Patrick Moore Web Chat

Important Note: Please note that this website is nothing to do with Patrick Moore. This post was merely pointing out a web chat hosted on the BBC website. Do not expect a response from Patrick Moore if you post here.

Another quick post. If you live in the North West of England you can watch Jodrell Bank featured on tonight's episode of Inside Out on BBC One. It talks about the Lovell Telescope, MERLIN, Sir Bernard Lovell and Sir Patrick Moore. There is also an opportunity to send in your questions to Sir Patrick Moore and he will answer them on Monday 26th February.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 23rd Feb 2007 (12:57 CET) | Permalink

International Heliophysical Year Begins

On 19th February, the International Heliophysical Year (IHY) began with an event at the UN in Vienna. The aim of the year is to raise awareness of the relationship between the Sun and the Earth and occurs on the 50th anniversary of International Geophysical Year. Part of the UK contribution to IHY is a website - Sun Earth Plan - that aims to let students use real data to help put across the science but also show how science is done. I think that is a great idea and you can even submit your questions to it and get answers from solar physicists.

With the first images of coronal mass ejections coming out of the STEREO mission (for some reason I can only find them on a PPARC press release), 2007 promises to bring us lots of excitement about our nearest star.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 23rd Feb 2007 (12:50 CET) | Permalink

Launching from the UK?

The BBC are reporting that Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic would like to build a space port in the UK. They already plan to have one in New Mexico and are thinking about one in Sweden, but they have apparently asked the UK government if it would be possible to use RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland or RAF St Mawgan near Newquay in Cornwall as take-off sites. It would be pretty amazing to be able to journey to the edge of space (360,000 ft or 109 km) from Scotland. The only trouble for me is that I don't have £107,000 ($200,000) to spare for a ticket. Donations are welcome!

One thing at the back of my mind, with the inevitable increase in space tourism, is the shear amount of energy required to get huge numbers of people up to 100 km or higher. That is going to involve large amounts of fuel which will be burnt in the upper atmosphere. Interestingly, in the promo video on the Virgin Galactic website, Mr Branson specifically mentions attempts to reduce the environmental impact of his new business. He reckons that it will have far less impact than any other manned space vehicle that has been built so far.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 22nd Feb 2007 (22:59 CET) | Permalink

Supernova 1987a at 20 - the movie!

This year is full of anniversaries; 50 years of the space age, 50 years of the Lovell Telescope, 50 years of NRAO, 40 years since the discovery of pulsars and, tomorrow marks the 20th anniversary of the supernova explosion 1987a which was observed on 23rd February 1987. The star that went supernova is actually 163,000 light years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud and frankly, I'm glad it was that far away; I don't want a supernova going off anywhere near me.

To celebrate this 20th anniversary, the Hubble Space Telescope has released images of a ring of glowing gas surrounding SN 1987a. One suggestion for the origin of this ring is that it is made from gas originally shed from the original star about 20,000 years before it went supernova. That material headed off into space and is now starting to glow as it gets shocked by the later (but faster) material ejected from the supernova explosion. Check out the nice graphic which explains this much better than I've just done.

In the HST images spanning 12 years, you can see the changes in the brightness of the ring as bits of the inner edge get shocked. You can also see the central bipolar outflow dim and even expand. Following my attempt at the V838 Mon movie, I couldn't resist making an animation with the SN 1987a images. Enjoy!

