Carnival of Space #43

Carnival of Space 43 this week is Oscar-themed and hosted by Ethan Siegel of Starts With A Bang. Just to clarify though, the Communicating Astronomy with the Public Journal isn't a production of the Lunar and Planetary Institute but the International Astronomical Union.

On the topic of the Carnival of Space, I keep wondering how much contribution there is from blog readers as opposed to blog owners. My feeling is that most featured posts are self-submitted by space/astro bloggers themselves. That method certainly produces an good Carnival each week but I think there should be a bit more interaction from readers too. My challenge to you, gentle reader, is to find an inspiring space-related blog post in the next week - from any blog - and submit it to Fraser.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 29th Feb 2008 (08:34 GMT) | Permalink

UK Gemini status improves

After seeing Pierre Nel's Flickr image of a Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Dark Matter post advertised before the funding crisis I wandered over to the STFC website. There I saw the welcome announcement that the UK is now to retain its full membership of Gemini. Of course the funding crisis for UK astronomy and particle physics hasn't gone away but the UK may be allowed to sell some of its observing time to other members of Gemini and possibly countries outside of the partnership. The UK has also be re-instated on the Gemini website.

If you, or your nation, would like to buy some observing time on Gemini South (in Chile) you should probably direct your enquiries to the Science & Technology Facilities Council or the UK Gemini Office.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 28th Feb 2008 (09:03 GMT) | Permalink

Carnival of Space 42

The Carnival of Space has reached its very special 42nd anniversary and is being hosted by Chris Lintott.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 21st Feb 2008 (23:46 GMT) | Permalink

STFC Outreach

The STFC have been getting a lot of bad press recently over the huge cuts they are implementing due to lack of funds. One of the areas STFC (formerly PPARC) have done well at is providing grants for science outreach projects. Each year they have two rounds of grant applications to support projects promoting STFC-related science areas (note that the range of areas increased from those of PPARC). Science Centres benefit from a specific set of grants and individual researchers and/or schools can apply for amounts from £500 to £15,000.

I've just spotted that the report for the latest round of awards (2007B) is now online. In total £50,000 was split between three science centres and just under £100,000 was split amongst 11 "Small Awards" (out of 45 applications). It is interesting to note is that three-quarters of the applications were in astronomy/space science but only half of the awards went to those areas. Either the overall quality of astronomy/space related applications isn't great or STFC wanted to encourage some of the other areas of its science programme to do outreach. After all, we need people to be excited about neutron sources too.

If you have a good idea for an outreach project (the committee seem to be encouraging applications from schools and projects related to nuclear/particle physics) the next deadline is 11 April 2008. The STFC website tells you how to apply.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 20th Feb 2008 (20:46 GMT) | Permalink

Things to see in the sky tonight

Sometimes I don't bother to talk about something on my blog because it has been mentioned elsewhere. An example is tonight/tomorrow morning's lunar eclipse which has been mentioned by Dave, Tom, Will, Phil, The Jodcast, and Rob. The eclipse is visible between 01:43 am UT and 05:09 am UT tomorrow morning so requires an early (or very late) night for observers in Europe and Africa. The eclipse can also be seen from South/North America (night of Wednesday 20th February), and Western Asia (morning of Thursday 21st February) at slightly more reasonable hours local time.

As well as the eclipse there are some other things to see in the sky. Perhaps the most urgent to see is US spy satellite USA 193 whose orbit is decaying. Some reports say it will be blown up by a missile in the imminent future (possibly during the eclipse tonight). According to Heavens Above I should be able to see USA 193 pass over Manchester tonight at 18:40:34 UT although I won't if the fog doesn't lift. Check out Heavens Above for predictions from where you live. Phil Plait has a good video summing up what is known about it. Don't forget to check out viewing predictions for the ISS and Shuttle as you might just get to see them too.

Finally, on the subject of seeing things in the night sky, you can be a Hero too. In this month's Sky At Night Magazine Will tells us to "save the skies... save the world" or in other words reduce our light wastage to help improve our view of space and reduce our global energy bills. We waste a lot of light and, as David Paulreported on the recent Jodcast, some places in England are trialling turning their lights off after midnight to reduce their environmental impact. Even if you aren't responsible for your local street lighting you can still make a difference. The SpaceWriter points us to Earth Hour which plans to get people all over the world to turn off unnecessary lights on March 29th 2008 between 8 and 9pm local time. This is an environmental campaign but I suggest sidewalk (or guerilla) astronomers take advantage of any improved viewing conditions and show your fellow occupants of the planet the wonders of the night sky.
Go on. Go outside and have a look upwards.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 20th Feb 2008 (12:41 GMT) | Permalink

Lovell Pit Stop

With all the excitement of Astrofest and others things last week I forgot to talk about the wheel change for the Lovell Telescope.

