Carnival of Space #22

Over at Wanderingspace you can read Carnival of Space #22. This week the carnival takes us on an artistic journey into space with artwork, HD movies and more.

The carnival also mentions a couple of NASA-related competitions. One of those competitions is being run by Wired to find a better slogan (I also saw this via Geosteph) than was circulating during the summer. Surely somebody can think of something more inspiring than "NASA explores for answers that

power our future". Anyone?

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 27th Sep 2007 (09:06 BST) | Permalink

Mars vs Pluto

Every so often I have a look at the cool things that Google Labs are playing with. One of their current toys is Google Trends; a tool for comparing the number of searches for terms. For fun, I thought I would compare the planet Mars with dwarf planet Pluto. Considering the amount of press Pluto has had recently, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Mars is a much more popular search term. This is totally justified by the number of missions (e.g. Mars Express/Beagle 2, Spirit, Opportunity, MRO and Phoenix) over the past three years which have produced great science and many cool images. The only times Pluto beats Mars are following the launch of New Horizons and the planet definition decision.

Mars vs Pluto
Google Trends graph showing relative search popularity of the terms "Mars" and "Pluto". A, B and C are the start of the Mars Rovers mission, D and E are some of the early results, and F is when Mars Express announced the discovery of a possible frozen sea. CREDIT: Google Trends.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 21st Sep 2007 (14:21 BST) | Permalink

August 28th eclipse animation

The strange thing about having a blog these days is that occasionally I am sent astronomy-related stuff from people I have never met. This can be pretty cool. In my inbox this morning I found an email from the University of Southern California telling me about an animation that Professor Edward Rhodes had made of the recent lunar eclipse from Mount Wilson Observatory. The animation was made from still images of the eclipse taken during a field-trip for the 19 undergraduate students in his Astronomy 400 class. Apparently he will take his Astronomy 100 class to see the February 20th 2008 eclipse. I think it is a pretty good way to inspire a class about the Universe.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 20th Sep 2007 (12:23 BST) | Permalink


Ahoy land lubbers! Today is International Talk Like A Pirate Day. The interwebs are full of silliness and over at the Jodcast site we've added another news 'translation' for pirates wanting their fill of the latest astronomy news (there may even be audio later).

In other news I've had a fun day helping out with the Sky At Night by holding an umbrella over Sir Bernard Lovell whilst Chris Lintott held a second one over Sir Patrick Moore while they conducted an interview. Hopefully, my arm is out of shot.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 19th Sep 2007 (17:50 BST) | Permalink

Lovell as screen

OK, there is no excuse for me being late to the party with this news but I guess I was mentioning it elsewhere and somehow forgot to mention it here. Anyway, Phil has now mentioned that the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory is to become a huge cinema screen as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the telescope. The celebrations have been going on since February and culminate in the SPACE 50 festival at the start of October. This event celebrates the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik and the fact that the Lovell Telescope (Mark I as was) was the only place that could track the carrier rocket that put Sputnik in orbit.

Of some confusion amongst Phil's commenters is what movie will be shown. The movie is not a big Hollywood blockbuster but a specially made film showing the construction of the telescope, early space exploration, and the future of radio astronomy. So, I wouldn't say this was about "dumbing down" as Big Bob claims. Assuming it isn't windy (that would force the telescope to park and so cancel the film), it should be a spectacular two-day event that is unlikely to be repeated in the future.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 16th Sep 2007 (13:10 BST) | Permalink

Luna 2 anniversary

Yesterday was the 48th anniversary of the first human-made object - Luna 2 - reaching the surface of the Moon. I say yesterday but the web is pretty divided on the exact timing of the impact with various websites claiming different times/days for it. The time I'll take is from the radio measurements made at Jodrell Bank Observatory which stopped at 21:01:23 UT on 13th September 1959.

The Jodrell involvement is quite a nice story in which Moscow sent the launch details and the timing of the impact to Sir Bernard Lovell at Jodrell Bank just as he was heading off to a game of cricket:

"After having had an early lunch he [Sir Bernard Lovell] headed for the cricket ground at 1230 UT to be in time for the match due to start at 1330 UT. Just after leaving his home a child signalled him to stop his car and told him "You must come back, you're urgently wanted on the phone". The duty controller at Jodrell Bank informed Sir Bernard that the Russians 'had launched a rocket which would reach the moon on Sunday evening'. A reporter phoned and asked what Jodrell Bank 'was going to do about it'? To which Sir Bernard replied 'I am going to play cricket'. Having been unable to track Luna 1 and receiving very little help from the Russians in locating that probe he was not so keen on wasting the observatory's time on another moon probe. The cricket match took a tea break at 1550 UT. Sir Bernhard then phoned his colleague John Davies and agreed to meet at the observatory at 1830 UT."

