Venus by day

Well folks, my big trip has brought me to Adelaide where I've met up with Ian. Although his blog is subtitled "Obscured by clouds", yesterday he was able to point out Venus during the day to me. That was the first time I've ever seen Venus during the day proper. Cool.

Venus by day
Venus in the daytime sky CREDIT: Stuart and Ian M
We used Ian's tripod and my digital camera to get a picture of it. Although it just looks like a dot on a blue background, it is actually the planet Venus. It would have been nice to get the Moon in the same frame, but on Saturday the separation was too great for the field of view of my camera.

As I write this, it has gone cloudy. We are hoping that by Tuesday night it will be clear again and we can get a proper look at the southern skies. I want to learn how to spot a few more of the southern constellations before I return to the northern hemisphere.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 26th Mar 2006 (19:56 ACST) | Permalink

Driving the Milky Way

While on Australia's Gold Coast I happened to spot a rather interesting road sign.

Milky Way
A road sign near Mugeeraba on the Gold Coast pointing out Milky Way CREDIT: Stuart
So, as you might expect, I couldn't resist a drive along the Milky Way to see where it led to. It turned out that most of the streets in that area had an astronomy theme. The streets I found included: Planet Place, Orbit Ct., Constellation Cres., Venus Crt., Moonbeam Parade, Eclipse Ct., Meteor Crt., Sun Crt. and Universe Crt. I wonder if it was an amateur astronomer that named them.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 24th Mar 2006 (09:30 AEST) | Permalink

Research council mergers

Megan mentioned that the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) may be merged with the CCLRC. This is a recommendation of a Treasury report that suggests that the funding for large facilities (e.g. ESO, CERN, MERLIN, Daresbury and RAL) be combined into a Large Facilities Council (LFC). The report says:

PPARC currently has a role both as a grant-giving Research Council and as an investor in large facilities. This has created different funding arrangements for different parts of the physical sciences, the remainder being the responsibility of EPSRC. If the large facilities operations currently managed by PPARC were to be transferred to a new LFC, this would be an opportunity to integrate PPARC’s grant-giving operations with EPSRC. This would effectively mean that a single Research Council (EPSRC) would have responsibility for the full spectrum of physical sciences funding, and would be of particular benefit to physics departments, which have faced difficulties in attaining long-term sustainability. This change would create new synergies and simplify the existing institutional landscape among the Research Councils.

This move would place astronomy and particle physics research in direct competition with the rest of the physical sciences for money. I would expect this to mean that it will be harder to get a particular research project funded, as the competition for the limited funds is greatly increased. It will also mean that the new EPSRC will have to develop a plan/road-map for the whole of engineering, physics and astronomy; a pretty huge field. Can one funding council do this alone while maintaining the breadth and depth of research in the UK?

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 24th Mar 2006 (09:09 AEST) | Permalink

Solar Eclipse 2006

Here is advance notice, for those that aren't aware about it, for the upcoming solar eclipse on 29th March. The eclispe will be visible across much of Africa, Europe and the Middle East although the path of totality - the region where you can see the Moon covering all of the Sun's surface - only passes through Ghana (09:10 UT), Togo, Benin, Nigeria (09:30 UT), Niger (09:50 UT), Chad (10:10 UT), Libya, Egypt (10:40 UT), Turkey (11:00 UT), Georgia, Russia, Kasakhstan (11:30 UT) and Mongolia. The UK will see about 15-30% of the Sun's disk covered. So, if you live in the UK and are not watching for it you probably won't notice. Unfortunately, I'll be on the wrong side of the planet at the time, so I will miss it totally.

As ever, don't look directly at the Sun without CE (or equivalent) certified solar viewers. You have been warned people.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 20th Mar 2006 (05:45 UTC) | Permalink

WMAP Year Three

The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) was launched to the L2 point a few years ago and measures the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB). The CMB is radiation that comes from about 300,000 years after the big bang, at a time when the universe had cooled enough for electrons and protons to join together to make the first atoms. Before this point, the free electrons and protons were a plasma which interacted with photons (particles of light). With the formation of neutral atoms, the photons were able to do their own thing and head off through the universe until the WMAP detector got in the way.

The WMAP instruments have been measuring this microwave radiation (which you can pick up on your TV set) for several years and in particular, they are measuring the difference in the amount of this radiation from different directions in the sky. Any differences in the temperature - a region with more microwaves can be considered as hotter - of different parts of the sky tell us a lot about the early universe and let astronomers describe, mathematically, the type of universe we are living in. This is good to do because it can tell us about the very early life of the universe and tell us what will happen to it next

Back in 2003 the first results were published by the WMAP team. These helped herald a new era of "precision cosmology" where the uncertainties in the values were reduced to a couple of percent (subject to certain assumptions). It was expected that as time went on, and more data were collected, a second year's set of results would be published that had smaller uncertainties. However, the publication of the results kept getting delayed. The speculation was that the WMAP team were having some difficulty calibrating the data for some reason. This sounds entirely plausible considering how difficult the observations are. Finally, (thanks to Megan, Andrew Jaffe and Sean Carroll for the heads-up) the team have overcome the difficulties they were having and released the results of years two and three.

