2008 UK Year Against Astronomy

With the dawn of 2008 approaching, the outlook for UK astronomy and particle physics is bleak. There was no Christmas present from the Treasury so the STFC still have their GBP 80 million budget 'hole'. They look set to obliterate UK Solar and Terrestrial physics, reduce UK university physics department's funding by 25% (or more?) and decimate the rest of astronomy. As a result we could very well see large numbers of researchers leaving the UK to find jobs oversees during 2008. All this in the year before the exciting International Year of Astronomy is pretty disgraceful and it may be difficult for the remaining UK astronomers to be enthusiastic in 2009.

Looking on the bright side, the bull in a china shop approach by STFC has at least brought the entire UK astronomy and particle physics community together in a big way. Physicists the length and breadth of the land are joining together against the Government with the aim of saving the UK's reputation in these fields. Organising scientific researchers is popularly described as being like "herding cats" so it is pretty amazing that there are now websites, petitions, letters to The Times, letters to MPs, and a letter to the Secretary of State campaigning to reverse the cuts. Hopefully these positive actions (and yours gentle reader) will prove the title of this post wrong. Here's wishing that 2008 will turn out much better than currently expected.

Save Astronomy

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 29th Dec 2007 (12:30 GMT) | Permalink

Winter Solstice 2007

The winter solstice occurs at 06:08 am GMT tomorrow morning (22nd December 2007). At that time the centre of the disc of the Sun will stand directly over the Tropic of Capricorn at around 23.5 degrees south of the Earth's equator. All of this is due to the tilt of the Earth's axis of rotation and we would be a much more boring planet without it. Tomorrow will be the shortest day of the year for northern hemispherians and the longest of the year for those in the southern hemisphere. Tomorrow won't see the earliest sunset for northern hemispherians though as that happened a week or so ago and the latest sunrise will be near the end of the month.

As well as rotating about its own axis, the Earth also orbits the Sun. That orbit is slightly elliptical so sometimes we are slightly closer to the Sun than others. The closest approach of the Earth to the Sun - a point known as perihelion - will occur around midnight (GMT) on the 3rd January 2008. It isn't a major date for your calendar though as the Earth is only around 1% closer to the Sun than on average.

Happy Solstice!

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 21st Dec 2007 (17:16 GMT) | Permalink

Save Astronomy!

I've been talking about the STFC funding issues recently and how astronomical research and physics departments in the UK will suffer as a result of over-running costs in other parts of science and a general mess of accounting within STFC/Government. Today things took a step forward with the launch of saveastronomy.org.uk which tells you ways you can help turn things around. If you care about UK astronomy, you can put buttons on your website or send correspondence to your local representatives. There is also a petition over on the Downing Street website which I saw via Rob as well as my inbox (thanks to Chris W.).

Save Astronomy

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 19th Dec 2007 (15:44 GMT) | Permalink

Lovell Telescope 50th

Tonight was the very last of the Jodrell Bank Space 50 events. It involved projecting art work that had won a competition onto the 50 year old Lovell Telescope. The competition had winners in a range of age groups from primary school ages upwards and there were some imaginative entries covering the themes of light, the engineering aspects of

astronomy and space research, space exploration or the history of the Lovell

telescope. The projections were pretty spectacular as they were about 40 metres high on the 76 m diameter dish. It looked impressive.

Lovell Telescope
The Lovell Telescope during one of the Space 50 projection events CREDIT: Stuart

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 15th Dec 2007 (00:24 GMT) | Permalink

Milky Way in hydrogen glory

One of the losers in STFC's cuts is the Issac Newton Group of Telescopes on La Palma which, I think, are now having their planned closure accelerated (perhaps someone who knows better can confirm that). Given these events, yesterday saw the release of the first part of a huge survey of the Milky Way by the Wide-Field Camera on the 2.5 m Issac Newton Telescope (INT). The section of the survey chosen for the press release shows a central part of the Rosette Nebula (NGC 2244) and is pretty stunning.

Rosette Nebula
Centre of the Rosette Nebula, as imaged in Hydrogen alpha emission in the IPHAS survey. CREDIT: Nick Wright, University College London/IPHAS
The image above (click on it for the full 5388x3777 pixel glory!) was created using two broad-band filters and a special filter that selects the particular red colour of light emitted by hydrogen atoms - H-alpha (656.3 nm). The image covers an area a little smaller than that covered by the Moon in the sky although given its distance that probably makes this image about 20-40 light years or so across (various sizes for the nebula are given so this is a rough estimate by me).

