NAM, lovely NAM!

This week I shall mostly be in Belfast at the UK's National Astronomy Meeting 2008. It will be a busy week of many interesting talks and sessions. Inbetween the sessions I will be blogging, podcasting, twittering, photographing and possibly videoing along with Chris and Rob (providing tech support from afar). Make sure you subscribe to the NAM Blog feed to keep up with what's happening.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 30th Mar 2008 (23:15 BST) | Permalink

Summer Time

For us European-types, tonight marks the time when we put our clocks forward one hour onto summer time i.e British Summer Time (BST) in the UK and CEDT in most of the rest of Europe. The upshot is that Europeans and Russians will get an hour less sleep tonight whilst Australians will have one extra.

Daylight savings is a practice followed by many countries positioned away from the equator. It is mainly an attempt to shift daylight hours to a more suitable time for agriculture although I've always wondered why people can't just get up an hour earlier instead of us going through the twice-annual confusion especially as many parts of the world change on different dates. Interestingly, there are at least three major industrialised countries - Japan, China and India - that don't observe daylight savings and that makes up a significant fraction of the world's population that don't have to worry about it.

If only somebody would let the miserable British weather know that summer is supposed to be on the way.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 29th Mar 2008 (21:34 GMT) | Permalink

Earth Hour 2008 Tonight

Thanks to a tweet from fyc on Twitter I was reminded about Earth Hour. Earth Hour 2008 is taking place at 8pm (local time) tonight in 24 cities around the world. The aim is to get as many people to turn off their (unnecessary) lights as possible to reduce energy usage. However Earth Hour also has the happy side-effect of reducing light pollution for an hour and so allowing city-dwellers to get a view of the night sky as long as it isn't cloudy.

There are no UK cities officially participating although Dublin, in the Republic of Ireland, is. Even if your city isn't on the official list you can take part as an individual along with 280,000 others. You'll even save yourself some money.

Update (11:26 GMT): The Earth Hour people have a live blog that is giving updates as different cities move into the 8pm-9pm range. Christchurch, Fiji and Sydney have already taken part.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 29th Mar 2008 (11:18 GMT) | Permalink

From Chile with Love

Big physics and astronomy experiments are impressive sights. That means they make great film locations. In its time the Lovell Telescope was the place where the fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) died and regenerated as Peter Davison. The Parkes radio telescope in Australia has been in The Dish (a great movie in my opinion). The Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico featured in Contact. The Arecibo dish starred in the James Bond movie GoldenEye. Now the makers of James Bond are using another observatory - Paranal - in the upcoming Bond film Quantum of Solace (there is a spoiler warning on that link!).

The European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (which somehow makes the acronym ESO) have a great site for telescopes at Paranal in Chile. It is high in the Atacama desert so is both dry and has little atmospheric turbulence to twinkle the stars. The site is home to several telescopes making up the Very Large Telescope (VLT) and that means lots of astronomers need to go there to collect observations and reduce data. With large numbers of people visiting the remote site at altitude, ESO built their own astronomer hotel named the Residencia. The Residencia is a pretty stunning looking building and that together with the stunning and remote location inspired the film-makers to choose it as the secret lair of the next movie's Bond-villain.

Residencia
The ESO Residencia, looking towards West. CREDIT: Massimo Tarenghi, ESO PR Photo 05c/02
In the picture above you can see the low profile of the Residencia with the VLT on top of Paranal mountain in the distance. In the picture you can also see the dome covering an amazing 'oasis' and swimming pool. If only all observatories had guest quarters like this!

Residencia oasis
The swimming pool at the lowest floor of the Residencia, Paranal, Chile CREDIT: Massimo Tarenghi, ESO PR Photo 05e/02
It is great to see another observatory featured in popular culture. Perhaps the demands of Bond villains will inspire the astronomers at ESO to ask for one million dollars one 100 billion dollars to build the Extremely Large Telescope.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 28th Mar 2008 (22:53 GMT) | Permalink

Astronomical Clock

Whilst visiting the Italian town of Brescia in July 2006, I noticed an 16th century astronomical clock in the marketplace. It was really quite interesting, not just because of the astronomy connections, but also because it appears to be a true 24 hour clock rather than the familiar 12 hour clocks we usually see. The clock itself is situated on the Torre dell'Orologio (I think that literally translates as Tower of Time) in the Piazza della Loggia and I took a picture of it.

