What would you do with £250M?

Each year the UK roughly spends around £250 million (roughly USD 500 million at today's exchange rates) on space and astronomy research. That may seem like a lot but compared to NASA's budget (about USD 16 billion) it is tiny. With relatively limited funds, the UK has mostly focussed on astronomy and instrumentation rather than full-on space programmes and human spaceflight. The debate over human spaceflight has been reopened in recent years when we were presented with the opportunity to join the European Space Agency's (ESA) Aurora Programme.

If you live near Oxford, next Wednesday is your chance to join in a debate about how best to spend our money. The experts taking part include Ken Pounds (an astronomer and space physicist), Mike Hapgood (member of Rutherford Appleton Labs Space Plasmas group) and Chris Lintott (Sky At Night presenter and astrophysicist). Tickets cost £3.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 30th Jun 2007 (13:37 BST) | Permalink

Summer Solstice 2007

I've been a bit busy over the past few days at an interesting meeting in France. I managed to totally miss the occultation of Venus by the Moon the other day due to being in a meeting (it was cloudy so I wouldn't have seen it anyway). However, Will Gater caught it and Ian has photos of Venus near to the Moon in the daytime sky.

In other news, today at 18:06 UT sees the summer solstice. Solstice comes from the Latin words sol (Sun) and sistere (to stand still) and is the time when the Sun reaches its furthest north (northern hemisphere summer) or south (northern hemisphere winter). This is all down to the tilt of the Earth's axis and its orbit around the Sun.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 21st Jun 2007 (08:22 BST) | Permalink

Moon Live NOW!

Just quick post to say that the Moon bounce is happening now! I'm keeping the Internet up-to-date via Twitter. It is very exciting.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 17th Jun 2007 (14:31 BST) | Permalink

Bounced from the Moon

Wow! I am really happy right now because of a great experience I had an hour or so ago. While setting up all the kit for the Moon Bounce Poem tomorrow and testing it, I got my voice bounced from the Moon and back to Earth. When I say my voice, it wasn't via sound waves. My voice was turned into radio waves and transmitted at the Moon. Some of those radio waves were reflected back towards Earth and picked up by the giant Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory where they were converted back into an audio signal. The round trip took about 2 and a half seconds.

I actually didn't know I was going to be able to say anything so I didn't have anything planned for such an amazing occasion. On the spot, I had to come up with something short. So what great insightful thing did I say? Why, "Hello Earth" of course. A second or so later the faint echo came back through the PA system. It was fantastic to think that my voice, if not me, had gone to the Moon and back. That is probably the closest I'll get to going there. I'm still buzzing.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 16th Jun 2007 (19:11 BST) | Permalink

Saving time

Over at Orbiting Frog, Rob talks about relativity and the Universe's insistence that time runs more slowly for objects that are moving quickly relative to an observer at rest. The effect is tiny for the speeds humans travel at and is really only significant as you start to get close to the speed of light (which, incidentally, we haven't got anywhere close to with passenger transport). Anyway, Rob has built a calculator so that you can work out just how much younger you are, due to flights and cross-country road trips, than you would have been if you had stayed at home. The difference is measured in nanoseconds (billionths of a second), so don't expect this to be marketed as a serious anti-ageing solution.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 14th Jun 2007 (12:19 BST) | Permalink

Live Astronomer Blogging!

Check out Chris Lintott's site for live astronomer blogging from Mauna Kea.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 13th Jun 2007 (11:05 BST) | Permalink

Moon madness

Here in the UK the media seems to be getting slightly obsessed with the Moon this week following the announcement by Sussex police that they are going to deploy more police officers on the streets of Brighton during full moon (via DaveP). Apparently, Inspector Andy Parr compared crime statistics with the Moon's position to discover the alleged link which is attributed to ambient light levels. With the council of the Swedish town of Övertorneå claiming that (Update: 11/6/2007)Robert of Apparent Brightness claiming that - in the case of the Swedish town of Övertorneå - darkness prevents crime (via Apparent Brightness) this may not appear too crazy. However - and this is the important bit - a previous 15 month study in Florida has shown no evidence for a link between crime and the full moon but did show a link with higher ambient temperatures.

