to build a telescope with an area of one square kilometer. Both of these projects - ELT and SKA - would hope to become operational in the next 10 to 20 years. If they do, it should be an exciting time in big science.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 10th Apr 2005 (17:23 UTC) | Permalink

Excitement of Science 2005

Each year Rotary International, the Royal Institution and the National Schools Observatory organise the Excitement of Science. The aim is to bring the feeling of excitement when making a discovery - being the first to know - to hundreds of students from all over the country. This year it is being organised by the University of Manchester's Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire.

Students will be able to help radio astronomers (specifically Tim and Ian) use a 7-metre (actually 6.4m - it was a 21ft tracking dish from Woomera, Australia) radio telescope to map the three dimensional structure of our Milky Way galaxy including its spiral arms. The 7m telescope will be used over the Internet hopefully with a nice display to show what it is doing live. If you know a school that wants to get involved, contact Tim.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 08th Apr 2005 (11:23 UTC) | Permalink

Oscillating Sun

Although the Sun is a big ball of gas undergoing nuclear fusion in the core, it can also be thought of as a large bell that is constantly being struck. In the outermost layers of the Sun's interior, pressure waves get generated. Pressure waves are another name for sound waves, and these get reflected back from the surface, into the Sun. These waves get refracted as they travel into the Sun, so they will get to different depths. By studying the different frequencies of pressure waves, it is possible to learn about the interior of the Sun, similar to the way we learn about the Earth's interior by studying the shock waves from earthquakes.

Solar astronomers from Birmingham have been studying the doppler shifts - how fast something is moving towards or away from us - and hence oscillations, in the surface of the Sun since the 1970s. The Birmingham Solar Oscillations Network (BiSON), who have six telescopes around the world constantly monitoring the Sun, now have almost 30 years worth of observations of oscillations. With data covering almost three solar cycles, they hope to be able to look for long term changes between cycles.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 07th Apr 2005 (00:47 UTC) | Permalink

Phantom Astronomer

In recent weeks I have made quite a few posts about Slacker Astronomy. I'm sure it is starting to look as though I have shares in it or something. I don't, but I do want to support their efforts by sending some people their way. Let's Talk Stars are also worth a listen. We need some astronomy podcasts from this side of the Atlantic now.

Anyway, the latest bit of news is that the Slacker Astronomy team have produced their first show featuring the long-awaited phantom astronomer. This lets a professional astronomer rant about whatever is on their mind knowing that they are anonymous (unless you recognise their voice of course). The first show is about UFOs and the lack of evidence that they are due to little green (or grey) men.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 05th Apr 2005 (18:45 UTC) | Permalink


Forgive me - I'm confused. The BBC claim that another group have issued the first image of an exoplanet using observations of the star GQ Lup with the VLT. It may be the first to be 'imaged', but two other planets were 'seen' recently by the Spitzer Space Telescope, and the VLT thought it may have seen a planet last September. Either way, we have now found 154 exoplanets although none of them are Earth-like.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 05th Apr 2005 (10:58 UTC) | Permalink

The letter 'r' is significant

The Bad Astronomer has put up a page to de-bunk astrology. I had a rant some time ago on the subject of astrology and Phil Plait brings up some of the same points. Ultimately, it is very difficult to have a logical discussion with an astrologer or someone who believes in astrology.

A month or so ago while going home on the train, I overheard a girl extolling the accuracy of a certain newspaper's horoscopes to her friend. She then went on to say that she had once been told that she would marry someone with the letter 'r' in their name. At that point I couldn't help myself and commented that plenty of people have the letter 'r' in their name; George Bush, Tony Blair, most of the cabinet and me. The point is that if you take somebody's name (they usually have at least two names) you probably have more than ten letters - more than a third of the alphabet. Now combine that with the fact that some letters are more common than others, and you will find a significant percentage of people have the letter 'r' in their name (I might work it out on a large sample if I get bored). The trouble is, she seemed to be making decisions about her relationships based on the existence (or lack) of the letter 'r'. This seems to happen a lot.

The same people also tend to have a deep suspicion of science in general which is rather worrying. Science is not a religion or belief system, it is a method of checking ideas by subjecting them to experiments. So the anti-scientists are right to be sceptical, perhaps they should direct some of that scepticisim towards the pseudo-scientists.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 05th Apr 2005 (10:39 UTC) | Permalink

Beautiful Skies

While standing on the station platform tonight, on my way home, I got some great views of Jupiter, Saturn and a whole host of stars at dusk. Jupiter is low in the south east and I can see it over the neighbouring houses when I look out my back door. It is the first time it has been so clear for what seems like quite a while. Actually it has been clear a couple of times in the past two weeks but it looks like the seeing may be better tonight.

As the undergraduates are away for Easter/NAM, I'm hoping that I can go and play with the 10 inch Meade on the roof. The only trouble is that I need someone else to go with me for Health and Safety reasons. Hopefully I can convince Chris to spend the night out in the cold.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 04th Apr 2005 (20:24 UTC) | Permalink

When telescopes go bad

If you happen to be near Birmingham tomorrow night, you may want to attend a public lecture that is part of the National Astronomy Meeting (NAM). It will be in the physics building at the University of Birmingham at 7pm. The talk is titled "When telescopes go bad" and will be given by Fred Watson of the Anglo-Australian Observatory. Here is the description:

On the eve of the telescope's 400th birthday, astronomers are planning a new generation of giant optical (visible-light) telescopes that promise to transform our view of the Universe. But the history of humankind's most far-sighted invention is littered with projects that for one reason or another have failed to live up to expectations. How can we be sure that the new facilities will succeed in delivering the goods?

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 04th Apr 2005 (17:27 UTC) | Permalink


At 2.6 million km from Saturn, the Cassini spacecraft took this amazing image of Saturn. The rings are edge on and can be seen to be only tens of metres thick. The moon on the left is Dione (1,118 km diameter) and Enceladus (505 km diameter) is the smaller one on the right. The dark bands visible on the planet are the shadows of the rings. To see more images of Saturn and its moons than you can shake a stick at, go to the Ciclops website.

Saturn with moons

IMAGE CREDIT: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 03rd Apr 2005 (17:11 UTC) | Permalink

Spinning Sedna

The minor planet Sedna (2003 VB12) was discovered in 2003 and caused a tiny bit of controversy over the way it was named before being numbered. At less than 1800 km in diameter, it isn't quite large enough to be a planet and its orbit is highly elliptical; it gets as close as 80 AU from the Sun and as far as around 800 AU. It takes about 10,500 years to complete an orbit.

A group from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have recently observed Sedna with the Multiple Mirror Telescope (MMT) based on Mt. Hopkins, Arizona. Between October 2004 and January 2005, they managed to observe Sedna on eight nights, taking 143 measurements of its brightness. They measured an apparent magnitude of 21 - beyond most amateur telescopes - and saw that it had a variability of about 1%. Their best fit to the data gives a rotation period of 10.27 hours which isn't too different from other bodies in the solar system.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 02nd Apr 2005 (22:43 UTC) | Permalink

1st of April

The people at Astronomy Picture of the Day today announce the discovery of water on mars.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 01st Apr 2005 (11:57 UTC) | Permalink
[an error occurred while processing this directive]