Brescia clock
The astronomical clock in Brescia, Italy. CREDIT: Stuart
I don't have much knowledge of astronomical clocks so I've been trying to work out what sort of information it includes. I have already said that I think this is a true 24 hour clock. My reasoning stems from the 24 Roman numerals around the outer circle. This is backed up by the position of the moveable Sun symbol and the time of day I took the image give or take potential differences between my camera clock and this clock's knowledge of time zones and daylight savings. The next ring in (ignoring the thin gold decoration ring) appears to show the 12 constellations of the Zodiac. I didn't hang around long enough to find out whether that ring rotated once every astronomical day or not.

The next three narrow rings appear to indicate the date (which was the 30th July) using Roman month names and numerals although I'm not entirely sure what the numbers 0 to 12 to 0 are supposed to represent. The inner circle shows the phase of the Moon and the little Moon symbol may be supposed to show the time of new Moon. However, new Moon was on the 25th July in 2006 rather than the 27th so my assumptions may be incorrect or the clock may need a little recalibrating.

The clock was a fascinating piece of history and I apparently missed the other astronomically interesting sites nearby.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 16th Mar 2008 (11:21 GMT) | Permalink

Colours and Google Sky

I've said many times before that I wanted a version of Google Maps/Sky/Universe that allowed you to change the wavelength that you were looking at. Earlier in the week Rob over at Orbiting Frog hacked the Google Sky time slider by attaching a different wavelength layer to each month. Hence, just like that, the time slider became a wavelength slider. Rob still hasn't worked out how to change the label on the time slider so any advice/hints are welcome in the comments to his post. Rob has done a great job including wavelengths from optical (H alpha - a nice red) through infra-red, sub-mm and well into the radio (including the 'famous' Haslem et al. 408 MHz map).

Not to be outdone, Google themselves have finally launched a Google Maps version of the sky (spotted via Dave P); those without the desktop software Google Earth can now experience the sky too. The web-based Google Sky also has a multi-wavelength view which has a little more functionality than Rob's version but without the all-sky spectral coverage. In web-based GoogleSky you can choose between optical images (using the DSS/SDSS), microwave (which looks like WMAP although there is nothing saying that) and infra-red (which looks like IRAS/COBE but again no specific credit). Each of those options has its own slider that allows you to fade between them. That is quite neat but I have a couple of criticisms of web-based Google Sky.

My first issue is the poles problem. This relates to the way Google have converted a sphere into squares in order to efficiently serve their maps to us. When they created Google Maps, they took the decision to not care about the regions around the Earth's poles. This meant that a square gridding worked well for all the populated parts of the planet but caused huge distortions near the poles. For practical purposes this makes a lot of sense on the Earth because people don't usually want directions to Dome C or the Scott Base. The problem comes when you use the same gridding for the sky as it means you don't get to see the area around the celestial poles. We shall not see Polaris in web-based Google Sky. The desktop version of Google Sky doesn't have the same problem so Rob can show the whole sky.

The second issue I have is really over semantics and is a little esoteric. The 'microwave sky' seems to show a WMAP image of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB) but it doesn't look quite right to me as the plane of our galaxy seems obvious but rather narrow and the Large Magellanic Cloud is visible. I probably need to explain what is odd here. The WMAP images you usually see show either the sky as it is - warts and all - or try to show only the ripples in the CMB. This second type of image, which usually looks like lots of random red/green/blue splodges over the sky has the main CMB temperature, the effect of our movement in the universe, our galaxy and other bright objects removed as much as possible. This version on web-based Google Sky seems to still have a small amount of the galaxy and the Large Magellanic Cloud still visible but our galaxy looks far too narrow to me. It may be that they have applied some kind of squashing of the colours to make the microwave Milky Way look a similar thickness to optical one. Whatever they have done to the image, it isn't the microwave sky as you would see it if you had huge microwave eyes.

Despite its limitations, the web-based Google Sky does have the advantage that it is easy to use for other web-based applications. I expect mash-ups to start appearing over the next few days. If you find any, or make one yourself, please post them in the comments below.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 14th Mar 2008 (10:17 GMT) | Permalink

Lunar and Planetary Science Conference Live!

