The Colourful Sky

Ever since I first saw Google Maps I wanted the same thing for the universe but with a wavelength slider. I wanted to be able to slide through the electromagnetic spectrum from radio waves to gamma rays.

Software such as Stellarium and Google Sky have done a good job of showing the visible universe and I hoped that they would add other wavelengths. They were both beaten to that by which I think may have been the first Google Maps-like service that offered options to switch between wavelengths. includes the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, an H-alpha survey and the IRAS infrared survey. Stellarium has also stepped up to the plate by including survey data from the European Southern Observatory. Now, according to a Chandra Space Telescope podcast Chandra images can be found in the (Google) Sky (MP3) along with those from HST (optical), Spitzer (infrared), IRAS (infrared), WMAP (microwave), and GALEX (UV). These are the first tentative steps towards a friendly virtual observatory tool that should eventually provide what I want.

I can't wait to see the 408 MHz Haslam map, the Rosat all sky survey, 2MASS, UKIDSS, IPHAS and more included in all these software packages. The sky is a colourful place.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 30th Jan 2008 (08:50 GMT) | Permalink

UK access to Gemini terminated

Despite Professor Keith Mason (Chief Executive of the STFC) requesting the UK astronomical community to look forward to a "brighter future" STFC's cunning plan to reduce its funding to the Gemini telescopes has been firmly rejected by the Gemini board. Personally I don't blame the Gemini Board; STFC's behaviour has been desparate and the plan to fund only the Gemini North telescope goes against the original agreements to operate both Gemini North and Gemini South as one observatory. With the hastily put together proposal rejected, the UK will have to pay a £7 million (or perhaps £8 million) penalty fee to leave the collaboration. That cessation of access is pretty much immediate (February 1st 2008) with all the UK's future observations scheduled after that date cancelled. The time will be shared out amongst the other nations involved. The UK will no longer have access to the largest professional telescopes in the northern hemisphere. My sympathies go to anyone who was relying on Gemini data for their PhD. Apparently you should consider retraining in medicine or as a stockbroker.

Perhaps the one-time astronaut candidate Keith Mason can explain what the bright side of this is.

Save Astronomy

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 26th Jan 2008 (18:55 GMT) | Permalink

World Science Hertiage Sites

Over the past two years, I have been to a few of the sites listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list during my travels. The list covers cultural and geographical sites of importance all over the world. Many of these sites are stunning locations such as the Grand Canyon, Giant's Causeway or Te Wahipounamu. Some are from the ancient world like the Pyramids or the historic centre of Rome. There are also some from much more recent history such as Saltaire in Yorkshire.

This week the UK National Commission for UNESCO has met with experts from 15 nations in London to discuss the possibility of making it easier to add more sites representing our scientific and technological heritage. In their discussions they suggested places such as the particle physics laboratory CERN and Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire. Of course these are just examples of places that might meet their criteria and haven't been formally suggested.

I think it is right for these sorts of places to be given recognition for the impact they have had on society globally although I do worry that along with the status there will be restrictions on scientific development at the sites. I don't think it would be good to stop these sites from producing future scientific discoveries as a result of the status. Having said that, the Lovell Telescope does already have listed status and was still upgraded back in 2001-2.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 25th Jan 2008 (12:05 GMT) | Permalink

Planetary misses

Next week two asteroids will be making fairly close approaches to planets Earth and Mars. First up on 29th January 2008 at 08:33 UT asteroid 2007 TU24 will pass a mere 537,000 km (334,000 miles) from the Earth. In astronomical terms that is quite a close shave but it is still 1.4 times the distance of the Moon so nothing at all to worry about. It will be magnitude 10.3 so well below what I can see from Manchester. According to the Near Earth Object Program it is between 150 and 600 m in diameter and we could expect an object of this size passing this close every five years or so.

