Science and Science Fiction

News in Space have a rather large video podcast filmed at Toronoto's Polaris 21 sci-fi convention. The episode is titled Of Klingons and Quasars (MP3: 122.5 MB!) and features short interviews with Ron Glass from Firefly, Steve Bacic from Andromeda, and Torri Higginson from Stargate: Atlantis. Torri Higginson talks about science echoing science-fiction with the 3D printers that are being developed. Still, I think replicating a bottle of wine is a long way off yet.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 31st Jul 2007 (14:21 PDT) | Permalink

Space Age at 50

Almost 50 years ago, on October 4th 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial Earth satellite. That was Sputnik 1 and its "beep-beep-beep" signalled the start of the Space Age. There are celebrations of the past 50 years in space happening all around the world. In the UK you can keep track of events happening near you via the Space50 website.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 30th Jul 2007 (09:58 PDT) | Permalink

Smoky Moon

Moon through smoke
The Moon seen through smoke from a nearby forest fire. CREDIT: Stuart
About two years ago I posted a picture of a rather orange looking Moon with an explanation of why this happens. I pointed out that the Moon would look more orange if there was more dust or pollution in the air. Now, I've finally got chance to see my comments in action.

Today, a month-old fire in the Los Padres National Forest flared up and caused rather a lot of smoke to head out towards the coast. That has coincided with an almost full Moon.

If you see the Moon through a big black rain cloud, the Moon doesn't tend to be reddened. However, a black cloud of smoke does redden the Moon. That is because the particles in the smoke cloud are the right sort of size to scatter out the blue light much more than the red light. The result is rather pretty and a nice demonstration of Rayleigh scattering.

Moon through smoke
The Moon seen through a cloud of smoke, Santa Barbara, California. Six second exposure. CREDIT: Stuart

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 28th Jul 2007 (22:10 PDT) | Permalink

Pot luck

I am currently sat in one of the departures lounges at Las Vegas airport with a view of the big casino buildings that I presume make up the main strip. I can see a big pyramid-shaped building emitting a beam of light out of the top into the night sky. Considering all the neon lights, the light pollution doesn't seem too bad actually. Certainly a lot less than Manchester!

Las Vegas seems to be surrounded by desert and mountains and looks totally random from the air. It has the feeling that it has been partly imposed on the landscape as if it has just landed from outer space. Of course, when I set off this morning I had no idea I would now be sat in Las Vegas; my flights got rescheduled and changed on transit so here I am.

What I have learnt today is that the service with US Airways is pretty variable. My best experience was being upgraded to business class for the trans-Atlantic leg but things took a turn for the worse at Chicago when I was taken off a plane (after having taken my seat!) for no apparent reason other than they had over booked the plane. They actually replaced me with a standby person to add insult to the extra few hours sat in a departures lounge with no US dollars. Why will no cash machines (ATMs) give me any money? Luckily the nice US Airways ladies at Las Vegas took pity on me and gave me a meal voucher so at least I could get something to eat.

I now understand why the US immigration official said "good luck" to me when he gave me my passport back.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 25th Jul 2007 (21:04 PDT) | Permalink

Firefox in space

It has previously been pointed out that the light echo around variable star V838 Mon looks a little like the Firefox web browser logo. I've just been looking at a picture of SH2-188 and realised that it too vaguely resembles the Firefox logo. Add to that the Firefox crop circles and the Universe obviously has a web browser preference!

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 22nd Jul 2007 (14:40 BST) | Permalink

The Jodcast and the Chamber of Anti-science

You might have realised that I've been in Harry Potter mode for the past couple of weeks preparing for the fantastic Harry Potter Star Party. That has spilled over into the Jodcast and the July Extra show (released a tad late) has another Harry Potter-themed intro and outro. This time it includes the great Phil Plait as an auror who helps fight against the bad astronomy of Baron Deathmortes and his followers. I was amazingly thrilled when Phil actually agreed to record his lines for us as he is an "internet celebrity" and busy writing his next book.

The bulk of the show is given over to the study of white dwarfs and the search for planetary companions to them with Gemini and the VLT.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 22nd Jul 2007 (13:42 BST) | Permalink

Stellarium 0.9.0

With all the other things I've been up to, I missed the latest release of Stellarium - the excellent, free planetarium program - back in June. It now has a larger star catalogue, more sky cultures with constellation art, more projections, some improved landscape options, and the ability to add comet orbits. Check it out.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 22nd Jul 2007 (13:22 BST) | Permalink

Harry Potter star party - the result

On Friday night, Jodrell Bank Observatory was turned into Jodrell Bank School of Astronomy & Astrophysics for the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Around 120 people turned up to enrol as students for the night. On arrival everyone was sorted into one of the four houses by a sorting hat which actually spoke. The four houses were all animal constellations visible from the northern hemisphere and everyone was given a house badge.