Several weeks ago telescope engineers noticed a crack on a steel tyre on one of the 64 wheels that allow the telescope to drive in azimuth (around horizontally). These wheels also support the 3200 tonnes of the telescope so keeping them in working order is pretty important. Anyone following the Lovell Telescope on twitter would probably have noticed that it has been a bit quiet for a number of weeks and that is due to the wheel replacement.

This is only the second time that one of the wheels has needed to be replaced in the Lovell Telescope's 50 year history. The first replacement was last year and Jodrell Bank's engineers took the opportunity then to get two wheels made so that they would have a spare. You can't just nip down to the local Kwikfit and get a new wheel however so the replacements had to be specially commissioned. Of course once you've got your new tyre it isn't that easy to replace as the telescope has to be effectively put up on jacks and that is a pretty big engineering job too.

In the picture below you can see some of the Jodrell Bank Observatory engineers working on the broken wheel at the base of one of the supporting towers (I can't tell if it is green tower or red tower from this angle). The darker grey surface visible on the bowl is actually the original surface from 1957. The current surface (the nice white one seen when face on) actually sits a few metres above the original surface. You can also see the lift (elevator) shaft going up the tower.

Lovell Telescope repair
Engineers replace a broken steel tyre on the 76m diameter Lovell Telescope, Jodrell Bank Observatory CREDIT: Ed Swinden, University of Manchester

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 18th Feb 2008 (17:06 GMT) | Permalink

Bad packaging

Here is some rather unfortunate packaging seen on a University of Oxford "Classic Telescope" in The Works bookshop in Hatfield. The telescope is part of the University of Oxford young scientist series and the box says "Have fun exploring the wonders of astrology". I can only hope that the packaging people meant to say "Have fun exploring the wonders of astronomy". This doesn't reflect* well on the University of Oxford.

Oxford Telescope
A poorly written piece of packaging on a University of Oxford Young Scientists Series telescope. CREDIT: Brian
* After all it looks like a refractor. No puns were harmed during the writing of this post.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 15th Feb 2008 (19:40 GMT) | Permalink

UK Gemini access update

I'm sure all regular readers of this blog are aware of the current UK funding crisis affecting particle physics and astronomy. This first came to light in November when the UK's Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) announced their plan to reduce funding to Gemini. Previously the UK contributed to around 25% of the total cost of the observatory. Since November STFC have proposed cuts to many other projects and research grants.

In January the Gemini Board (presumably minus the UK part) responded to STFC's suggestions by ejecting the UK from the collaboration with immediate effect. That meant that all the UK-led observing proposals were removed from the list of planned observations. The UK was also removed from the Gemini website. Yesterday there was some good news as the Gemini Board reversed their previous decision and conditionally re-instated the UK-led observations for the first semester of this year. This is good news for those students, post docs and senior academics who had had their research proposals suddenly removed after having proved their scientific worth.

There is no information on the status for the second semester of 2008 or indeed future years.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 12th Feb 2008 (17:13 GMT) | Permalink

What is the point of astronomy? - part II

Back in 2006, in response to a few people I had spoken to, I wrote a post describing some of the practical benefits of astronomy. The list contained a diverse range including digital cameras, weather prediction, identification of cancers, and providing a warning about Earth-impacting asteroids. The list is quite long, contains some surprises and is certainly not comprehensive. Today I've just read about two more practical benefits. Sheila Crosby writes that the ceramic partof ceramic hobs was developed for telescope mirrors and World Science reports that astronomysoftware may help to save the whale shark. That is one of the great things about pure science, it can sometimes provide technological benefits in fields totally unrelated to the original research.

One might hope that the powers-that-be at STFC know all this. I can only assume that they haven't put much effort into sharing these spin-offs and practical benefits with the Government given the current funding crisis. Come on STFC, get your act together and tell our elected representatives how useful astronomy actually is. You might also want to explain that science funding isn't just about short-term economic gains. That may be lost on the politicians though.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 11th Feb 2008 (18:58 GMT) | Permalink

Physics teacher decline

There is a story on the BBC News website reporting that the number of applicants to become physics teachers in England has dropped from 185 to 129. Apparently Wales and Scotland are seeing similar declines. The article says that "unless the demand for graduates elsewhere in the economyexperienced a downturn, it was difficult to see how all teachertraining places would be filled this year." Just at a time when the DIUS want to find physics graduates to teach in schools, they (through the proxy of STFC) are just about to make several hundred highly qualified physicists graduates unemployed at Daresbury, the ATC, Rutherford Appleton Labs, and in physics departments around the country. Handy timing for the DIUS.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 10th Feb 2008 (20:21 GMT) | Permalink