Conference season is in the air. Whilst many creative and internet types are at SXSW in Austin, Pamela (Star Stryder) has arrived at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston. Pamela, together with fellow Astronomy Caster Rebecca, will be providing coverage of that conference over the the next week or so on the Astronomy Cast Live site. They have also sent roving reporter Scott Miller down to Florida to cover the launch of STS-123.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 09th Mar 2008 (12:11 GMT) | Permalink

Live Webchat with John Denham

As part of the National Science & Engineering Week in the UK, the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills will be holding a live webchat (spotted via Paul Crowther's excellent resource) on 13th March at 13:30 GMT. Questions must be submitted in advance and should focus on science and technology. Will anyone be allowed to ask him about the current STFC funding crisis?

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 09th Mar 2008 (02:03 GMT) | Permalink

ATV go for launch

The European Space Agency's Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) is currently undergoing preparations for launch at the Kourou Spaceport in French Guiana. Launch is due for 04:03 UT on Sunday morning but I'm not sure I'll be up early enough to see it. People in Australia or the western US probably have the most civilized viewing times. Once launched the ATV will head to the International Space Station as a supply ship. It will spend around six months attached to the ISS as a store room before detaching and finally burning up in our atmosphere. The cool thing about it is that it is unmanned and will guide itself to a rendezvous with the ISS.

Nearer launch time you'll be able to see the Kourou Spaceport on the ESA website. Be sure to check out the ESA ATV blog for up-to-the-minute news too. They currently have a telephone interview with ESA's ISS Programme Manager who is at the launch site.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 08th Mar 2008 (18:34 GMT) | Permalink

When a Lord met a Sir

I've been going through my photo collection this afternoon and realised that I have quite a few astronomy related images that I never got around to uploading. I'll start with a picture from October last year.

October 4th 2007 marked the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik and the start of the space age. To celebrate both that event and the 50th anniversary of the completion of the Lovell Telescope, which will forever be tied up with the launch of that first artificial Earth satellite, there was a celebration at Jodrell Bank Observatory. The good and the great were all in attendance and even the STFC Chief Executive and Science Minister were there; those were happier times. The picture below shows the Astronomer Royal Lord Rees of Ludlow and Sir Bernard Lovell. Sir Bernard founded the observatory in 1945 and was the visionary behind the telescope that was later named after him. He is now 94 and still frequently goes in to work at Jodrell Bank. He really is an inspirational astronomer.

Lord Martin Rees and Sir Bernard Lovell
Astronomer Royal Lord Rees (left) and Sir Bernard Lovell (right) founder of Jodrell Bank Observatory pictured at the 50th anniversary celebrations for the launch of Spuntik and the completion of the Lovell Telescope CREDIT: Stuart

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 08th Mar 2008 (17:53 GMT) | Permalink

Earth will be back after these messages

It has finally come to this. We are now going to be sending advertising to alien solar systems.

Back at the start of February, a Spanish antenna that is part of NASA's Deep Space Network broadcast a Beatles song towards Polaris. That project has now opened the way for 'novel' advertising campaigns. The EISCAT radar in Northern Scandinavia is being hired by Doritos to broadcast an advert into space. This message will be directed at the 45.5 lightyear distant 47 Ursa Major. This star has two known planets but no known life.

Prof van Eyken, Director of EISCAT, is quoted describing the NASA message as "a 1,000 light year round trip," and therefore "it's highly unlikely it will ever be received by extra-terrestrials."

He then goes on to claim that "there is a much greater chance thatthe Doritos advert will potentially be seen by billions of aliens." Is there? Why? I don't understand why the light-travel-time makes things more or less likely. We don't have any evidence of alien life existing at either Polaris or 47 Ursa Minor so how is this quantified? Perhaps the marketing folk mis-quoted him for their own ends.

We now return you to our feature presentation.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 07th Mar 2008 (13:18 GMT) | Permalink

Teachers to the barricades

The Manchester Evening News mentions that Sir Bernard Lovell is "astonished" about the possibility of funding being removed from e-MERLIN. The article goes on to quote various school teachers from around the region who have come to the defence of Jodrell Bank Observatory given the recent possibility of funding cuts to the e-MERLIN project. Amongst the excellent quotes was one from Richard Thornhill, a teacher from Disley Primary school in Cheshire. He said:

"It [Jodrell Bank Observatory] brings space to life for the children. When they see the telescope and meet some of the people involved in the research they are inspired."