House Logos
The four house logos for the Jodrell Bank Harry Potter book launch night 20/7/2007 CREDIT: Stuart and constellation images from the excellent Stellarium.
Once sorted, house prefects (PhD students and astronomy postdocs) took the four houses to their different activities which included a 3D trip to Mars, a planetarium show, an astronomy lecture and a chance to make wands and wizard hats. The event was billed as a star party and there would have been a chance to look through telescopes too if the rain had given us a chance. At least we weren't flooded like many other places in the north of England.

I wanted to make sure that the event had the right atmosphere so there were some other special touches. The driveway was lined with flags in the house colours, floating candles (unlit for health and safety reasons) were in the great hall, there were animated paintings with the subjects walking between them, and all the staff were dressed in robes (which took a few of us quite a while to sew together). We also had a few broomsticks (made with twigs and branches collected from the arboretum) for good measure.

Around midnight we had a webcast from J.K. Rowling via the Bloomsbury website although it started late and I ended up effectively being the warm up guy for JK! At 00:01 BST the book went on sale and those that had ordered them from us were able to pick them up.

Throughout the evening we also had a guy from the Daily Prophet - alternatively known as Granada Reports - who did some filming for Saturday's evening news report on ITV1 (available until next Saturday online). It was the first time I have ever been interviewed for TV and I also had to do a set piece to the camera. I am happy to say that I didn't fluff my lines, although the reporter needed quite a few takes partly because he kept saying astrology rather than astronomy! I really like the fact that an astronomical observatory got the Harry Potter slot rather than the supermarkets or big book sellers. We were certainly more exciting.

As far as I can tell (I haven't read the feedback forms yet) I think everyone had a good night. I know I did. If you have any Harry Potter star party or sidewalk astronomy stories, let me know in the comments below.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 22nd Jul 2007 (13:12 BST) | Permalink

Phase of Venus animation

Like the Moon, the planets Venus and Mercury can both appear in crescent phases. As Venus is a bit nearer to us than Mercury, our sister planet's phases are easiest to see with a small telescope. In fact this was one of the observations made by Galileo almost 400 years ago and was a good piece of evidence to show that Venus orbits the Sun between the Earth and the Sun. Ian Musgrave has been putting together images of Venus that he took between 11 February 2006 and 26 June 2006 into an animation (450 kB GIF). What you can see is both the changing phase and the changing angular size as it moves further from us. Check it out.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 20th Jul 2007 (11:06 BST) | Permalink

Carnival of Space #12

Go over to Music of the Spheres and check out the galaxy-themed Carnival of Space #12.

As I have been a bit too busy to write 'proper' posts recently, I have been posting short updates to Twitter much more. By the way, for those reading this via the website (rather than in a feed reader), I would be grateful if you could tell me if you can see the Astronomy Blog Bitesize entries to the right. It should show the last few tweets to but I'm not sure that it works in all browsers.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 19th Jul 2007 (13:44 BST) | Permalink

We're all going to the zoo

Due to some international travel and meetings on my part, I haven't managed to write properly (rather than just twittering) about the Galaxy Zoo until now. So, you may already have heard about it via Dave P, Phil Plait or Risa at Cosmic Variance. The Galaxy Zoo is a project to harness human brain-power to classify a million galaxies, imaged in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, as either elliptical or spiral. One of the people behind it is Chris Lintott of Sky At Night fame and who is also an astronomer at Oxford University.

Not having actually used the system yet (I will play with it when I have spare time at some point in the next week or so) I had a few questions, and Chris Lintott was great in being able to answer them quickly for me. Reading that there would be "Elliptical" and "Spiral" galaxy categories for sorting, I wondered what would happen if the user was presented with an irregular galaxy. Chris tells me that there is also a "Don't know" button, so that neatly deals with those and presumably also merging galaxies and any other odd stuff. Another concern I had was about deliberate attempts to distort the statistics by malicious users. I hasten to add that I wouldn't expect this to be much of a problem, but it has to be thought about if astronomers are to trust the results. To deal with this, galaxy images will be served to several different users for classification and people providing mis-classifications will be identified. I'm sure that there will be other checks in place too. Stardust@Home inserted pre-classified dust grain images at random intervals to test that users weren't trying to "cheat".