Space may be big and very nearly completely empty of matter but a day later on 30th January 2008 at around 12:00 UT asteroid 2007 WD5 (I keep thinking of the popular lubricant WD40) will pass by Mars. This asteroid which is only about 50 m across made the news when the probability of it hitting Mars reached as high as 1 in 25. The odds are calculated given how accurately we know the orbit. Just after discovery we don't very much about an object's position or velocity and more observations are needed (unless you're in a Hollywood movie in which case you only need one image). As more data has come in the odds have gone down to 1 in 10,000. However, it will pass at about 7 Mars radii above the surface of the planet - very close indeed. I don't know if Spirit, Opportunity, Mars Express, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will be watching. I hope they do.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 24th Jan 2008 (22:03 GMT) | Permalink

A Brief History of Astronomy Blogs

Update (3 Feb 2008): please note that this doesn't claim to be a complete list of every astronomy blog. As I say, it includes those that I have on my links page and a few others that I don't. If you own (or know of) any more just add them in the comments and I'll add them when I notice.

Inspired by Dave P's observing log timelines using Simile I decided to chart the history of the astronomy blogosphere. Below you should see an interactive timeline centred on what might be the very first astronomy-related blog - The Space Writer's Ramblings - which first started regular entries in early 2002. I turned up a year and a half later just after the About Space Blog. Using your mouse you should be able to drag the timeline around by month or by year. As well as the first post dates for many of the astronomy blogs on my links page I've added some milestones in general blogging history.

Update 24/1/2008: I've added a few more astro blogs. I can't believe that I forgot Cosmic Log from the early days.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 23rd Jan 2008 (20:14 GMT) | Permalink

Copyright Mercury

For some fun pareidolia check out Tom's post about a 50 km wide copyright symbol seen on Mercury by the MESSENGER spacecraft.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 22nd Jan 2008 (00:06 GMT) | Permalink

Don't worry. Decimation is good for you.

I must be getting old. I never would have thought that I would have an evening's entertainment listening to a House of Commons Select Committee meeting. It is even more bizarre when I consider that the meeting in question was about Science Budget Allocations. Surely there should be nothing more boring?

The proceedings felt like high drama with our scientifically inclined elected Members of Parliament questioning the heads of prestigious learned science societies (the Institute of Physics and the Royal Astronomical Society) before moving on to the Head of the Science & Technology Facilities Council and the Chair of Research Councils UK. Professor Michael Rowan-Robinson (RAS) and the man from the IoP both put the case (so did the Royal Society) for why the Government's recent increase in overall science funding has resulted in a funding crisis for particle physics and astronomy. They were very restrained and polite in pointing out that this doesn't seem to be deliberate on the Government's side but an "unintended consequence". It was also pointed out that "if the economy does well we have to do less science" due to the way funding for our international experiment subscriptions are set up. That is not a very logical or sensible situation to be in.

Despite the repeated claims of budget increases, the bottom line is that STFC have to cut £80 million over three years. They chose to save this by hitting many experiments and reducing grants to university physics departments by around 25%. The UK physics and astronomy community is severely depressed by all this with threats of huge job cuts. During the meeting the figures quoted by the Research Council officials were 200 job losses at Harwell and Rutherford, up to 350 job losses at Daresbury (current staff 490), and up to 60 job losses at the Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh (current staff around 100). Those are huge cuts and will no doubt affect the UK's ability to exploit the science from the great facilities that the STFC has.

Keith Mason went on to say that "the number of astronomy PDRAs [post doctoral researchers] will be some 10% down on what they were in 2005 not 25%". He more or less says that cutting the number of researchers in astronomy is a good thing and "we need to talk about it in a calm and collected way". I agree that this should be talked about in a calm way but announcing huge imminent cuts and job losses doesn't help to keep people calm. A suggestion from the Research Council representatives was for astronomers and particle physicists to stop complaining about losing their jobs and just to retrain in other fields. One MP responded by saying: "You cannot be serious that the solution to wrecked careers is [for particle physicists and astronomers] to become stockbrokers". However, on a positive note, the Research Council representatives do suggest that it would not be against the Haldane Principle for the Government to provide the missing £80 million (over three years) and fix the problem.