CREDIT: Nasa, ESA, P. Challis & R. Kirshner. Animation: Stuart, Astronomy Blog

Check out the press release for the full details of the images.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 22nd Feb 2007 (19:55 CET) | Permalink

Rosetta to pass Mars

ESA's Rosetta spacecraft launched back in 2004 on its 10 year mission to seek out comet Comet 67 P/Churyumov- Gerasimenko and touch down a small lander on the comet's nucleus. Rosetta's total journey length will be a whopping 7,000,000,000 km because it has to undergo several flybys of the Earth and Mars which help boost its velocity enough for it to get to the comet. This Sunday - 25th February - Rosetta will pass Mars, getting another gravity assist. The spacecraft will also make some limited observations of the red planet as it goes by.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 21st Feb 2007 (20:37 CET) | Permalink

Protecting the spectrum

Many people are aware of the problem that light pollution causes for astronomers. What most people are unaware of is the growing threat to radio astronomy from radio pollution. By radio pollution I mean interfering signals from devices such as mobile phones, TV, CCTV, internet over power lines, wifi, microwave ovens etc. With the attraction to the UK government of selling the radio spectrum, and future technologies such as Ultra-Wide Band (UWB), this problem will only get worse (and could be a problem for others too). This is especially true in the UK where there just isn't space to set aside 13,000 square miles of countryside as a radio quiet zone like they do at the Greenbank Telescope in the US.

I've talked about the threats of UWB before. I've only just noticed that the government Office of Communications (Ofcom) website now contains a 2005 report on the impact of UWB (PDF) on radio astronomy. It reports on a study of the likely impact of UWB on astronomical observations with single radio dishes and with interferometer networks such as MERLIN. There were six responses quoted in the Ofcom consultation document. Five large companies with an interest in UWB technology (Freescale semiconductors, Intel, Texas Instruments, Thales and Philips) all, unsurprisingly, claimed that there wouldn't be a problem.

The report suggests ways for radio astronomers to cope with UWB. These include: a more controlled specification for UWB transmissions (good for astronomers but slightly more effort for the big companies), building huge fencing around radio telescopes (totally impractical and expensive), observing at night (reducing the ability to participate in international observations and observe transient objects) to hugely expensive and ridiculous ideas such as suggesting that current radio telescopes be moved a long way from populated areas (future radio telescopes will be a long way from civilization). The last response was from the UK radio astronomy community (including the late Jim Cohen no doubt) and the Royal Astronomical Society and nicely summaries by saying:

The suggestion of relocation of [radio astronomical] facilities is not realistic as the cost will be in excess of £100M. The suggestion of perimeter fences is also not realistic given that there are 6 sites to be protected to distances of the order of 10 km. The suggestion of restricting observations to periods of low activity will devalue the scientific programmes, which are undertaken 24 hr per day and 7 days a week. There is no understanding of the diversity of radioastronomy techniques, not all of which involve time averaging over long periods.

So what will happen? I suspect that big commercial interests may win in the end. Personally, I would prefer the narrow radio astronomy bands to be protected for passive use by anyone. I see this as equivalent to the way that we protect certain areas of our countryside as national parks for the quiet enjoyment of all.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 21st Feb 2007 (01:00 CET) | Permalink

Blast Off!

If you haven't seen it already, Dave Pearson has a fantastic video clip of the rebirth of the British Space Programme. OK so it isn't really a Space Shuttle but in fact a Reliant Robin (chosen because "it's a bit pointy at the front") strapped to a rocket but it does look remarkably like the NASA version. It is truly inspired.

The clip comes from the BBC TV programme called Top Gear which is supposedly about cars but over recent years has taken to doing crazy stunts like this. This project was apparently done in collaboration with the University of West of England and RocketMen Ltd who were bribed with "the promise of unlimited tea". The finished rocket is surprisingly big and had eight tonnes of thrust. Apparently that makes it the largest non-commercial rocket launch in Europe.