The data release yesterday is of the northern plane of the Milky Way galaxy and covers around 1600 square degrees. Once the rest of the survey is released that should go up to about 4000 square degrees! Another exciting thing about this data is that it has been integrated into the Virtual Observatory - an international effort by astronomers to provide easy access to many huge astronomical surveys and databases.

You can use the IPHAS survey's swishy flash-based interface to search by object name (e.g enter something like "Eagle Nebula") or by position on the sky. The 'Postage Stamp' option gives a nice interface to the images and is clearly inspired by the album art display in iTunes! The only problem I had was after having tried searching for NGC 7027, then searching for the Eagle Nebula only to find NGC 7027 popping up; it may be geeky of me to say but I recognised it from the r filter image so knew it wasn't the Eagle Nebula. Despite these minor quirks, it looks like a pretty nice front-end to a vast optical survey of our galaxy.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 13th Dec 2007 (23:38 GMT) | Permalink

STFC Meeting Today

Following the bad news of the past few days, the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) are having a (as far as I know) surprise "Town Meeting" today at City University London. The STFC delivery plan will be discussed. I welcome reports of the meeting from those attending in the comments below.

We now return you to your normal service. With all this going on over the past few days I haven't had chance to write about real astronomy. So, head over to Ian, Pamela or Phil's blogs for info on the Geminid meteor shower. Will has news on the latest Hubblecast about extra-solar planets. Finally, Tom has a mosaic of the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51) made with data from Chandra, Hubble, Spitzer and GALEX.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 13th Dec 2007 (10:06 GMT) | Permalink

A gloomy future?

Considering that the weather has perked up since the rather wet weekend, in the world of UK astronomy research things are certainly looking gloomy today. Firstly, Andy - the e-Astronomer - informs us that the UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) have been asking universities, informally, if they could cope with a 25% (or even 40%) cut in the funding of their existing grants. STFC have a total annual budget of £678 million and are short by £80 million. This was featured on the Today Programme (check out listen again today and find 07:20 am) this morning and I have transcribed it below.

Interviewer: University physics departments are facing such big cuts in funding, they say research projects will have to be abandoned and jobs will be lost. The Science and Technologies Facilities Council, which allocates science funding, is short by £80m. It'll say today which universities are to lose out. The shortage appears to be down to the fact that the council didn't ask the government for enough money. Dr Brian Cox is from the department of physics [actually School of Physics and Astronomy] at Manchester University. Good Morning.
Brian Cox: Good Morning.
Interviewer: Is that the reason for the problem?
BC: Well, we do believe that this is err some kind of mistake somewhere in government. I mean, just to set the scene, STFC's the council that funds fundamental physics - big physics. You know, so when you hear these stories about extra-solar planets - life on other planets we're looking for around other stars - or the Large Hadron Collider at CERN that'll recreate the conditions just after the big bang. All these big important research projects - they're funded by STFC - and there seems to have been some problem. I would say it was a mistake somewhere. So I don't believe for one minute that the government intends to hit physics. I mean, they've been quite a friend to science in general over the last 10 years and we've had no hint of any change in that attitude. So it seems to be that a mistake has been made and the minister - Ian Pearson is the minister - who has the ultimate responsibility for this, will hopefully have to step forward and rectify it.
Interviewer: Well, I'll be speaking to him in just a moment. But let's be clear. This council, this part of government that was only set up this year to oversee funding, is £80m short. Which means what?
BC: Well that appears to be true and so it could mean a whole swathe of things. There are big facilities like the Diamond Light Source - flagship facilities in Oxford that allow people to, you know, peer into the heart of living cells. So that kind of physics. It could be an attack on that. But what we've heard is that the attack will fall on what I suppose is the soft target which is physics departments. You see, STFC not only fund research but they also fund the people who teach physics in these big [university] departments. Now the government has recognised that physics departments are vital to the economy. So it really, this is where the cuts lie. And it's 25% remember - that's a huge cut for anyone to bear.
Interviewer: Right
BC: And we think it'll affect physics more broadly in the UK.
Interviewer: Dr Brian Cox thank you. Well, Ian Pearson is the Science Minister. Good morning.
IP: Moring Sarah.
Interviewer: Can you step in and help out with 80 million?
IP: Well let me put this in context first Sarah. What we've seen is significant investment in science, by the government, over the last 10 years. And the science budget is actually going up over the next 3 years.
Interviewer: But they're short 80 million. Can you help them out?
IP: Well, as I say, the science budget is going up from 3.4 billion [pounds] this year to 4 billion in 2010/11. And the budget for the STFC is actually going up as well by 13.6% over the next three years.
Interviewer: So you're not going to help them out with the extra 80 million?
IP: Well, we're, we have concerns about err the STFC's budgetary proposals. Erm we've been discussing that with them over the last errr few days and weeks. And, there clearly are problems and it's one of the reasons why, although we don't get interfering with the detail - because we respect what's called the Haldane principle which has been in place for many years. I think in the light of this, the delivery plans that are going to be outlined by all the research councils today. I've asked Ian Diamond, Chair of RCUK to review support for physics. Err. Which is a key part of our agenda on [talked over]
Interviewer: So you're going to review support with, to what end? You will be able to help them out with the 80 million shortfall, or not?
IP: Well, let's put this in context again. The STFC...
Interviewer: Please, I know we... forgive me Mr Pearson. We have heard that. We've also heard that a lot of physicists across the country and university departments er are going to be affected. They'll lose their jobs. Departments are going to lose 25% of their budgets. Er. So I'm just looking for some sort of answer from you as to whether you are going to help them out such that that will not happen.
IP: Well, I'm concerned about that Sarah. The STFC's got a budget of [£678 million annually] 1.9 billion pounds over...
Interviewer: So 80 million is relatively small. Will you help them out?
IP: ...over the next three years. Well, we will have to see what the review says. Because certainly the health of the different disciplines - physics in particular - is something of concern to us. That's why Ian Diamond...
Interviewer: So you'll do what you can to help them out and get the extra money?
IP: Well, nobody wants to see err physics hit hard Sarah. And this government has invested a lot in our STEM agenda. We've invested a lot in...
Interviewer: Sure. I'm just trying to understand if that means there isn't any more, or there will be - you'll find that extra bit.
IP: Well, who can predict what the future of the review will come up with Sarah. Urm you know let's let's just get this into overall perspective. Science spending is going to up to 4 billion [pounds] by 2011 - a big increase.
Interviewer: Ian Pearson, thank you very much.