In related news the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities, and Skills Ian Pearson has now sent a very badly written response to a letter from 550 young physicists. The letter has serious cut-and-paste issues implying little care was taken to proof read it before sending it. One postgraduate student has commented that "many students are frustrated that the MP seems content to skim overnumbers which appear to be increasing year-to-year and conclude thateverything must be fine...A couple of students have spoken up to note that the MP cannot expect to use statistics `bamboozle’ a group of physicists".

Why should anyone care about all this? Well, as pointed out on the Today Programme by Brian Cox, physics underpins a surprisingly large amountof our economy given how much we spend on it. Pure physics andastronomy research has also given us plenty of unexpected benefits asare so well described by Phil Bull and physics student Leo. Astronomy and particle physics are also hugely exciting and attract young people into all the sciences. Rather frustratingly it is young researchers that may very well be the ones to lose out here given that they rely on the PDRA jobs once they qualify.

This dire situation appears to be unintended by everyone and could be solved easily for the cost of about a third of a Eurofighter per year. If you care, read Paul Crowther's excellent background information and please help to save astronomy and particle physics in the UK.

Save Astronomy

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 21st Jan 2008 (23:25 GMT) | Permalink

AstroFest 2008 Meet-up

On February 8th and 9th AstronomyNow are hosting the UK's biggest astronomy show - AstroFest 2008 - at Kensington Town Hall in London. Over the two days there are many talks covering the full range of astronomy: the solar system, Comet Holmes, Google Sky, black holes, pulsars, the Magellanic clouds and more. There will be some good speakers including famous comet discoverer David Levy (of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 fame). Inspired by the BAUT/Astronomy Cast AAS meetup in Austin I was wondering if UK-based astro folk want to have a meet up during AstroFest. Let me know in the comments below.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 15th Jan 2008 (13:11 GMT) | Permalink

UK astronomy cuts in Parliament

One of the great innovations in UK democracy was Hansard which provides edited (minus the jeering) verbatim records of things said in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Thankfully Hansard is in the digital age and you can read the comments of our elected (and non-elected) representatives online.

Yesterday various MPs tackled Ian Pearson - the Science Minister - over the £80 million of cuts to hit particle physics and astronomy with suggested closures of many facilities and huge cuts to university physics departments. Ann Winterton (Con, Congleton - constituency containing Jodrell Bank) started the ball rolling at question 4 and was joined by Dr Brian Iddon (Lab, Bolton South-East), Mr Phil Willis (LD, Harrogate and Knaresborough) and Adam Afriyie (Con, Windsor). The Science Minister Ian Pearson replied with his standard response which says how wonderful the Government is and how it has increased the science budget by 13% (over the next three years). Most agree with that statement but it isn't the issue. The issue is over a very short term funding crisis that will probably cause wide-spread and longer term damage to particle physics and astronomy in the UK. Personally I hate politicians referring to increases (or decreases) over time periods not equal to one year without specifying the time period clearly. It often seems designed to give the wrong impression. Tricksy hobbits.

The issue was re-iterated a while later by Dr Roberta Blackman-Woods (Lab, Durham). Mr Denham (Secretary of State at the DIUS I think) responded by invoking the Haldane Principle "to protect the autonomy of research councils in deciding where research should take place". Of course nobody is actually asking for Government to make the decisions on what should be funded but instead to provide money so that STFC can carry out the projects it had planned to do before the problems with its budget in this financial year.

What those financial problems are nobody seems entirely clear. They are partly due to increased subscriptions to CERN, ESA and ESO which are linked to GDP rather than the Government's science budget and partly due to full economic costing that was brought in. Whatever the causes are they don't involve Diamond at all, nosiree, definitely not. I did hear a story (possibly an urban myth) that because 14% of Diamond is funded from a private partner, the whole project was landed with a VAT bill (17.5%) by the Treasury.

The sessions in Parliament are also archived on Parliament TV for the next 28 days for those with Windows Media Player. Ann Winterton's question is at 20:51 and Roberta Blackman-Woods's question is at 55:20. You even get to watch Ian Pearson accidentally elevating Dr Brian Cox to a Professor!