Note: It is probably best to watch the clip ASAP before it gets removed from the interwebs.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 20th Feb 2007 (23:47 CET) | Permalink

Star brightens in Scorpius

Ian Musgrave reports (via the AAVSO) that a star has brightened in the constellation of Scorpius. Over the past 12 days since its discovery by Japanese astronomes, this nova named V1280 SCO has brightened from 9th magnitude (need good binoculars or a small telescope) to 3rd magnitude (can be seen by eye from rural and suburban areas). Translating from astronomer to English, that works out as an increase in brightness of around a factor 250 which is pretty impressive. The result is that you should now be able to see this star by eye and in fact Ian has already taken its picture with a digital camera. If you want to have a look yourself you'll have to be up bright and early - from about 6am in Europe - as Scorpius is a morning constellation at the moment. From Europe you'll have to look very low in the southern sky to see it so you'll be looking through lots of turbulent atmosphere and probably not get a great view. For finding charts check out the AAVSO chart, Ian's chart for the southern hemisphere or Phil Plait's chart for the northern hemisphere.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 18th Feb 2007 (13:27 CET) | Permalink

Night Sky magazine stops

A couple of years ago the people behind Sky and Telescope launched Night Sky magazine to cater for the total beginner to astronomy. It was a good idea and by all accounts was well executed. The only problem seems to have been sales, or rather the lack of sales. The lack of profitability has forced the company that publishes the magazine to discontinue it from the March/April 2007 issue - the current one. You can still order back issues from their website but no new issues will be published. Apparently Sky and Telescope plan to include a few more articles and features aimed at beginners though.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 16th Feb 2007 (13:39 CET) | Permalink

Lonely Planet: Mars

Last year I visited some far off countries and was helped along the way by some Lonely Planet guide books. One thing I thought of one night in New Zealand was the idea of a Lonely Planet guidebook for Mars. OK, Mars doesn't have much in the way of night life or restaurants but it definitely has some potential tourist attractions and amazing sights to see. My plan feels as though it is a step closer now that the European Space Agency's Mars Express has released the first "hiking maps" of Mars. They aren't quite up to the standards of a good Ordnance Survey map yet and they are only on a scale of 1:200,000 wtihout many contours shown, so I won't be using them to plan a walking route just yet. It is a good start though.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 12th Feb 2007 (22:49 GMT) | Permalink

Harry Potter and the Telescopes of Doom

You'll have guessed from the title that this post is about Harry Potter but it is also about astronomy so bear with me. Unless you've been living in a mine for the past month, you will be well aware that the seventh and final book in the Harry Potter series is due out on 21st July 2007. The online book sellers have gone crazy taking pre-orders even before the release date was announced.

So what has this to do with astronomy? Well, following some inflatable planetarium shows a couple of years ago, we started to realise that Harry Potter contains quite a few references to stars and constellations. For instance Andromeda Tonks, Regulus Black, Draco Malfoy and Bellatrix LeStrange. Perhaps the most obvious is Sirius Black who appropriately, given that Sirius is the dog star and part of Canis Major - the Big Dog - can turn into a large dog. That was about as much excuse as we needed at Jodrell Bank Observatory to organise a Harry Potter book six star party back in 2005. That was lots of fun so we are doing the same for the launch of book seven.

In 2005 we had a magical evening that started at 9pm with all arrivals being sorted into the four houses of Aquila, Delphinus, Lepus and Cygnus. Of course they aren't the same as those at Hogwarts but then Jodrell Bank Observatory isn't Hogwarts. Once sorted, house prefects (Jodrell Bank PhD and MSc students) took the new students to an outside star talk, a planetarium show, a 3D trip to Mars, wand and hat making, and let them look through real telescopes at the night sky. Oh and of course people were able to pick up their new books at 1 minute past midnight too. It was something a bit different to the standard star party with wizards and witches of all ages wandering around learning a bit of astronomy at the same time. We even filled the 42ft radio telescope with green smoke, making it look a bit like a cauldron.

Hopefully this year will be even better. I'm looking forward to it already.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 12th Feb 2007 (15:42 GMT) | Permalink

Astrofest 2007

The last two days have been hectic. On Friday and Saturday I attended European Astrofest 2007 at Kensington Town Hall in London. Astrofest brings together amateur astronomers, telescope retailers and manufacturers, universities/science centres, the British Astronomical Association, the Society for Popular Astronomy and many others for everything astronomical. As well as displays from all of the above, there were also a lot of talks by astronomers and space scientists.