I particularly liked that quote as I took the Jodrell Bank/Cheshire County Council inflatable planetarium to Disley Primary school a few years ago. I do remember it being a great school with good kids and teachers who actually showed an interest too. I can only hope that I was one of those to have inspired the kids there.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 07th Mar 2008 (12:41 GMT) | Permalink

Science & Engineering Week 2008

I may not be in the country at the moment but today marks the start of the annual National Science and Engineering Week (7-16 March 2008) run by the BA. Events are taking place all over the country covering everything from Toys and Forces (Surrey), to The Good the Bad and the Beautiful (York), to Dolphins across the Med (London), and Skywatch (Kendal). The BA are also running The Big Question blog in which they challenge the British public to ask the most perplexing, unusual, profound and puzzling scientific questions. So far these questions have included: "What is the highest number you can count up to?" and "Why are quarks impossible to isolate?". Answers are provided by scientists.*

* subject to the answer being known ;-)

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 07th Mar 2008 (12:06 GMT) | Permalink

Build your own: Phobos

I spotted a great post on the Planetary Society blog via Cosmos4u. Emily describes architect Chuck Clark's model for building your own Martian moon which he'll be presenting at the Lunar and Planetary Science conference next week. She presents a printable map of Phobos and then shows a photo-diary of her building it. The final results look pretty good. Fun for all the family!

Once you've made a moon you could try making models of INTEGRAL, SOHO, Mars Express, Mars Pathfinder, or ExoMars.

Cut-out

Hopefully someone (cough, cough, Pamela) might interview Chuck Clark for a podcast.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 06th Mar 2008 (11:56 GMT) | Permalink

The magic kingdom of marvellous things

It isn't every day that a ground-based astronomical telescope makes the front page of a UK national newspaper, gets a story inside and an analysis piece.

Further to my post from Monday, The Times are saying that Jodrell Bank Observatory may close over potential cuts of £2.5 million per year; an amount that was planned to fund the e-MERLIN project. This looks likely as a result of recent STFC Programmatic Review which has left many UK astronomers rather annoyed as several scientifically sound projects are scheduled to have their funding cut. The Times helpfully provide a list of other things the Government has spent £2.5 million on.

On the positive side of this, The Times's Nigel Hawkes wrote a whole article describing the significance of astronomy. I particularly liked his turn of phrase:

"They have found that there are stranger things in the Universe than ever were dreamt of. It is a laboratory where extreme physics impossible on Earth is an everyday affair. To blind ourselves to this is like choosing to shut a door on a magic kingdom of marvellous things."

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 06th Mar 2008 (00:59 GMT) | Permalink

WMAP at 5

The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe - WMAP to its friends - is a NASA spacecraft which observes the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB) left-over from around 300,000 years after the big bang. WMAP has just released what is called the "five year" data set (spotted via Andrew Jaffe). That means it includes five years worth of calibrated observations of the entire sky at microwave wavelengths. That was a huge job! Along with the data come some interesting papers. Unfortunately it is late, and I am hungry, so I'll have to leave them until tomorrow. Congratulations to the WMAP team.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 05th Mar 2008 (19:41 GMT) | Permalink

Galactic traffic jams

Back in January 2006 I wrote a post about density waves in galaxies. It is tempting to think about the spiral arms seen in Grand Design spirals such as M51 as structures of matter that stay fixed with respect to the stars, gas and dust in the galaxy i.e. if your star isin a spiral arm it will always be in the spiral arm. Real life isn't so neat and tidy though. It turns out that matter (the stars, gas and dust) can migrate in bulk around the spiral arm structure that we observe. The spiral arm is actually a density wave. The nearest everyday analogy I can think of is as a traffic jam. The cars on a motorway may be moving forwards through a traffic jam, but the jam itself can be stationary or, more likely, moving backwards.