For all the latest news and gory details on the STFC funding crisis check out Paul Crowther's page.

Save Astronomy

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 11th Jan 2008 (17:34 GMT) | Permalink

MESSENGER at Mercury

Thanks to @Lora on Twitter I got to hear some discussion from the MESSENGER spacecraft public telecon yesterday. MESSENGER is on the first of three fly-bys (second in October 2008 and third in September 2009) as it gets into a proper orbit and Lora said that the images from this fly-by probably wouldn't be released until 30th January. Despite that it would appear that Tom has the first image already though! Check out the thin crescent Mercury.

Back to the AAS 2008 meeting, Astronomy Cast Live brings together posts from Pamela, Fraiser and Phil's blogs into one place.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 11th Jan 2008 (11:21 GMT) | Permalink

Galaxy Zoo and human bias

Another blog covering the American Astronomical Society 2008 meeting in Austin is the Galaxy Zoo blog. Jordan is providing some good posts from after hours discussions and his interactions with a recent Nobel Prize winner.

I assume most people looking at this blog are probably aware of Galaxy Zoo but for those that don't it is a huge galaxy sorting project that lets the public join in. In fact over 100,000 of the public joined in. Over the past six months or so a staggering number of classifications have been made of candidate galaxies automatically extracted from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. The basic aim was to sort galaxies into elliptical galaxies - huge rugby/football shapes of stars - and spiral galaxies - those that look like the water going down your bath plughole. A secondary aim was to further sort the spiral galaxies into clockwise or anti-clockwise (counter-clockwise) spirals.

Back in October The Telegraph mentioned that people seemed to be finding more ant-clockwise galaxies than clockwise ones. That is odd. Very odd. It also seemed to be statistically significant given the number of classifications that were made. Was there something up with the universe? Could there be a preferential direction in the universe that caused one side of the sky to have more anti-clockwise galaxies than the other? Big claims like that require very careful checks for bias and the Galaxy Zoo team got on the case.

Over the past couple of months the Galaxy Zoo website has been showing flipped versions - mirror images - of galaxies to users. The result of that simple test should be to change the observed preference to clockwise galaxies rather than anti-clockwise galaxies if the universe does indeed have a preference. On their blog yesterday, Galaxy Zoo team members Anze and Kate say that when you crank through the stats it would appear that it is a human bias and not a cosmological one. It would appear that the humans that took part in Galaxy Zoo have a slight preference for anti-clockwise spirals over clockwise spirals even when there are equal numbers of both. The blog post does a good job of explaining the results and even has graphs with error bars!

Although Kate is probably a little disappointed - as publishing a paper showing a cosmological bias may have added weight to her 'Axis of Evil' idea - it just shows that you can't always jump to conclusions and you really need to distrust your data until you've checked for bias. Galaxy Zoo appears to have been a great success and I hear mention that Galaxy Zoo 2 is on the way.

If you want to see Chris talking about it, Phil Plait has interviewed him for his blog.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 11th Jan 2008 (11:10 GMT) | Permalink

AAS 2008 on Flickr

Not only are there a plethora of blogs and a podcast covering the AAS meeting in Austin but there are a few images appearing on Flickr too. Most of the images so far are in Phil Plait's AAS 2008 set which include rare shots of Pamela and Fraiser. I hope that other Flickr users such as jritch77 might add a few more over the next few days. However some images tagged AAS may not be from Austin unless they've taken to LoTR-style re-enactments during the coffee breaks.

Before I forget, today is official de-lurking day 2008. So if you just read this blog and never say hello go ahead and post a comment.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 10th Jan 2008 (19:19 GMT) | Permalink

Cosmic Radio podcast

Therese over at Random Thoughts of an Astro Major is doing an excellent job blogging from the AAS meeting in Texas. She is prolific and is covering more topics than anyone else - even Phil Plait! Amongst her posts is one about a new audio podcast released by the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). The podcast is named Cosmic Radio and will last for 26 programmes each about two and a half minutes long. Perhaps it has taken over from Mountain Radio Astronomy which stopped last March. It has been added to the Astronomy Media Player.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 10th Jan 2008 (18:19 GMT) | Permalink

A brief summary of AAS 2008 so far

The American Astronomical Society meeting in Texas is in full swing and I'm trying to keep up with the volume of blog posts and AAS podcasting. There just isn't enough time to read/listen to it all so here is my summary of what I've read so far.