I think the busiest talk was "An Audience with Patrick Moore (the one and only), Brian May (of band Queen) and Chris Lintott (Sky at Night)" who co-authored the book Bang! I couldn't attend partly because I was supposed to be working on a stand but also because I couldn't get a ticket; they had sold out. Patrick, Brian and Chris were definitely the astro-celebs of the event with security put on especially for them (or at least for Brian May). At the end of Saturday I saw Brian walking around the telescope stands with his entourage. On the off chance I asked his PA if I could talk to him for a minute or two (literally), for the Jodcast, but apparently he was too busy. Ahh well, the busy life of a celebrity. Personally, I found the whole celebrity thing a bit odd having never really experienced it in astronomy before. Perhaps I lead a sheltered life!

The best thing about Astrofest, in my mind, is meeting up with people that you know but might never have met in person before. I kept spotting people I know from different places such as astronomical societies, weblogs and various university groups. I even found two people who have actually listened to the Jodcast! On Friday lunchtime I bumped into Will Gater who is linked to in my side bar. The only reason I spotted him is because he had a name badge on and I thought I vaguely recognised him from his website. At the end of the day we caught up again and he pointed me to his fantastic new stacked images of Saturn. Will seems to be a very busy person helping out with Astrofest, writing for AstronomyNow magazine and getting ready for his impending finals. Good luck with those Will.

Having bumped into so many people it did feel as if the entire UK amateur astronomy community was there. I even discovered that one of my comment spammers (Kevin Wilson) was there telling people about his supermassive blackhole theories.

Hopefully, I'll see everyone again at Astrofest next year.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 11th Feb 2007 (18:54 GMT) | Permalink

See Mercury

I've seen Mercury a few times over the past week in the early evening. It is really nice to see and easy to spot as Venus is doing a good job of showing where to look. StarDate have two podcast episodes, one covering Mercury in the Evening (MP3: 1.0 MB) and the other covers all three of the current evening planets (MP3: 1.0 MB) - Venus, Mercury and Uranus. On Thursday evening Venus and Uranus will be separated by less than a finger width at arm's length according to StarDate, although you'll need good binoculars or a telescope to see it.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 07th Feb 2007 (15:12 GMT) | Permalink

UK Research Council Changes

In the UK, the Government body which deals with astronomy and space science is the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC). Well it was, but following a decision by the government's Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), this role will soon be taken into the newly emerging Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). This new body is being formed from PPARC, the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils (CCLRC) and the nuclear physics bit of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Apart from all the acronyms changing, what does it mean? Well, according to the DTI, it will

increase the competitiveness and the scientific and economic impact of UK science by funding the best research within its grant-giving remit, by enabling the research community to have access to the best facilities in the world, by exerting greater leadership and leverage in the development and implementation of strategies for large research facilities and by increasing the UK technology capability, engagement with industry and knowledge transfer

Sounds good. Will they pull it off? Possibly. Will it result in more funding? Well, the claim is that the funding levels for the next financial year will remain equal to the sum of the parts, but of course future funding could go up or down (possibly down if the Treasury are involved). What I haven't worked out is if, in practice, particular research areas will lose out to more flashy or flavour-of-the-month-with-the-government projects. Also, will the new council be orientated towards huge projects at the expense of smaller ones? Will it have the same commitment to explaining its science (education and engagement) as the existing councils do? I really hope so.

At least the new research council won't be embarrassed if their acronym is reversed, unlike PPARC.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 07th Feb 2007 (11:24 GMT) | Permalink

Lights Fantastic

Via Ian I saw a truly fantastic panorama showing Comet McNaught, some Australia Day fireworks and some impressive lightning. What more could you possibly want in a single image? The photographer is Antti Kemppainen.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 07th Feb 2007 (10:03 GMT) | Permalink

Planck in the news

If things go roughly to plan, the European Space Agency's Planck spacecraft should launch next year to observe the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation that comes from a time about 300,000 years or so after the big bang. Planck will take lots of very detailed measurements of the properties of the CMB to find out as much as possible about the universe at that time. It follows in the footsteps of the excellent COBE and WMAP missions.

