ACS Broken

Oh no! The Hubble Space Telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) has had some kind of electrical fault on Saturday which put the whole telescope into safe mode. It seems that the ACS may not work again. That is a bit depressing for the astronomers that were expecting observations with it as about two thirds (500) of current proposals for use of the HST need to use the ACS. The other instruments are still working, so Hubble will have to hobble along until the possible servicing mission "no earlier than May 2008".

The Hubble Space Telescope is the highest profile telescope in astronomy and it really needs a servicing mission as soon as possible. Come on NASA, this isn't rocket science. ;-)

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 30th Jan 2007 (12:35 GMT) | Permalink

Saturn's rings full on

Over at the Planetary Society's blog, Emily Lakdawalla mentioned that the Cassini spacecraft has been taking images of Saturn from above over the weekend. As she says, this is really exciting because it is a view that we haven't seen before with the chance to see the entire A and B rings at the same time. Emily used some images available on the Cassini website to make a quick mosaic of Saturn and its rings. That inspired me to download the images in each of the three colour filters (red, green and blue) to have a go at making a full ring colour image myself. It is very fiddly to get the rings to line up and to get the contrast and brightness to match between each of the nine images in each of the three filters. I have temporarily given up on matching up the central part of the image (Saturn itself) partly because it seems to be over-exposed but mainly because I really should go to bed! I'll try to sort that out tomorrow. I also noticed that the view I have is a bit different to the one Emily had. Anyway, I thought I would show you my work in progress below (click on the image for a bigger version). No doubt the Cassini team will make a proper version of this at some point because it is really cool.

Saturn and Rings
Mosaic of 27 images (9 in each colour filter) showing Saturn from above with complete (apart from the shadow) rings. CREDIT: Images from NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute. Mosaic by Stuart

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 25th Jan 2007 (03:14 GMT) | Permalink

All for McNaught

Although us northern hemispherians can no longer see Comet P1 McNaught, the southern hemisphere is getting a great show. Ian has been blogging like a man possessed over the past week (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10) providing links to many images of the comet taken from southern latitudes as well as some of his own. The comet really is putting on a good show and I'm more than a little frustrated that I never saw a thing before it disappeared from sight from the UK. So, if you live in the southern hemisphere, go outside before sunset and try to spot it.

Comet McNaught and ESO
The extended tail of Comet McNaught, seen from Paranal, observed in the evening of 18 January 2007, when the comet was setting behind the Pacific Ocean. In the foreground: one of the VLT Unit Telescope and two Auxiliary Telescopes. CREDIT: ESO PR Photo 05c/07
The beautiful image above comes from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile who have some nice pictures of the comet with the telescopes at Paranal. Just look at the tail. But the fantastic images don't stop there! As well as the official pictures, ESO staff have put together a compilation of their own stunning images. I really like this one by S. Deiries (ESO). Wow! I've just got myself a new desktop wallpaper.

Check out Flickr for a stream of Comet McNaught images from all over the world.

Updates: Ian is still going .... 11, 12, 13... and he promises more soon!

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 22nd Jan 2007 (00:52 GMT) | Permalink


The UK is currently suffering from very strong gales and storms and the North West seems to have been badly affected. With strong wind, large structures and trees tend to suffer serious damage. Radio astronomers with big telescopes also get worried because strong winds could potentially blow them over.

Today, at Jodrell Bank, the winds have been gusting up to 84 mph (135 km/h) which is quite serious and all the telescopes have been 'parked'. That means pointing the bowls straight upwards (they look like a bowl would on your breakfast table) rather than towards the horizon (all the cereal would fall out). That reduces the 'sail area' of the telescope. Back in 1976, similar gales with winds of around 90 mph (145 km/h) nearly ended in disaster for the 76m Lovell Telescope or Mark 1a as it was called then. The dish came within a centimetre or so of falling off the circular railway track that it sits on. The dish was saved by some quick thinking engineers who rotated the telescope around by 180 degrees to let the wind blow it back! Luckily, the plan worked and the dish weathered out that storm.

Since then, extra support girders have been added and the dish is supposed to be rated up to 100 mph (160 km/h). Big telescopes have collapsed before, so whenever the wind gets high like it did today, everyone on site gets a little nervous.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 18th Jan 2007 (17:15 GMT) | Permalink


Comet P1 McNaught would appear to have been spectacular for many people and even visible during daytime. I haven't been so lucky with the weather. Tonight looked as though it would be the last, best chance I would get to see the comet before it sinks out of view in the evening sky. Disappointingly, a band of cloud sat on the western horizon merrily blocking the one bit of the sky I wanted to see. Typical! Although I saw nought of the comet, I did get a nice view of the planet Venus (credit to my dad for spotting it first) from Otley Chevin. I'll share that with you instead.