On my previous post I linked to an animation of a traffic jam density wave. Now, via fyc on Twitter, the University of Nagoya have provided a video which shows a circular traffic jam. This research was done to study traffic management but just so happens to give a better demonstration for spiral arm density waves too.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 05th Mar 2008 (12:09 GMT) | Permalink

The line gets drawn

The results of the Science & Technology Facilities Council's Programmatic Review are now out. The Review lists all (although I think a couple may be missing) STFC-funded astronomy, particle physics and nuclear projects in order of priority. The accompanying text indicates that funds will probably only be available for 'High', 'Medium-High', and a significant part of the 'Medium-Lower' categories. That means that the following astronomy projects are now under threat (in no particular order): Astrogrid, Bepi-Colombo, BiSON, CASU/WFAU (except ESO commitment), Gemini, STP (e.g. SAMNET, EISCAT etc), HESS, Hinode, INTEGRAL, MERLIN/e-MERLIN & JIVE, UKIRT, VERITAS, ALMA Regional Centre, Auger, Cassini, Cluster, Issac Newton Group of Telescopes, SOHO, STEREO, UKSSDC, XMM Newton.

None of these projects will be cut because of scientific merit (or lack thereof). This is purely a financial result of the funding settlement from the Treasury and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. To quote the Review:

"It is important to emphasise that PPAN [Particle Physics, Astronomy, Nuclear committee] and PALS did not identify any poor quality projects in their rankings. All of the projects and facilities reviewed were doing, or would do, good science, and all were of sufficient quality to be funded."



I shall note that the PPAN and PALS committees that undertook the review consisted of scientists in those research areas. I wonder how much self-interest this process allows on the part of the committee members. Still, I don't know how else the process could be carried out.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 04th Mar 2008 (12:48 CEST) | Permalink

Where will they draw the line?

The UK's Science & Technology Facilities Council funding saga continues. We've had the Gemini Hokey Cokey (in, out, in, out, shake it all about). We've heard about the sudden £80 million (~USD 160 million) 'black hole' in STFC's budget for the next three years and their plan to make cuts of £120 million to cover it. There was the STFC Delivery Plan which listed things that were safe and some of the things that are under threat. We've had House of Commons Select Committee interrogations of the key players. So much for the "good news story" that Mr Ian Pearson MP was expecting.

To make the £120 million cuts, the STFC has been having a Programmatic Review. The aim was to sort every STFC-funded astronomy and particle physics project in order of priority. I don't know how objective this process is but once it is complete the powers-that-be at the STFC will draw a line on the list and everything below it will have its funding cut. Gulp! There will be an STFC Town Meeting tomorrow afternoon in The Cumberland Hotel, London where the current status of the Programmatic Review will be announced.

Last Friday evening STFC started contacting projects to let them know that they were under threat, following their evaluation by the Particle Physics, Astronomy and Nuclear (PPAN) advisory committee. At the moment these are rumours/leaks/speculation as the final decisions will take place near the end of the month.

One astronomy project that I hear is on tomorrow's threat list is e-MERLIN; a fibre optic upgrade to the UK's MERLIN National Facility. MERLIN links together radio telescopes across England and Wales as an interferometer. The large physical size of this array gives it a resolution at radio wavelengths equivalent to the Hubble Space Telescope. The upgrade is designed to increase the sensitivity of the array by up to 30 times. I would have thought that e-MERLIN ticked all the right boxes as it is based in the UK, it produces world class science, and studies 'high priority' science areas for STFC. Will the STFC cut funding to a project which is only just about to be commissioned (after an expensive upgrade) and is at the point where it will start to produce scientific output? A few months ago all this would have been almost unthinkable.

If e-MERLIN's funding is cut there could be more consequences. Apart from the loss of potential excellent science this could put Jodrell Bank Observatory in a very tricky situation as much of its research income comes from MERLIN, it is already facing 'belt-tightening' within the University of Manchester, and future projects such as the SKA and ALMA are not due to be operational for several years yet. Although the observatory has had a long history of funding crises over the past half century, the current crisis does seem to be the most serious since perhaps the 1970s.

I'm sure several other good projects - I say good because they had all been previously considered worthy of funding - will be threatened and we will probably hear official announcements from them tomorrow. We shouldn't forget the huge number of job cuts threatened at the Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh either. Nowhere is safe. Well, apart from some places.

Over the past few months the people at the top of STFC and DIUS have come across as apathetic at best and malicious at worst. They don't seem to have any passion for the science they fund unless it produces widgets. I find this a very depressing state of affairs especially as we are trying to build up to the International Year of Astronomy in 2009.

Save Astronomy

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 02nd Mar 2008 (19:07 GMT) | Permalink
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