One of the stories being blogged is the UK Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) release of their Infrared Deep Sky Survey. Chris Lintott, Pamela Gay and Phil Plait all report on that. I'll note that Andy Lawrence mentioned the UKIDSS data release before Christmas and I thought the zoomable map was so cool that I included it as one of my favourite images of 2007 on the Jodcast. Of course UKIRT is one of the things under threat in the UK astronomy funding debacle but it isn't just the UK that is suffering. Andy Lawrence tells us that US physics is in trouble too and Phil and Pamela both have reports about the belt-tightening that NASA Administrator Mike Griffin talked about today (Update 10 Jan 2008: added link to transcript). However they don't like him treating astronomers like children.

Leaving funding issues to one side, Phil has a nice image of the Veil nebula released by one of his friends at the US National Optical Astronomy Observatory. He also shared a great Chandra image of the jets at the centre of Centaurus A and contemplates the possibility that globular clusters are firing superfast, intermediate-mass black holes out into space! Chris Lintott gets excited about searches for extra-solar planets which have been producing fantastic results over the past decade or so. Of course everyone has the Hubble image that was released yesterday containing the blue blobs.

Huge meetings such as AAS lead to a huge variety of talk topics. Chris managed to attend one about the ways astronomers have died - mostly through natural causes but some through more exciting ways. Following these thoughts about my limited time I then wandered over to Rob Simpson's blog and was met by a claim that time itself may be running out as an alternative to dark energy.

Update 10 Jan 2008: I forgot to include the Space Writer, AstroProf and Therese who are also at the AAS Meeting.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 09th Jan 2008 (23:58 GMT) | Permalink

Nothing but spam

I know the Interwebs are gradually filling up with spam but this is getting ridiculous. On Sunday there were over 2000 attempts (from over 650 different IP addresses!) to abuse my blog comments with spam. This is beyond annoying and is actually causing my internet host problems as dealing with it takes up server resources. It isn't even as if the spam gets through; my cobbled together, hand-crafted spam filters appear to have stopped all but one message and that may have been from a real person rather than robots. So, whoever is behind this stop it, stop it right now. If you continue I may be forced to remove the comment feature from my site. That will stop all the spam but it will also stop any real person leaving a meaningful comment here. If that happens we all lose.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 08th Jan 2008 (00:16 GMT) | Permalink

Telescopes, Google and Bill Gates

The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope is an 8.4 m diameter telescope currently being constructed and will eventually be sited in Cerro Pachon in northern Chile. The design has a large field of view so it can image 10 square degrees of the sky at a time with a 3200 Megapixel CCD camera. This large field of view will mean that the telescope can survey the entire night sky with high resolution on a regular basis. This opens a new "parameter space" or, in other words, astronomers will be able to look for interesting things in time as well as space within one data set. That allows observations of variable stars, near-Earth objects, supernovae and other things that go bang in the night.

The project is quite ambitious not least because of the volume of data that will be generated. The LSST team claim that they will generate 30 TB (1TB = 1024 GB = 1048576 MB) of data per night making up to 150 PB (1 Petabyte (PB) = 1024 TB) over the course of the 10 years that the survey will run. That is a huge amount of data and dealing with it is a very difficult task. Cue Google. On January 5th last year, the LSST announced that Google was joining forces with the LSST to provide the data processing, organisation and mining capabilities. In many ways this makes sense because Google now have 10 years of experience (and technology) of processing large amounts of data very quickly. From Google's point of view I imagine this all fits into the Google Earth/Sky development plan; imagine Google Sky showing real-time (or within the past 24 hours) images of the night sky and having a time slider so you can see things change. Google benefit and so do the LSST astronomers.