From reports by Phil Plait and Risa, it sounds as though the user interface is pretty slick, so if you have spare time, and want to help out with some professional research, go along to the Zoo and help out. Anyway, I had better get back to my meetings.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 12th Jul 2007 (15:50 CEDT) | Permalink

Harry Potter and the Book 7 Star Party

I've been pretty quiet on the blog over the last few weeks due, in part, to work but also due to the preparations for the Harry Potter Star Party that I'm organising at the Jodrell Bank Observatory Visitor Centre on Friday 20th July. So what has Harry Potter got to do with astronomy I hear you ask? Well, there is a surprising amount of astronomy tucked away in the septology. Although some of it isn't totally correct, it is a great starting point. Plus, collecting a copy of the latest book gives a good excuse for families to go to a star party in the middle of the night. Not that they should need an excuse, but it certainly helps.

So what's happening? Well, we plan to have an entire Potter themed night as we did for Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince leading up to the release of the book at 00:01 on Saturday 21st July. Visitors will be arriving at around 9pm (before sunset) and will be sorted by the Sorting Hat on arrival. The guests will be sorted into the four houses of Jodrell Bank School of Astronomy & Astrophysics. The houses are all based on non-zodiacal constellations visible in the northern hemisphere and are: Aquila (the Eagle), Delphinus (the Dolphin), Lepus (the Hare) and Cygnus (the Swan). After sorting, house prefects will take the four houses to their lessons. We have an astronomy talk, a planetarium show (that may talk about the mysterious initials R.A.B. from book 6 and what they have to do with the night sky), a 3D journey to Mars, telescopes to look at stars (weather permitting), and a chance to make wands, planispheres and wizard's hats. Food will also be available at our own Leaky Cauldron. The night finishes after midnight with the chance to pick up a copy of the last book in the series: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

For a good party I think it is important to have the right atmosphere. So staff and prefects will be dressed in Harry Potter-style robes (I am making these with the aid of my excellent helpers), the driveway will be lined with flags and there will be some other special touches too, if I can pull them off. Tickets are on sale and there are still some (but not many) left due to cancellations. Tickets are very reasonably priced at £6 for adults and £5 for children and that includes refreshments. Call the Visitor Centre on 01477 571339 to book a ticket. It should be fun!

Looking around the internet I see this isn't quite the only astronomy themed Harry Potter book launch. In Burbank, California there are plans to do some sidewalk astronomy outside book shops.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 10th Jul 2007 (20:05 BST) | Permalink

Sky lights

With nothing but cloud and rain for the past week or two, I've not had much chance to see anything in the sky. Last night I just about caught the Moon through a very small gap in the clouds but didn't stand a chance of seeing the conjunction of Saturn and Venus. So I turned to the blogosphere and it got me thinking about faint glows in the sky.

On Friday Tom showed a great image of noctilucent clouds which I now have as my desktop wallpaper. Noctilucent clouds are sometimes visible at night during the summer months between latitudes of 50-70 degrees (north or south). They appear to be very high altitude clouds of water vapour that are so high (about 85km) that they are illuminated by the Sun even though it is below the horizon as seen from the ground. They are pretty faint and are not really that well understood.

Another glow that affects astronomers is the zodiacal light. This light is brighter nearer the Sun and seems to follow the ecliptic - the plane of our Solar System. It is thought to be caused by interplanetary dust grains reflecting light from the Sun and the practical upshot is that it sets a limit to the sky brightness. Andrew Jaffe reports that a certain famous postgraduate student - Brian May - recently gave a talk on zodiacal light at Imperial. As is customary for astronomy talks, they all went out for a meal afterwards however it sounds much more rock and roll than you would usually expect.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 02nd Jul 2007 (13:35 BST) | Permalink

July Jodcast and the Black Mark of Pluto

Well, although it is a bit late, the July Jodcast is finally out. With this being the month that the fifth Harry Potter movie and the seventh HP book are released, we've gone a little HP-inspired on the intro and outro but with an astronomy twist. So, rather than Lord Voldemort we have Baron Deathmortes (an anagram) trying to spread bad astronomy and destroy Jodrell Bank School of Astronomy & Astrophysics (school motto: Ex Astris Scientia). Other than that, and the regular features, there is some audio from the Moon Bounce (1.9 MB) event and a nice interview with Dr Scott Fisher about the Gemini telescopes (8.9 MB).

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 01st Jul 2007 (23:56 BST) | Permalink
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