Andy has some things to say about this interview. On very related news, Chris Lintott has already told us about funding problems that the shortfall is going to cause for Gemini but now tells us that the UK Infra-red Telescope (UKIRT) is in trouble too.

Since I started writing this post Chris has an update about what is unsafe in STFC's current plan. That doesn't make for nice reading. Potentially on the chopping block are UKIRT (just got started on great work), MERLIN (just about to work better than ever after an expensive fibre optic upgrade), the Liverpool Telescope (the RINGO instrument just won an award!), UK participation in the Dark Energy Survey (future), post-launch support for ESA projects (Planck and Herschel?) to be cut by 30% (this is where it gets personal for me), the Boulby mine experiment (dark matter), ClOVER etc. Instruments that are safe include our membership of ESO, SKA and ELTs, JCMT and ExoMars. Not a bright future. I guess the STFC logo probably was a sunset - rather than sunrise - on British science after all.

Still, I'll try to remain cheerful.

Update 14:30 GMT: It appears that the Liverpool Telescope, MERLIN and UKIRT were all up for "programmatic reviews" so nothing has changed for them yet. A big hit to astronomy that I didn't include was an acceleration of the closure of the Issac Newton group of telescopes. Another big hit - this time to particle physics - is the UK's withdrawl from the International Linear Collider which is the experiment planned for after the Large Hadron Collider.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 11th Dec 2007 (14:14 GMT) | Permalink

Go for launch?

Listening in to the Mission Audio on NASA TV, Houston just told the ISS that the Mission Management Meeting has just concluded and they are going to try for launch of Atlantis tomorrow (Sunday). I'm still waiting for the confirmation on the main Public channel.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 08th Dec 2007 (21:20 GMT) | Permalink

Moore Foundation funds 30m telescope

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation have just announced that they are giving $200 million (over nine years) to the University of California and Caltech to build a thirty metre optical telescope (TMT). This appears to be extra money on top of previous grants the TMT has received from the Moore Foundation which total $50 million since April 2004. I'm glad to see that the donations are almost following Moore's Law too.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 06th Dec 2007 (16:53 GMT) | Permalink

Solar Eclipse of 1671

Last night a season finale of a popular TV series featured a scene based outside Kyoto in 1671. The scene involved a total solar eclipse. Considering that the series constantly ignores such cornerstones of physics as conservation of energy and momentum I didn't expect the solar eclipse to have actually happened. I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that there was indeed a solar eclipse visible from Kyoto in 1671 on September 3rd. The eclipse was not total however, but a pretty unimpressive partial eclipse taking place just as the sun was setting.