The LSST say that once the survey is underway

(around 2013) all the data will be freely available with no proprietaryrestrictions. They also say that "a sophisticated data managementsystem will provide easy access, enabling simple queries fromindividual users (both professionals and amateurs)". Given thatstatement and Google's involvement I would expect some kind of API for web applications.

Via Pierre Nel I notice that the LSST has now (3rd January 2008) received donations of ∀20M from the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences and ∀10M from Microsoft founder Bill Gates. These donations allow a start to be made on the construction of the telescope's large mirrors which will take 5 years to make. This is only pocket money to Bill Gates but it is interesting that he is effectively collaborating with Google. No sign of Apple yet.

The flood of free, up-to-date images of the sky may appear to be in direct competition with the commercial robotic telescopes but they give you the fun of controlling a telescope live so should still have a place. Whatever happens, five years from now should be an interesting time in terms of our access to the night sky.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 05th Jan 2008 (17:24 GMT) | Permalink

Extreme Sport in Space

Over on the New Frontiers blog 'The Fool' has a post about the possible future extreme sport of spacediving. Spacediving would be a bit like skydiving except you start by jumping from the deck of a rocket 100km above the surface with a space suit, oxygen, and parachutes. I've done a tandem skydive and a bungee jump before and I remember trying not to look down and putting thoughts of the ground out of my mind. I don't think I could do that from a platform in space. The only thing to rest your eyes on is the ground - a whole planet of it! Perhaps I would be able to distract myself thinking about a bowl of petunias.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 03rd Jan 2008 (18:10 GMT) | Permalink

It's AAS time again

For astronomers on the other side of the Atlantic - i.e. the US if you aren't paying attention - it is conference time. Each year the American Astronomical Society (pronounced double A S) has its big annual meeting near the start of January. I'm not sure why they have it at such an awkward time as it makes people stressed creating posters and writing presentations during the holidays but they do. This year it is being held in Austin, Texas. The conference is a huge get together for US astronomers and a scattering of other nationalities. One of the consequences of the AAS meeting is that there have been less astronomy news stories over the past few weeks as they are saved up for the conference. We can expect a flood of astronomy headlines over the next week.

Phil Plait, Pamela Gay, Fraiser Cain and Rebecca (of Astronomy Cast) are having a meet up in Austin for their readers and listeners on Tuesday night. It sounds like it should be fun. On a similar note, how do people this side of the Atlantic feel about having some kind of meet-up in London during European AstroFest in February?

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 03rd Jan 2008 (17:40 GMT) | Permalink

Arecibo saved?

Happy New Year, Happy Arbitrary Calendrical Fiducial Point or Happy Arbitrary Orbital Marker whichever you prefer.

Over on Twitter, GeoSteph pointed me towards a summary of fiscal 2008 funding for NASA that was approved by President Bush on 26th December. Not being in the US system I'm not entirely sure what to make of it although it does appear to be a bit less than the amounts proposed by the House and the Senate. However planetary science appears to have got slightly more than requested. One point in the summary that jumped out at me was a specific mention of the Arecibo Observatory. Over the past couple of years the US National Science Foundation (NSF) has proposed large cuts in the funding of the world's largest radio telescope (single dish) and threatened closure by 2011. The approved Omnibus spending bill appears to demand that NASA not let this happen:

Further, the Appropriations Committees are concerned that NASA may reduce support for the Arecibo Observatory which is used by NASA to observe and detect NEOs. The Committees believe that this observatory continues to provide important scientific findings on issues of near-space objects, space weather, and global climate change, as well as numerous other research areas. The Committees believe that these endeavors will have scientific merit far beyond the end of the decade. NASA is directed to provide additional funding for the Arecibo Observatory.

The text only seems concerned about the near Earth object (NEO) tracking, space weather and climate change but I hope this will also protect the great astrophysics done by the Observatory such as pulsar observations and the GALFACTS spectro-polarimetric survey.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 01st Jan 2008 (04:31 GMT) | Permalink
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