So have the Sussex police done a long enough study and tested alternative hypotheses? In fact, do their data even support the conclusion that is being reported? The only data I've seen were on the BBC video clip (see BBC website) so I've tried to reconstruct the plot here. I have kept as true to the original as I can although I had to create a label for the x-axis, complete the text labels for the data series using my own judgement and guess the very last data point as the BBC clip doesn't show those too well.

Dont have nightmares
This is a reconstruction of a plot created by Sussex police as shown on a BBC news video clip on 6th June this year. The year in question may not have been 2006-7 (that is my guess from the context of the clip). Where were you during this year? If you know the whereabouts of the real data, please report it below. And remember, don't have nightmares. CREDIT: Reconstruction by Stuart
What I noticed, while making this plot, is that the "Full Moon" data are quite strange and I'm not really sure I understand why they are not regular around week 13 or week 47. You should also notice that there is a distinct lack of correlation between the full moon and the incidences of crime.

From a statistical point of view the numbers in a particular week are quite low, so the statistical uncertainty in a particular week is quite large (say 25% of the value). If you overlay these uncertainties on the plot you realise that the data are very "noisy"; the only things my eye can pick out are the large increases in weeks 23 and week 31 (did particular events, football matches or summer festivals happen then?) and a possible long term variation. However even this long-term variation - which has a lower reduced chi-squared (6.9) than a 4 week cycle (11.7) - may be due to an increase in or change in policing during the second half of the year. Either way, I don't think a link with the lunar cycle is very valid and certainly not enough to make a change in policy over. I wonder what the folks over at the AstroStat Slog would make of this.

What this report highlights is the popular view that there is a link between the Moon and human behaviour despite there being no evidence for it.

On the other side of the coin, some people aren't too convinced by the real gravitational effects of the Moon; in the BBC clip one of the members of the public said "you hear all sorts of things from everywhere that somehow there's a link - something to do with gravity and magnetic fields - and I don't know if I believe that but I'll keep an open mind". Did he not learn at school about the differential gravitational pull of the Moon shifting large amounts of water every day? The Moon certainly does have an effect on the oceans and people in Brighton should realise that.

This wasn't the only story about lunar influence this week though. Via Cimateer I see that yesterday's Times are reporting that the Moon has a warming effect on the Earth. The article by Paul Simons claims that weather patterns can be linked to the position of the Moon. I've already mentioned that the tides are caused by the Moon, so it is reasonable to assume that tides are generated in our atmosphere too (although solar heating is the dominant driver) and that will affect the weather. However, the article builds up to a study that says "the daily range rises slightly towards full moon, and falls to its lowest at new moon, a difference of up to 0.3C (0.5F)". The article goes on to state that "one explanation is that moonlight can warm the Earth slightly at full moon, although only at night, of course". I can see how reflected sunlight from the Moon could (ever so slightly) warm the Earth but does Mr Simons really think this would only happen at night? The Moon can be visible during the day too!

Anyway, the Moon isn't very reflective (although it is more reflective at infra-red wavelengths) and a full moon is around 465,000 times less bright than a sunny day. So, I'm not convinced that it can do enough to raise/lower the temperatures on Earth by as much as 0.3C. My last complaint about the article is that it is phrased such that people may think that this is relevant to the issue of climate change. The article's title is the main culprit - it could equally have been titled "New moon has a cooling effect on Earth" - and that may be the fault of a copy editor rather than the reporter. So to clarify, this isn't relevant to climate change, because the Moon has a monthly cycle so any effects average out to nothing.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 10th Jun 2007 (14:54 BST) | Permalink

ISS and STS-117

The Space Shuttle is due to launch tomorrow night at 23:38 GMT. This is mission STS-117 which plans to install a new truss and solar panels on the International Space Station (ISS). From the UK we can actually see some ISS passes over the next few days, so on Saturday night/early Sunday morning it may be possible to see both the ISS and Space Shuttle. I'm not sure how far apart they will appear on the sky but the Shuttle is due to dock on Sunday night at 19:36 GMT. Check out Heavens Above (select your country, enter the nearest town, then click on the "10 day predictions ISS" link) to find out where and when to look from your location. The ISS usually takes a few minutes to travel across the sky from the west to the east and Heavens Above is usually spot on with the time. I now have my fingers crossed for clear weather over the weekend.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 07th Jun 2007 (17:29 BST) | Permalink

Ha ha he he

Does anyone out there in Internet-land have any funny astronomy jokes? In fact, is it even possible to have funny astronomy jokes? The best I've heard so far is via Megan and goes:

A spiral galaxy walked into a bar. The barman said "Oi! Get out. You're barred".