Solar Eclipse 1671
The partial Solar eclipse of 1671 seen just above the horizon from Kyoto, Japan CREDIT: Stuart/Stellarium
The show also bizarrely, and presumably for dramatic purposes, had the shadow of the Moon moving only a few tens of metres in a few seconds. The real shadow "travels" at thousands of kph! Of course, that problem can be solved by invoking the slowing down time super power (the one "get out of physics free" card I'll allow them).

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 06th Dec 2007 (15:13 GMT) | Permalink

Chancellor Brian May!

Following on from his success in the band Queen and the successful completion of his PhD, which he started back in the early 70s, Brian May has now been appointed chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University. There is no mention of it on his website although he has posted asking people to vote for him as the best guitarist of all time which may be more important.

The main question that springs to mind is why Liverpool JMU chose to make him their chancellor. The university's vice-chancellor sums it up by saying (according to AP and The Register):

In this age of celebrity culture, it is rare to find someone who has fame, fortune and universal acclaim and yet who remains true to his core values of learning and enlightenment.

I like to think that Liverpool JMU's excellent astronomical research together with operation of the Liverpool Telescope and the Faulkes telescopes may have had something to do with it. Obviously, Liverpool also has a strong musical tradition too and is European Capital of Culture 2008 so that may have been an influence too.

Brian is now the second space-themed university chancellor that I'm aware of. The other boldly went to be the chancellor of the University of Huddersfield. Of course, Jean-Luc Picard doesn't have a PhD as far as I'm aware.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 05th Dec 2007 (12:16 GMT) | Permalink

M74 on Hubblecast

Over at Will Gater's blog, Will mentions the latest Hubblecast about the grand design spiral galaxy M74. Will actually had a hand in this one as he co-wrote the script for it!

It's a good video with image zooming possibly influenced by Apple's iPhone interface. I appreciated the inclusion of the information about spiral density waves which I've blogged about before and even illustrated with an image of similar grand design spiral galaxy M51. Nearer the end of the video they include M74 and M51 side by side. M74 is a clockwise spiral and M51 is anti-clockwise which which immediately made me think of the excellent Galaxy Zoo.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 03rd Dec 2007 (19:46 GMT) | Permalink

Astronomy Outreach 2007

As is obvious from the very existence of this blog, I have a particular interest in communicating astronomy. So last Friday I attended a meeting in London about public outreach in astronomy, particle physics and nuclear physics organised by the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) or Facilities Council UK as somebody jokingly referred to it.

The talks were mostly short and repeated things I had already heard of or knew about. If it had just been about the talks I would have felt as though the effort of getting there had not been quite worth it. The most enthusing and useful parts of events like this, however, often tend to be the opportunity to chat with people during the tea breaks, lunch and at the pub afterwards. This networking aspect, although a cliche, is a vital part of getting to know others, finding better ways to do things and getting new ideas off the ground. I certainly had a good time chatting with various astronomers from around the UK who were all brilliantly enthusiastic about communicating astronomy to the people who ultimately pay for it.

At a similar event back in 2005 I came away with an impression that although there were lots of exciting things happening around the UK, very few people knew what anyone else was up to. There was a distinct lack of coordination/communication amongst those communicating the science. Another of the problems in 2005 were the poor analogies that particle physicists had come up with to describe the upcoming Large Hadron Collider. Comparing a multi-billion euro project as equivalent to "the energy of a flying mosquito" is just not exciting enough even if it does seem to be an international standard of analogy for particle physicists. I'm glad to say that the bad analogies appear to have gone and the outreach folks seem a bit more aware of each other. Perhaps social networking on the web has helped in the past two years. In fact, Web 2.0 was one of the main impressions I got from the day. Many of the speakers dropped in references to social networking, Facebook, MySpace, podcasts or blogs at some point and I could probably have played Web 2.0 buzzword bingo.

Another recurring theme of the meeting was criticism of the European Space Agency's publicity arm. This was especially topical given the amazing lack of press coverage for the results from Venus Express last week. The fault here lies in ESA's publicity wing who have the hard task of translating press releases into around 17 languages. The result can be that press releases are not brilliantly written and can hide the exciting parts of the research. Another problem related to ESA is finding relevant information on their website. Just try to find the Venus Express homepage for instance. NASA, on the other hand, currently have a big picture link to an article about Venus Express on their homepage. Incidentally that link makes no mention of ESA until you follow it to the main story. The criticisms levelled at ESA were mostly meant to highlight how things could and should be improved especially given the exciting science coming out of its current missions and those of the next few years.

My time down in Westminster was well spent and a few plans for the future have come out of it. The only disconcerting thing was that I kept expecting an alien spaceship to crash into the Big Ben bell tower!

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 03rd Dec 2007 (19:21 GMT) | Permalink
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