The Life of a Research Astronomer

I've been very remiss not to mention Rob Simpson's trip to the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) on Hawaii. Rob is an astronomy PhD student at Cardiff and has been using the HARP instrument on the JCMT to observe spectra from objects such as M74 as well as regions in Orion and Taurus. While he was there he did some great live blogging from the top of Mauna Kea giving a good impression of a night in the life of a professional astronomer.

One of the dangers of working at a professional optical observatory is altitude sickness. Unfortunately, on his third night of observing, Rob became unable to breathe and had to descend the mountain. He has a great post about his altitude sickness which was treated very quickly by the folks in the Hilo Medical Centre. Unable to return up the mountain, Rob is now recovering in San Francisco before returning home. Thanks for all the blogging Rob and get better soon.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 29th Nov 2007 (12:56 GMT) | Permalink

Google's Sputnik Logo

I randomly stumbled over an LA Times article discussing complaints over Google's recent logo commemorating the launch of Sputnik in 1957. It would appear that some people in the US see that logo as an affront celebrating "an achievement by a totalitarian regime". Another person quoted in the article says "I have no problem with Google commemorating obscure holidays or some of the trivial anniversaries". Seriously? Do these people really think that the very first time humanity had put anything in orbit around the Earth - an event which marks our first step to becoming a space-faring species - is a "trivial" anniversary that should be ignored? In terms of defining moments for our planet this is right up there with discovering the Americas, circumnavigating the globe and landing people on the Moon.

On a different note, I liked the statement that "Google regularly gives other U.S. holidays the logo treatment, including Halloween, Thanksgiving and St. Patrick's Day".

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 28th Nov 2007 (19:56 GMT) | Permalink

A Limerick for Laurel

Laurel Kornfield's many posts about Pluto in the comments sections of blogs have inspired me to rhyme:

There was a weblogger named Laurel,
Who with me started to quarrel,
When a vote one day,
Took Pluto's status away,
And she thought it to be quite immoral.

Pluto, she said, should remain;
The decision had caused so much pain.
It just was not fair,
That my blog did not care.
So she'll write in my comments again.

Responses to this post should be in Limerick form ;-)

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 23rd Nov 2007 (11:22 GMT) | Permalink

Gemini Funding Cut

If you are a UK citizen you should head over to Chris Lintott's blog where he informs us that the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC formerly PPARC and CCLRC) had decided to pull our funding of the Gemini telescopes. The plan aims to save £4 million a year due to lack of funding of STFC despite the fact that we've spent £23 million getting the Gemini telescopes going. The result is that UK astronomers would not have much access to major research facilities in the northern hemisphere. This is not a good thing and makes me wonder if other facilities will be cut. If you care about the UK keeping involved at the forefront of astronomy, you could write to your local MP and suggest better funding for STFC.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 16th Nov 2007 (18:35 GMT) | Permalink

Hubble observes Comet Holmes

The Hubble Space Telescope has just released an image of Comet 17P/Holmes. The image is not much over 30'' across and the resolution means that the HST can make out features only 54 kilometres across. It was taken on 4th November. Go to the press release to find out more.

Comet 17P/Holmes
The Hubble image, taken on 4 Nov. 2007, shows the heart of Comet 17P/Holmes. The central portion of the image has been specially processed to highlight variations in the dust distribution near the nucleus. About twice as much dust lies along the east-west direction (the horizontal direction) as along the north-south direction (the vertical direction), giving the comet a bow tie appearance. CREDIT: NASA,ESA, and H. Weaver (The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory)

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 15th Nov 2007 (15:48 GMT) | Permalink

Attack of the Remote Controlled Telescopes

Yesterday I watched the remake of War of the Worlds. There were some rather bizarre, unphysical and unnecessary changes to the plot but the action scenes were very well done. Attacking tripods combined with various articles I read this morning got me thinking about the rise of the remotely controlled telescope. Thankfully they don't come with "death rays".