On the 13th September, Moscow sent more information giving the directions to observe in between 17:00 UT and 21:00 UT - the expected time of impact - and Jodrell managed to record doppler measurements until the signals stopped.

I still find it amazing that in a little under two years from the launch of the first artificial satellite (orbiting at an altitude around 250 km), humanity managed to reach 380,000 km to the Moon. Within 10 years of that we got people there and back. We are now just about reaching the Heliopause with unmanned probes but people still seem to be confined to distances less than 350 km.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 14th Sep 2007 (18:33 BST) | Permalink

More ISS twitterings

A while ago I mentioned the great service that Paul Mison and his wife Candace named AboveLondon. The service was created during the HackLondon weekend and provides alerts about the visibility of the International Space Station, from London, via Twitter. That means that you can be alerted via web, instant messenger or even by text message and amaze your friends by pointing out the ISS in the sky. Paul also created alerts for San Francisco. The only trouble is that you had to live in either London or San Francisco to benefit from these great feeds. Now, Robert Simpson has decided to tackle that issue a little by adding a few more places to the mix. So, if you live near Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Manchester, Milton Keynes, New York, Paris, San Francisco, Sydney you can also be updated. I am particularly happy about the Manchester option. Thanks Rob!

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 08th Sep 2007 (16:55 BST) | Permalink

Caves on Mars: illuminated

Earlier in the year I mentioned the amazing pictures of the round holes that had been found on Mars. At the time it was thought that they were likely to be pits with steep sides. Now, Tom reports on a new image which shows some of the wall of the pit illuminated by a low Sun. Given the inclination that the image was taken at, the angle of the Sun and the amount of exposed pit wall, the HiRISE team reckon the pit is at least 78 m (255 ft) deep. That makes it at least half as deep as it is wide (the diameter is about 150 m). At the bottom right of the image of the pit there seems to be a region within the shadow that is not fully dark. To me that suggests that it may be illuminated by light reflected from the sunlit wall.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 06th Sep 2007 (17:57 BST) | Permalink

More from the astro-blogosphere

The astronomy blogosphere is, like the Universe, expanding. My blog doesn't have too many readers but every now and then I like to give some visibility to new blogs with good writing. Two that have come to my attention recently are The Visible Universe and Backyard Sketches.

The Visible Universe is a blog written by Kate Becker as an online version of her local newspaper column in Boulder. She writes well and has covered some stories I haven't seen elsewhere such as the npower constellation and an interesting report about Charles Schisler who may have found pulsars first, but didn't communicate the discover to the rest of the world. It is also good to see an original pun on Brian May's recent viva results. Over at Backyard Sketches, James reports on his own observations from Cambridgeshire as well as his views on Google Sky. He also has a Twitter feed.

There you are, two newish blogs there that are worth checking out.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 06th Sep 2007 (12:28 BST) | Permalink


A while ago Pradeep asked me to mention the 2007 International Conference for the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS). The conference is being held in Vellore, India on 22nd and 23rd September 2007. It would have been nice to go but I can't afford the airfare (or the time off work) so I'll just have to hope that Pradeep provides some live SEDS blogging instead.

The theme is "developments in aerospace through astronomical considerations" and there should be several keynote lectures given by astrophysicists. There will also be a rocket competition and a talk about the Indian Space Programme amongst other things. If you find yourself near Vellore, it should be worth a visit.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 05th Sep 2007 (18:51 BST) | Permalink

Planet Status Apathy

Before I start this post I ask you, dear reader, to read it in its entirety and do not jump to conclusions about my opinion before commenting. This post is about the apparently contentious issue of Pluto. I say contentious because I don't actually know any people in the non-Internet world (astronomers or real people) who really care one way or another about Pluto. They mostly have other worries such as exams, house prices, the reduction of our civil liberties and the price of fish.

This particular post is prompted by Laurele Kornfeld who has commented several times in my Pluto posts over the past year. Laurele appears (unless she is toying with me for her own amusement ;-) to think that I am either partly responsible for the IAU's decision in August 2006 or was in agreement with it. Laurele also thinks that the issue of whether Pluto is or isn't a planet is an issue of elitism and states on her blog that "no one group, no matter how educated, should be given the power to play God in setting boundaries of what is in and what is out".