The main result from WMAP is called the power spectrum and this basically tells you how much variation there is on different scales. To be confusing, the power spectrum is usually plotted on a graph as multipoles - think of this as the inverse of the angular size - with the low multipoles at the left (big angles on the sky) and high multipoles (small angles on the sky) on the right. The new power spectrum is displayed on this plot showing the data (little black marks with uncertainty bars) and the theoretical model (red line) that fits the data. The agreement is generally better than it was before, as you might expect when you add in more data and your theory was along the right lines. However, the leftmost point on the graph (multipole 2) is still lower than it would be expected to be. Strange.

The parameter which tells you how the size of the fluctuations in temperature vary with angular size is called n (scalar spectral index) and this appears to have a value of 0.95±0.02 which is slightly less than the value of 1 it would have if it were uniform. This basically means that there is more structure in the universe on larger scales and this seems to agree with the sort of numbers you get from models of a universe that has inflation early on. Perhaps some more evidence for inflation it seems.

One result that many astronomers were waiting for was related to the polarization of the radiation coming from different directions. There are several ways you can compare the polarization (technically labelled TT, TE, EE, BB). As the BB or "B-mode" signal is very weak, it is the hardest to detect and WMAP didn't see it. This non-detection was expected but has helped to put upper limits on the strength of the signal anyway. To detect it requires more sensitive instruments such as ESA's Planck satellite, due for launch in 2007/8.

There were plenty of other results that come out of these observations but I have trouble understanding what some of the other parameters physically mean, so I haven't detailed them here. Plus, I'm still on holiday and it is sunny outside.

Finally, my congratulations to the WMAP team for all their hard work in getting everything calibrated and the results released. Great job folks.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 17th Mar 2006 (04:12 UTC) | Permalink

Star Walker

I've now left the beautiful country of New Zealand and hopped over the Tasman Sea to its neighbour, Australia. I'm staying south of Brisbane and I recently visited the Spacewalker attraction based in Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast.

The main entrance is at street level along with a space themed shop. This sells all the usual space related toys and trinkets, but you can also pick up a copy of great astronomy magazines such as Australian Sky and Telescope or Sky and Space (which features Ian no less). Once you've bought your rather expensive ticket (almost AUSD 30 although family tickets are available too), you enter Space Station Zeta via a space elevator. The elevator comes complete with 'hand print recognition' (a large button), lots of LED lights in the walls acting as stars and a turning base to disorientate you slightly on your journey up to the space station. Once in the space station you are greeted by the arrivals lounge staff who wear futuristic outfits; well futuristic as imagined in the 1970s or 80s with silver clothing and metallic wigs. They enter into the spirit of the space theme and seemed to be having fun with the visitors.

After check-in, you get to enter one of three 'pods' which are basically three different pre-recorded shows. I had been dreading a 'dumbed down' space themed show, so was pleasantly surprised by the amount of astronomical information that they contained. I saw two of the shows (the kind staff let me go around twice) and they were excellent. The first was about the moons of the solar system and was narrated by John Lithgow of Third Rock From The Sun. This contained masses of correct information, real images and computer graphics to give you a tour of some of the more interesting moons. It was remarkably up-to-date compared to some information you can get in science museums - the trouble with all these exciting new space missions - although the show was missing information from the wonderful work that Cassini and Huygens have done at Saturn's moons.

The second show was in a room with a soft floor that you lay on looking up at an alien spaceship styled viewscreen in the ceiling. The 'alien contact' theme was the basis for a tour of the universe with a Powers of Ten style video starting on the beach at Surfers Paradise and moving out through the solar system, our galaxy, the local group and to the full extent of the observable universe. It was quite nice to see this done from an Australian perspective.

After leaving the pods, you travel down the Space Highway which is very well done. The entire room that the highway occupies is black with just the path and various models lit up. It does a good job of making the models look as if they are in space as I could only see how most were suspended by using averted vision. Each model is also accompanied by video viewers in the style of beach-side binoculars, but with the addition of headphones to hear the commentary. The models and videos were of high quality and put across a lot of information about each astronomical object. The model of the Moon is apparently one of the most detailed in existence and was created by the museum founder - a keen astronomer.

Most science museums will only go as far as detailing just the planets, so I was happy to see that about half the space walk covered other astronomical objects such as red giant stars, pulsars, nebula, galaxies and more. I reckon that the 3D model of the Pillars of Creation was made from UV reactive spray paint on cotton wool with imbedded LED lights to act as newly forming stars; it worked really well.