Venus at Sunset
Venus and western horizon at sunset as seen from Otley Chevin at about 16:40 GMT on 14th January 2007 (Comet McNaught hidden by cloud somewhere close to the horizon). The exposure wasn't very long so the image looks darker than it actually was. CREDIT: Stuart

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 14th Jan 2007 (18:05 GMT) | Permalink

AAS Effect and De-lurking

On the basis of very low number statistics, and in the absence of any other obvious event, I will tentatively say that the AAS meeting in Seattle (with live blogging) may have driven a surge in interest in astronomy. My measly evidence is based on two observations. Firstly, I had a sudden increase in people commenting on this blog to a range of topics both old and new. By increase I mean a handful of new commenters in the space of 2-3 days which is a significant blip for this blog. My second piece of evidence comes from the download statistics for the Jodcast which seem to show sudden increases in the number of downloads on Monday and Tuesday this week . This amounts to about a 10% increase on what would be expected. Has anyone else has noticed an effect or am I just correlating noise?

On the topic of comments, Sean over at Cosmic Variance notes that this is apparently de-lurking week. So, if you read this blog, but don't usually comment, take the plunge and say hello to everyone (you don't have to give your email address or real name but it would be nice if you could say which country you are in). Perhaps as many as 10 people are reading this!

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 12th Jan 2007 (12:16 GMT) | Permalink

Comet P1 McNaught

With the weather being so bad over the past few weeks (days of fog, rain and a lot of clouds) I haven't really been looking for Comet P1 McNaught which is currently just bright enough to be seen by eye without the need of binoculars.

Comets are like dirty balls of ice that generally are thought to originate in the Oort cloud way out beyond Pluto. They mostly have very elongated orbits around the Sun although some may approach the Sun and then hurtle off into space never to return to the solar system. So at best, an individual comet may reappear at regular intervals. However, these intervals tend to be very long and you may not get another chance to see that comet in your lifetime. That makes sighting a comet pretty special and Davep recounts the thrill that he and his family got yesterday when they saw P1 McNaught. I'm currently sat under thick cloud and am very jealous.

The Society for Popular Astronomy have finding charts to help you know where to look. For an idea of what it looks like, check out the images that Ian Musgrave links to. If you are lazy or like me unable to see through cloud, Jon Shanklin (who has links to more images) says that Comet P1 McNaught is expected to be visible in SOHO spacecraft images of the Sun between January 12th to 15th. After the 15th we are unlikely to see it from the UK. I have my fingers crossed for good weather.

Update: Check out Ian Musgrave's blog for the latest Comet McNaught news in the southern hemisphere where it is still visible.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 11th Jan 2007 (11:13 GMT) | Permalink

AAS 2007 live!

The American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting for 2007 is underway in Seattle. Amongst over 2100 registrants are many US and Canadian astronomy bloggers and podcasters. As has been done previously by myself and Emily Lakdawalla at DPS 2005, by the Slackers at AAS 2006, and by Thomas Marquart et al and the Jodcast at the IAU 2006, there will be live blogging/podcasting of the meeting throughout the week.

Providing the insider knowledge for AAS 2007 we have (in no particular order) Phil Plait, the Slackers, the Spacewriter and the Nature newsblog. I've already seen the first video podcast from the meeting - AAS Meeting Nonsense [FF] (MP3: 22.7 MB) - which may be a first for a major astronomical get together. As I am not lucky enough to go all the way to Seattle, I'll do my bit and try to keep an up-to-date list in the links bar to the right.

Update: Pamela Gay is also covering the AAS on her blog Star Stryder.
Update 2 (11/1/2007): Also check out Dynamics of Cats and Galactic Interactions.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 07th Jan 2007 (14:33 GMT) | Permalink

Blog Awards 2007

There are the Oscars, the Grammys, the Brits, the Pulitzers, the Bookers and the Nobels. Yes, it is the time of year when award ceremonies are ten-a-penny. Not to be left out, weblogs also have their own award - the Bloggies.

In 2006, the astronomical blog community were represented by the Bad Astronomer who was nominated in the category of Best Topical Weblog. Nominations are now open for 2007 allowing the public to suggest up to three blogs in each of the many categories. The fact that you can nominate three means that this isn't an either-or situation. So, I will suggest that the astro-blog community consider adding the following nominations: Tom's Astronomy Blog (e.g. Best American Weblog/Best Topical Weblog), Ian's Astroblog (e.g. Best Australian or New Zealand Weblog) and Phil's BABlog. If we all work together, Tom, Ian and Phil may all get nominated. Nominations are open until 10th January.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 06th Jan 2007 (16:45 GMT) | Permalink

New Astro Blogs

Isn't it awful when you find yourself doing something that you normally find annoying? In my case I wanted to keep my list of astronomy blogs as short and manageable. So, I try to make sure that a blog contains mostly astronomy related content and provides regular updates before adding it. But my list keeps creeping further and further down the page. My excuse is that there are so many good astronomy blogs out there on the interwebs.