I am, frankly, very confused as to why people think that the IAU is acting like God. The IAU has not physically done anything to Pluto. Neither has it decreed that people on planet Earth are not allowed to call Pluto a planet. Astronomers and planetary scientists simply don't have that power. The IAU has only defined (and poorly at that) the astronomical definition of planets within our own solar system. The IAU has previously defined that there are 88 constellations and what their official astronomical boundaries are. That decision also changed previously accepted definitions (without much scientific reason) but I don't think it generated the same level of animosity as Pluto has. It was simply a matter of a definition.

The problem here is possibly that some people are confused as to what power the IAU has. The IAU is only a governing body of astronomers/planetary scientists which coordinates efforts and promotes standards. It does not have a Death Star or a Vogon destructor fleet. Even if it did, its aim in this matter is to classify rather than physically remove planets. It doesn't even have the power to change the dictionary or control society in an Orwellian way to make us think that Pluto isn't a planet.

Another issue here is that people worry that somehow Pluto will be treated differently if it isn't a planet. Why should we treat it any differently? I am fairly confident that planetary scientists are not stupid people. I think we should allow for the fact that they may be sensible people who do not blindly follow strict rules about what objects they can and can't think about. After all, isn't it planetary scientists who look at asteroids and comets? Other than some people wanting to be offended, I don't think the decision should matter to any of us.

I would like to point out that, at the time of the debate, I wanted Pluto to remain a planet.

I say "at the time" because my attachment to that position has been

greatly soured by the attitude of many people online - such as Laurele

- who act as if this was the end of a world. It isn't. Pluto is still

Pluto and it doesn't matter what any of us say. Due to the pestering comments I've been getting on my blog, I am no longer inclined towards Pluto being a planet. I'm not against Pluto being a planet either. Pluto's status is not of importance to me; I accept Pluto for what it is.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 05th Sep 2007 (11:23 BST) | Permalink

Telescopes in XML

Earlier I described my idea for an RSS-like XML feed for telescopes. The idea was to allow anyone to keep up with what particular telescopes were doing. In this post I will try to describe my current idea. First off, before I give a more detailed description of each part, let me show an example of what the finished thing may look like:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<telescope xmlns=""
<desc>The 42ft telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory</desc>
<link href="" />
<image href="" />
<object type="pulsar" name="Stuart's fake pulsar" />
<ra h="0" m="34" s="56.89" />
<dec d="+50" m="12" s="3.7" />
<az act="170.06" dem="169.5" />
<el act="70.06" dem="70.23" />

OK, now for a bit of a description. The first line is a standard start to an XML file. The second line defines the start of a telescope tag. I've defined a namespace at a currently non-existent URL but as far as I can tell, that doesn't actually matter. The remaining lines define aspects of the telescope. First of all we need to define a telescope in a way that would give remote applications a bit of useful background information:

  • name - the given name of the telescope
  • desc - a short description of the telescope for use in information balloons, short biographies etc.
  • link - a relevant web link. I chose this over <a href=""> because having link text didn't seem to make sense
  • image - this should be a picture of the telescope. Perhaps <img src=""> makes more sense but I was keeping away from HTML tags.
  • Point - this follows the Geography Markup Language (GML) format for marking positions after a suggestion from Dave P. The coordinates are the latitude and longitude (in that order) of the telescope on the Earth and are given in degrees. This should probably be optional as it makes no sense for telescopes in space!
  • height - the height above mean sea level in metres. Probably should be optional to space-based 'scopes.

This information would not be expected to change often. Next we define the time that this file was generated:

  • time - the time that this file was generated in ISO 8601 date format. Dave P suggested this rather than the time format used in RSS files.
Now that we've got the preliminary stuff out of the way, define what we are looking at right now.