0957+561

Last week the BBC's very glossy science programme Horizon was titled 'What on Earth is Wrong with Gravity?' (available for another 21 hours on the BBC iPlayer). It was presented by man-of-the-moment Dr Brian Cox who, before starting a PhD at the University of Manchester in the late 90s, was in the pop band D:Ream. The band's most (only?) famous hit was Things Can Only Get Better which was used as the anthem to Tony Blair's election victory in 1997. Over the past few weeks and months Brian has been doing an excellent job explaining the issue of the STFC's budget cuts to the press and has appeared on both the Today Programme and BBC North West Tonight. He also does an excellent job talking about the future work of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

I had recorded the Horizon programme and was reminded to watch it as my aunty and uncle had been telling me about it over lunch on Saturday. I must say that I found the style to be a bit distracting, and kept wishing that Brian would just talk to the camera rather than in random directions, but the content was pretty good. However, in my astro-geek ways I did spot one mistake in relation to the first gravitational lens discovered.

The lens is actually a luminous galaxy surrounded by others that sit between us and a much more distant quasar (a very active galaxy). As their mass distorts the space-time around them, light heading from the distant quasar past this closer galaxy cluster has its path distorted and bent. The result, in this case, is that two images of the distant quasar are seen rather than just one; one from light bent around one side of the cluster and the second from light going the other way. These two images of the background quasar were first reported in Nature in 1979 by Dennis Walsh (Univ. of Manchester), Bob Carswell (Univ. of Cambridge) and Ray Weymann (Steward Observatory, Texas). The original observation of the lens, named 0957+561, was made with the Lovell Telescope in a survey in 1972 but, due to the resolution of the telescope, the two images looked like one object. A follow up of this survey using optical telescopes at Kitt Peak Observatory showed both images and spectra showed them to be the same object.
OK, back to the Horizon programme and the geeky mistake I was referring to. Whilst at Kitt Peak Brian said "...at first sight it looks like two galaxies. In fact, they gave them different names; 957 and 561." So what is the mistake? Well, 957 and 561 were not the names of the two images. I can see how easy it is to make that mistake if you don't know the conventions. The name is actually that of the object found in the original radio survey and this name refers to its position on the sky. The 0957 part refers to the Right Ascension of the object in hours and minutes (9 hours and 57 minutes) and 561 refers to its declination in decimal degrees (56.1 degrees). This may seem a strange way to do things but it actually does make it easier to find objects on the sky once you start to remember the telephone-number-like names. I find it difficult to remember where objects such as NGC 7027 are but 0836+710 is straightforward to find even if I can't remember what it looks like.

This little slip up in the understanding of naming conventions shouldn't take away from the programme though; it really is trivial and doesn't affect the science content. I am surprised that it slipped through especially considering that Brian works in the same physics department that Dennis Walsh worked in and that is home to a big bunch of radio astronomers. At least the programme made it possible for me to talk to my relatives about fundamental physics over lunch. That doesn't happen a lot.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 05th Feb 2008 (00:38 GMT) | Permalink

Beatle Greetings

By now I'm sure everyone is aware of the NASA publicity stunt to transmit The Beatles' "Across The Universe" towards the 48th brightest star in the sky (Polaris). This raises a few obvious questions. Firstly, why are they sending a Beatles song to a star? Given the way the stunt is being framed in the media, it does give the impression of trying to communicate with alien life but as Phil points out, Polaris is a pretty unlikely place for life as we know it. The real reasons are to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the song, the 50thanniversary of NASA, 45 years of the Deep Space Network and 50 yearssince the launch of Explorer 1.

In terms of communication with ET, there are existing protocols - set up by the SETI Permanent Study Group - that discourage deliberate attempts to broadcast our existence such as the one happening tonight. Sending messages in this way is named active-SETI or METI - Messaging to Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence - and back in 2005 the Study Group proposed a scale - the San Marino Scale - to quantify the impact of such transmissions on the occupants of the Earth. The scale ranges from "Insignificant" to "Extraordinary" and gives some idea of the potential hazard that comes from shouting in the jungle. In this NASA-Beatles stunt, the transmitted power levels are likely to be quite low compared to the output of our Sun so I don't think the level of concern would get above "Minor" at most. Of course various people in the past have read poetry to the Moon (MP3, 1.9 MB), beamed 2 million Craigslist ads into space, and sent pixellated graphics to globular cluster M13. This isn't hugely different.

On an aside, I note that the music of The Beatles is still within copyright and NASA are transmitting it in MP3 format. NASA do have clearance to transmit it but ET don't have clearance to receive it (they will also need an MP3 decoder). I hate to think that a first contact might be followed by RIAA lawyers slapping law-suits on the unfortunate interstellar 'downloaders'.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 04th Feb 2008 (19:09 GMT) | Permalink
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