My latest two additions are both by professional astronomers making me think that articles about blogging in publications such as Physics World might actually get read. The first new blog is The e-Astronomer and is created by a Professor of Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh. I've read his first few entries and he has a good style. Expect it to contain insight into astro-politics and e-science as well as large sky surveys. The second, Star Stryder, has been started by Pamela Gay of Astronomy Cast (and formerly Slacker Astronomy) fame. I expect Pamela will be blogging from the 209th American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle over the next week or so (January 6-12) as will Slackerpedia Galactica.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 06th Jan 2007 (00:25 GMT) | Permalink

Which orbits the Earth?

Via James Randi's newsletter I saw a video clip from the French version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? The question was "Which of these is in orbit around the Earth: the Moon, the Sun, Mars, or Venus?" The contestant was unsure. This in itself is pretty shocking but when he asked the audience ("au public") I was even more shocked. Only 42% of the studio audience knew that the Moon was the correct answer. The majority - 56% - thought that it was the Sun. I would assume that in France, as in the UK, this is something we learn at the age of about eight. Trying to be positive about this, I noticed that the contestant's younger friend/relative, Sophie, was sat in the audience shaking her head during all this. The presenter even made a point of asking her "Sophie, you're not happy. Why?" to which she replied that the Sun wasn't the correct answer.

Does it matter if the majority of adults in this studio audience don't know as much about the Universe as the average eight year old?

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 05th Jan 2007 (18:42 GMT) | Permalink

Astro Podcast Round-up

I've been tweaking the Astronomy Media Player for the past few months and after some teething troubles I think it is now working properly and should be a bit more responsive. I've included a few more astronomy podcasts such as Mountain Radio Astronomy from the Greenbank telescope (it took me ages to find their feed) and spacePod from Rutherford Appleton Labs in the UK bringing the total up past the 30 mark. To keep on top of things, there is a page showing all additions in the past week as well as a list of the top ten most listened to podcast episodes in the past week or so.

There have been some interesting items recently. Planetary Radio had a discussion of the fascinating Near Earth Asteroid KW4 (MP3: 6.6 MB), NRAO talked about the beginnings of large radio telescopes in the US in Happy Birthday, NRAO! (MP3: 39.2 MB), JPL have a video about the Spirit rover's three years on Mars (MP4: 16.3 MB), StarDate covered Earth at Perihelion - January 3 (MP3: 1.0 MB), the W.M. Keck Observatory had a talk on Brown Dwarfs: The Gap Between Stars and Planets (MP3: 17.2 MB), Science@NASA gave us True Fakes: Scientists Make Simulated Moondust (MP3: 2.7 MB) and the Jodcast January 2007 (MP3: 24.5 MB) covered active galactic nuclei as well as the Square Kilometre Array. Happy listening folks.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 05th Jan 2007 (15:42 GMT) | Permalink

New Year Delight

On Saturday I went to North Wales to see in the New Year. The weather was awful with strong winds and rain, so it wasn't encouraging for scrambling or walking. However, on New Year's day, I went with some friends for a walk near the coast. I've not walked in that particular area before and it gives good views of Ynys Môn (Isle of Anglesey) as well as parts of Snowdonia. Although most of the day was spent under cloud, it stayed dry and I didn't get chance to test my new waterproof over-trousers! We even managed to use up all the available light arriving back at the car park at 5pm as it was getting fairly dark.

As we were taking our boots off and getting ready to leave, there were a few breaks in the cloud and we were able to admire the almost full Moon peeping through. Up to the right of it we could make out a single star which I now reckon must have been Capella based on its brightness and position. Suddenly, through a gap in the clouds in the south east - we had Ordnance Survey maps with us so I checked the direction afterwards - I spotted a bright light which appeared to be moving west to east. I didn't think it was a plane because I couldn't see any flashing wing lights and there isn't much in the way of air traffic around that area anyway. My best guess was that it was the International Space Station because I knew that it was visible from the UK in the early evenings over the Christmas and New Year period. Now, having got back home, I have been able to check for 1st January and sure enough it was the ISS. Incidentally, I notice that some of the national newspapers now give predictions for the ISS and several satellites which is pretty cool.

I hadn't planned to see the International Space Station and it was only by chance that there was a break in the clouds in that part of the sky at that time. So, it was an unexpected delight that finished the day perfectly. Happy New Year everyone.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 02nd Jan 2007 (17:53 GMT) | Permalink
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