  • status - a flag to specify things like "slewing", "observing" and"parked/closed/stopped". Should these words be defined?
  • object - the aim here is to provide both a public-friendly description (the name attribute) and a computer readable flag (the type attribute) for the type of object. My suggested types are: asteroid, comet, dwarf planet, planet, star, nebula, ISM, galaxy, galaxy cluster, calibration object. However, the full A&A keywords list of objects may be better to work from as it is accepted within the astronomical community.
  • position - this is where we finally get around to defining the position that the telescope is observing. The most important coordinates to report are the ra (Right Ascension) and dec (declination). I thought it would be sensible to give these broken into hours/degrees, (arc)minutes and (arc)seconds for maximum flexibility. It would also be possible for a telescope to omit the (arc)minutes/(arc)seconds attributes if they wanted to degrade the reported resolution for some reason. A given ra/dec only make sense if an epoch is also defined. I expect this will normally be J2000 but sometimes telescope systems still work in B1950. I also thought it would be good to have an azimuth (az) and elevation (el) specified in degrees, although these could be optional.
So there you have it. It is fairly basic but then the resulting file should be straightforward and easy to use. The only thing this file doesn't do is store a history of observing targets but I'm not sure if that is necessary. A nice acronym for this XML format is also required, so suggestions for that are welcome below e.g. can anyone contrive an acronym for STAR? Please add any problems, suggestions for improvements, additions or previously established standards of relevance in the comments.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 04th Sep 2007 (20:33 BST) | Permalink

Telescopes Live!

One of the reasons I like astronomy is the openness. Astronomers - to their financial detriment - are usually quite happy to give talks about their research for free (apart from travel expenses if it is a long way) and are constantly trying to share the fruits of their labour with the world. Sharing in the excitement of discovery includes beautiful images from huge, professional telescopes as well as the less photogenic scientific papers. But the sharing doesn't just have to be with the final output of research projects. Sometimes it is possible for the public to get a peek into the lives of researchers as they are working or even help with it as it happens.

In recent years, connecting observatories directly to the public has involved websites and webcams. However, I don't find a webcam image particularly engaging because it doesn't change much and I'm always left wondering what the telescope is actually looking at. I like to think to a future where you could start up Stellarium, StarryNight or Google Sky and see where professional telescopes are observing in real time. Imagine the excitement of watching several of the world's observatories slew to a new supernova explosion in a distant galaxy or gamma ray burst event. You might even then decide to go out into your own garden and take a look at the same object with binoculars or your own telescope. How cool would that be?

To achieve this aim a few things need to happen. First of all, observatories around the world would need to agree to share the information about where they are observing in real time. Before I go further I'll point out that this may not always be possible, practical or desirable. For instance, there will be times when an observer may have found (say) a new dwarf planet and they want to make extra observations of it before publishing the discovery. It would be really bad for an observer if someone else found out where they were looking and then scooped them on it. So, for fair play and decency amongst astronomers, there are times when you don't want that information public. However, there are still many times when it doesn't hurt anyone for that positional information to be in the public domain.

Are observatories really going to provide this information? Well, both Jodrell Bank Observatory and Torun Radio Astronomy Observatory in Poland already do so, so this is a surmountable problem. We can start with two observatories (and up to nine telescopes) and build up from there as others come on board.

In the past I've written a script which updates Twitter accounts for the current observing targets of the MERLIN telescopes. That is a start, but it would be better to get the information in a more usable form. So, the next part of my plan is to create an XML format akin to RSS. The idea would be for each observatory to create its own feed. This is both practical and it lets each observatory have individual control of their content which would probably make them happier. Observatories could link to their telescope feeds from their websites in exactly the same way they now do with their RSS news feeds. With a common format, users and developers could then bring many telescopes together to make a Google kml file or input for Stellarium. Perhaps more likely is that someone will come up with an even more exciting application that I've not anticipated.

So now I have a plan. Shortly I'll post a draft XML format for a simple, public friendly, telescope observing target file format (a project in great need of a good acronym). I'm sure my draft won't be perfect and I would appreciate it if readers of this blog could contribute improvements once I post it. Once we have a document definition, the next job will be to encourage observatories to create the files. I think that is the harder job but not an impossible one.

On a housekeeping note, my comments section should be working again.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 04th Sep 2007 (18:30 BST) | Permalink

Herstmonceux Astro Fest 2007

The Hertmonceux Science Centre, based in East Sussex, is hosting an astronomy festival from 7th to 9th September. The will have some of the Sky At Night team, Chris Lintott (who will be signing copies of his book) as well as astrophotographer Nik Szymanek and Andy Newsam who runs the National Schools Observatory. On the Sunday they have the (former?) Blue Peter Astronomer Anton Vamplew turning up for the family activity day which will include rocket building and launching. Older family members will also be catered for with a beer tent. At the European Astrofest Herstmonceux's Sandra Voss even told me that they've had Storm Troopers on security duty in previous years too so it should be a fun weekend!

Discounts apply for SPA members; yet another reason to join.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 03rd Sep 2007 (10:20 BST) | Permalink
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