It is much better than most I've heard but could you do better? I would like to use some astronomy jokes on a future mid-month Jodcast, so if you have any you would like to contribute, please add them here.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 06th Jun 2007 (19:03 BST) | Permalink

The Sun is brilliant!

This afternoon was nice and sunny so I took the solar telescope (a Coronado PST) outside to show a few people our nearest star in a safe way. It can be very dangerous to look directly at the Sun, but the PST takes away nearly all the light from the Sun except for the particular type of red light caused by hydrogen atoms on the surface of the Sun. I say red although one little girl this afternoon decided she thought it was more pink, but she was wearing a pink dress so may have been a little biased! Anyway, this red light lets you see the sunspots quite well and I was able to admire sunspot group 0960 near the limb of the Sun. On the opposite side of the Sun there were a few small prominences visible too.

I had a great time showing people the Sun, explaining what sunspots were, how big they are (you could fit the Earth into one of them) and other related stuff. Although not everyone could focus their eyes on the sunspots or flares, most people were amazed to see the Sun with their own eyes in this way. One lady even turned to her friend and said "the Sun is brilliant - literally". I really like responses like that.

We often take our nearest star for granted. Hopefully, some people today took some time to think about just how amazing and brilliant our Sun really is.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 02nd Jun 2007 (18:01 BST) | Permalink

Living Space

It may not be the done thing for astronomy podcasters to promote other podcasts, but I see it as my public service remit to do so (if only I had the benefit of a license fee). Anyway, there is a new weekly astronomy podcast on the block called LivingSpace which should not be confused with California-based indie band of the same name (managed by Dark Matter Productions). All name disputes aside, the podcast is brought to you by Harriet Scott (who presents the breakfast show on London's HeartFM) and Chris Lintott who will be familiar to those who've seen the Sky At Night. The first episode was released a few hours ago.

It is very much in the style of a 'proper' radio programme and presumably benefits from the studios at HeartFM or the BBC. It is quick-paced and packed with a variety of stuff and wouldn't be too out of place on a radio station. It even comes in at just under 30 minutes long, so if it isn't already being used on a radio station I expect that Harriet and Chris might be looking to that for the future. It is a good half hour show and my only complaint (apart from the feed giving me trouble with the AMP) is that I must be getting old (or a bit deaf) because the background music was slightly distracting at times. Anyway, check it out.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 01st Jun 2007 (21:31 BST) | Permalink

Altair

Via Fraser Cain at Universe Today, I've been reading a US National Science Foundation (NSF) press release about imaging the surface of a star. The star in question is Altair which is part of the Summer Triangle. Altair is a bit shy of twice the mass of our Sun, is about 10 times as luminous and rotates about three times per Earth day rather than our Sun's leisurely 25-30 day rotation rate. This rapid rotation means that the star is pretty oblate.

Altair
Aritists impression of Altair (left) based on the actual interferometric image of Altair (right). CREDIT: Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation and Ming Zhao (University of Michigan)
The right-hand image shows the actual observation whereas the left-hand image shows an artist's impression of it complete with fuzzy atmosphere. For me the right hand image - with it's lines of latitude and longitude - really shows that Altair is a flattened ball rather than egg-shaped. I have included both here to show the real data along with the pretty picture that is likely to be used by the news media. With these things, I always worry that newspapers will include the artist's impression with a caption implying that it is a photograph. Mind you, even Georgia State University can't get that right so I won't hold out much hope for the press.

The observations were made at infra-red wavelengths using an interferometric system on top of Mt Wilson in California. This technique connects the output of several telescopes and allows astronomers to simulate the effect of having a telescope as large as the distance between the telescopes. This only helps in resolution (the sharpness of the image) and doesn't help with sensitivity (the gray scales), but for a bright star like Altair it does the job. Radio astronomers have been using this technique for years to simulate radio telescopes the size of the planet Earth, so it is good to see it being used for other wavelengths.

There is a site with supporting material which links to more images and the Science paper.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 01st Jun 2007 (13:18 BST) | Permalink
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