Back in November/December, the two halves of the spacecraft - the low and high frequency instruments - were both brought together at a facility in Cannes (France). The Low Frequency Instrument (LFI) consists of radio receivers that work at 30, 44 and 70 GHz and these are arranged in a ring with a central hole. The High Frequency Instrument (HFI) consists of lots of bolometric detectors (basically really good thermometers) that detect microwaves at a range of frequencies between 100 and 857 GHz. Combining the results from both instruments is necessary to work out what is being observed (our galaxy gets in the way and its contribution has to be accounted for). The HFI is pretty compact and it actually slots really neatly into the doughnut hole in the middle of the LFI. So, the process of putting the bits together takes a lot of care and time and has nearly finished. Once that is done, the whole lot will be cooled down to very low temperatures for testing to check that everything still works as expected.

I'll point out my bias here as my job is involved with the Planck project.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 05th Feb 2007 (11:04 GMT) | Permalink

Mercury, Venus and the Moon

Earlier I had a really fantastic hour or so outside looking at the sky. I hadn't really planned to do any observing but it was pretty clear and Megan said she was going to look for Mercury. Seeing Mercury by eye is not the easiest thing to do because it stays close to the Sun and therefore the sky is usually still quite bright when you look for it. For reasons of timing and weather I have only spotted Mercury by eye from Manchester and Poland a couple of times. Last year, on holiday, I totally failed to see it due to an annoying band of cloud hugging the western horizon. Tonight, with what seems like the first properly clear night this year, I spotted it again. I didn't have my camera so I don't have a picture for you. However, it is currently quite easy to find from northern latitudes so if you get a chance over the weekend, look out for it. First, after sunset, locate the extremely bright Venus which is gracing our western skies in the early evening. Once you've got that, go down and to the right of that by a few degrees (probably about a hand's width or so) towards where the Sun had set (follow Ian's directions if you are in the southern hemisphere). You may not spot it at first but keep looking as it gets darker.

Turning around by 180 degrees I also saw the full Moon rising over in the eastern sky looking very orange as it rose up through the murk (it is back to its normal colour as I look out of my window now). Just seeing these objects by eye is fantastic enough for me, but some of my friends had small telescopes and binoculars handy so we had a look with those too. In a small diameter telescope, Mercury and Venus don't look like they do in Hubble Space Telescope pictures, but the Moon sure does look spectacular. Seeing craters such as Tycho with its rays of ejecta and mountains on the edge of the Moon is just great. I also got a look at the Pleiades and the Orion Nebula too before we all got too cold and came inside. I must get myself some gloves and thick socks for these unexpected observing sessions. I'm thawing out but happy.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 02nd Feb 2007 (19:42 GMT) | Permalink

Another month another Jodcast

Once again the great beast that is the Jodcast has finally come together despite some last minute issues. To start off the February show we have a nice bit of history with Sir Bernard Lovell talking about the origins of the MKI telescope at Jodrell Bank (later to be named the Lovell Telescope). He is in his 90s now and I'm really impressed by how on the ball he is. Following that we have a chat to Chris Davis who is on the UK team for NASA's STEREO mission to observe the Sun in three dimensions. Apart from it being recently launched and therefore quite exciting, talking about the Sun is also a good way to start (I know it is February!) International Heliophysical Year. There is also an interview about ultraviolet astronomy from the Moon. If that isn't enough, there are the usual Ask an Astronomer, news, astronomy podcast round-up and night sky segments too. Having got all that together, I'm pretty shattered. I hope someone enjoys it.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 01st Feb 2007 (23:40 GMT) | Permalink
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