On exiting the space walk (via a black hole or hyper space) you can buy the standard fairground style photos and visit the Voyager Bar in the 'Restaurant at the End of the Universe'. Although the menu has cheesy space named meals (compulsory for a space attraction), these have actually been designed to look pretty bizarre too.

Overall it was an extremely well presented attraction that had loads of good science in it. The only downsides are that it relys on lots of (admittedly very good) videos and pictures - making it a bit passive for the visitor - and it was a touch expensive for me. These aside, it is a good way to spend a wet afternoon in Surfers Paradise.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 14th Mar 2006 (03:17 UTC) | Permalink

Sir Patrick is 'doing well'

Via davep's blog, the BBC report that Sir Patrick Moore is "doing extremely well" sitting up in bed and reading after having a pacemaker fitted.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 09th Mar 2006 (19:26 UTC) | Permalink


It isn't just NASA that is feeling the squeeze when it comes to its budget. In the UK, the Particle Physics & Astronomy Research Council (PPARC - the main funding body for astronomy) are struggling to fund all the projects that UK particle physicists and astronomers are involved with. The latest news from PPARC Council explains that the result will be to pull out of some projects earlier than planned and not provide the levels of resources needed to properly exploit some experiments. What that means exactly, I'm not sure. It could mean that there will be a lack of Post-doctoral positions that are vital to the processing and analysis of data from existing and future UK projects. To fund projects and then not provide funding to fully utilise the data seems crazy to me. The harm it could have on physics and astronomy in the UK isn't lost on Council though:

Council also recognised that, while it has sought to protect the grants line as far as it could without unduly damaging investment in future opportunities which are equally crucial for the health of our science, the reduction in the volume of research supported through this route could, in the longer-term, seriously impact on the viability of some physics departments in the UK. Current estimates of the actual costs of implementing full economic cost indicate that the reduction may have to be more severe than planned.

To put the UK space science budget in perspective, PPARC's annual budget (2005) is about £325 million - £288 million of which comes from Parliament - or equivalent to about £5.40 per person, per year. For comparison, NASA's budget is around USD 16.2 thousand million or USD 54 per person (about £31). That is a factor of 5.7 more per person spent in the US compared to the UK! Of course this isn't a like-for-like comparison because NASA do more than just space science and astronomy. Nevertheless, astronomy also gets funding via the US National Science Foundation to an amount something of the order of USD 30 million. Considering the difference it is amazing that the UK contributes as much as it does.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 08th Mar 2006 (20:22 UTC) | Permalink

Mercury Bay

If you know about Captain James Cook - the Yorkshire man who travelled the world - you may know that his voyage around the world with the Endeavour was sponsored by the Royal Society with the aim to observe the transit of the planet Venus in 1769. Making measurements of the transit of a planet across the disk of the Sun from different parts of the Earth was important as it allowed astronomers to put a value to the distance between the Earth and the Sun. Captain Cook and his crew observed the transit on 3rd June 1769 from Tahiti. Rather than heading straight back to England, they then went on to find the land previously discovered by the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman.

Mercury Bay
Mercury Bay, Coromandel Peninsular, New Zealand CREDIT: Stuart

Mercury Bay
The monument in Mercury Bay near the spot where the observation of the transit of Mercury was observed. CREDIT: Stuart

On 6th October the land which is now called New Zealand was sighted and over the following few weeks there were a series of encounters with some native Maori Iwi's (tribes). The ship had arrived in the Bay of Poverty and then headed north up the coast. Around the 5th of November, they anchored near a beach for 10 days to observe the transit of Mercury. To mark the event, the bay that this observation was done in became known as Mercury Bay.

I went up there a few days ago to see it and I found - after a bit of hunting - a small monument to mark the spot where the observation was done. The inscription reads "Mercury Bay - Near this spot on 10 November 1769 James Cook and Charles Green observed the transit of Mercury to determine the longitude of the bay".

A little bit of astronomical history combined with a beautiful seascape. I knew I could work in some holiday pictures somehow ;-)

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 07th Mar 2006 (23:59 UTC) | Permalink

Mercury 0 - Venus 1

After reading Ian and Tom's entries about the chance of seeing Mercury in the evening sky on 1st March, I thought I might have a look. I'm near the west coast of New Zealand's north island and thought a 45km drive out to the coast would give me an uncluttered horizon. The weather had other ideas though. After being fine all afternoon, the cloud rolled in from the west just before sunset. To be even more annoying, it cleared away a few hours later having sat there long enough to make me miss Mercury. I did get a great view of the Milky Way though.

This morning I was up bright and early as I was heading up to the very (technically not quite) top of New Zealand. I was lucky enough to see the planet Venus appearing very bright in the pre-dawn sky just before some more cloud rolled in. They don't call New Zealand the "land of the long white cloud" for nothing.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 03rd Mar 2006 (07:40 UTC) | Permalink
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