Perhaps the earliest remotely controlled telescope on the internet was the Bradford Robotic Telescope. The first incarnation of the telescope was located near Oxenhope in the Yorkshire Pennines back in 1993 but due to a lightning stike and the rather miserable British weather, the telescope is now sited on Tenerife. The BRT paved the way and is often overlooked.

The next remotely controlled telescopes that I became aware of were the Liverpool Telescope and the Faulkes Telescopes which were built by a spinoff company of Liverpool John Moores University. The Liverpool Telescope is a 2m telescope sited on La Palma and is used by professional astronomers. The Faulkes Telescopes are also 2m in size and are located on Hawaii and in Australia. Recently the Faulkes Telescopes (and Telescope Technologies Limited) were bought by a Google billionaire who is now a UCSB senior fellow in astrophysics and engineering. They were made a part of the Las Cumbras Observatory Global Telescope or Google Telescope as I refer to it given the funding source and logo design. LCOGT claim that over the next 18 months they will add twenty four 40cm telescopes to their network and allow many more school children (and presumably astronomical societies) to make use of their facilities.

The telescopes that I've mentioned so far are mostly free for school use. For the rest of us there are several commercial telescope networks now appearing on the Internet. The first of these that I noticed was It is based on Mt Teide, Tenerife to allow the US market to use it live during the day. They sell time on their telescopes via retailers such as Amazon for around $10 per 50 minutes. More recently Dr Gianluca Masi set up what he rather confusingly called the Virtual Telescope. I say confusing because it is real and has nothing to do with the Virtual Observatory. The telescope is currently sited near Rome but he plans to expand his network to different continents in the future. He currently charges from €20 per hour. Today I heard (via Astronomy Magazine) about Global-Rent-A-Scope which has telescopes in the US, Israel and Australia. Global-Rent-A-Scope charges $14-135 per hour but have a minimum spend of $100. I haven't used any of these services so can't vouch for their quality. If anyone has, please leave a review in the comments.

When I first got on the Internet in 1997 few people would have thought that 10 years later there would be networks of telescopes around the world being used remotely over the internet. Even fewer may have expected businesses to be built around them. We should expect the remotely controlled telescopes to continue to increase in number and, unlike the monsters of sci-fi B movies, that is a good thing.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 13th Nov 2007 (13:36 GMT) | Permalink

Telescopes in XML part 4

With the timely reminder from Digital Planet, I finally got around to making some live examples of my simple telescope XML format using telescopes at Jodrell Bank Observatory and those that are part of the MERLIN array in the UK. That gives eight professional radio telescopes with feeds. The idea now is that other people can make their own feeds for their own telescopes. If you do, please add a link to them below.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 04th Nov 2007 (14:10 GMT) | Permalink

Virtual Observatory on Digital Planet

I've just been catching up with some podcasts and noticed an item on the BBC World Service's Digital Planet about the Virtual Observatory. The programme's presenter, Gareth Mitchell, talks to Alasdair Allan about the gamma-ray burst alerts (VOEvents) which he ported into Google Sky. That reminds me that I was going to put my simple telescope XML into practice.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 02nd Nov 2007 (21:35 GMT) | Permalink

ESO and Stellarium

I have been using the excellent Stellarium desktop planetarium software since 2004 and it just keeps improving. Stellarium not only looks beautiful but is free, cross-platform, and open source. I recently heard a rumour that it may be adapted for professional astronomers. I hadn't been able to confirm that rumour but I notice that this was mentioned on the Sourceforge forums back in May by a different source. It would appear that project founder, Fabien Chereau, has been hired by ESO (European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere) to transform Stellarium into a nice graphical tool that could be used by professional astronomers to analyse real data from ESO's telescopes. Sounds good. I guess this puts us some way towards the Hollywood view of professional astronomers using gee-whizz graphical interfaces to analyse their data rather than the rather clunky (but accurate) software of reality.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 02nd Nov 2007 (18:28 BST) | Permalink
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