Citizen science from the outback

Via my friend Peter, I see that the BBC News website has a slideshow of astronomical images taken by retired miner and amateur astronomer Trevor Barry from Broken Hill, New South Wales. Trevor has a large Meade telescope and spotted an electrical storm occurring on Saturn. I love that he went around telling everyone in the neighbourhood when he first found it. As he says, he was "stoked". Trevor's images are great and he knows what he's talking about; he did a distance learning course with Swinburne Astronomy Online.

According to the ABC, an associate of the radio and plasma wave science team at the University of Iowa heard about it and now Trevor is one of four amateur astronomers around the world contributing to the project. The ground-based observations from Earth are needed because the Cassini spacecraft can't observe the storm every day as it is orbiting the planet. A great example of a way to be a citizen scientist.

Thinking of things Australian, Ian Musgrave has been observing Comet 2007 W1 Boattini from the ground and from space using STEREO over the last few weeks.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 24th Jun 2008 (12:16 BST) | Permalink

What is the point of astronomy? - part III

Astronomy is amazing. Over the past few hundred years we've found out that our planet is one of a host of objects orbiting the Sun, which itself is one of around 100 billion stars in our galaxy which is, in turn, one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe. We've managed to look backwards through 13.7 billion years of cosmic history to just 300,000 years after the big bang. We've tested the fundamental laws of physics in some of the most extreme environments that exist. For some people this isn't enough.

Some people like to know that scientific research generates widgets. They like to know that it produces things that you can buy and sell or that have a direct, practical benefit to our everyday lives. I've previously described some of these benefits - which don't include Teflon - and I've got a new one to add. Radio Astronomers working on a new low frequency radio telescope spread over Europe (LOFAR) are also contributing to the fight against fungal diseases in potatoes.

Astronomy has a long history of aiding agriculture. Traditionally this has been through charting the seasons and providing advice on when to plant crops. Now, the humble potato is keeping up with the latest in technology with the help of some astronomers. It turns out that the ICT infrastructure being designed to link thousands of individual radio telescope elements together can also be used to collect micro-climate information about the fields they are sitting in. Each node hooks up to a wireless mesh and the network works out the relative positions of the nodes within the field. With incredibly detailed information about the temperature, pressure, humidity and variation in illumination over the potato fields, the farmers (or more likely, some software) will be able to work out which areas will be most at risk from fungal infection and target those.

This cross-over between science, technology and farming does lead to some interesting paper titles. I never imagined I would ever read a paper titled "Radio Propagation in Potato Fields".

Year of the Potato
I hope Pamela is impressed; I've found a link between 2008 Year Of The Potato and 2009 Year of Astronomy. CREDIT: Stuart

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 16th Jun 2008 (20:29 BST) | Permalink

The Rank and Files

You may recall that the UK funding council that pays for particle physics and astronomy projects - STFC - recently had a funding crisis despite the government claiming that all was well and funding had increased. Back in March a list was released (PDF) giving STFC's view of the relative ranking of every UK funded astronomy, particle and nuclear physics experiment. It should be noted that all of them were considered excellent, but with limited funding available, something had to be cut. Nobody at STFC seemed to think that asking government for more money would work.

After a community outcry, there was a consultation period and the Particle Physics, Astronomy and Nuclear (PPAN) science committee then had the thankless task of going through all the feedback and producing a new ranking. Yesterday saw the publication of that PPAN list (PDF) and the report of the Ground-Based Astronomy STFC Consultation Ad-hoc Advisory Panel Report to PPAN (PDF) which received 268 individual responses. It should be noted that neither of these are the final outcome of the Programmatic Review. That gets left to the STFC big-wigs to decide.

I have produced the list below, highlighting all astronomy/space science/astro-particle experiments in red. For reference I have included the reported "current PPAN band" (four point scale with 1 being high priority), the Ground-based Astronomy Advisory Panel's revised band (four point scale with 1 being high priority), the PPAN rank from their response to the consultation panels (five point scale with alpha 5 being high priority) and the old March ranking.

ProjectCurrent PPAN Band1
1=high, 4=low
Panel's revised band1
1=high, 4=low
PPAN Rank2
5=high, 1=low
Previous Rank
Advanced LIGOalpha 5High
ATLASalpha 5High
CMSalpha 5High
GEO 600alpha 5High
GridPPalpha 5Medium-high
Herschel PLSalpha 5Medium-high
JCMT/SCUBA211alpha 5High
Jefferson Labalpha 5High
JWST MIRIalpha 5Medium-high
KMOS11alpha 5High
Neutron EDMalpha 5High
Planck PLSalpha 5Medium-high
RISING/GSIalpha 5High
SPIRALalpha 5High
CLOVERalpha 4Medium-high
Dark Energy Survey22alpha 4Medium-high
ELT R&D23alpha 4Medium-high
ExoMarsalpha 4Medium-high
GAIAalpha 4Medium-high
Hinodealpha 4Lower
HPC Band 1alpha 4Lower
LHC-balpha 4Medium-lower
LHC upgradesalpha 4Medium-high
LISA & LISA Pathfinderalpha 4Medium-high
SKA R&D23alpha 4Medium-high
Solar Orbiteralpha 4Medium-high
Stereoalpha 4Medium-lower
SuperNEMOalpha 4Medium-high
SWIFTalpha 4High
T2K acceleratoralpha 4Medium-high
T2K ECALalpha 4Medium-high
Venus Expressalpha 4High
Zeplin IIIalpha 4Medium-high
AGATAalpha 3
ALICEalpha 3Lower
ALMA Regional Centre34alpha 3Medium-lower
Argonnealpha 3Medium-lower
Augeralpha 3Medium-lower
Cassinialpha 3Medium-lower
CDF including Rolling Grantsalpha 3Medium-lower
Clusteralpha 3Medium-lower
Detector R&D for Future Collidersalpha 3
D0 including Rolling Grantsalpha 3Medium-lower
Electron EDMalpha 3Medium-lower
HPC Band 2alpha 3Lower
Issac Newton Group of Telescopes32alpha 3Medium-lower
Inverse Square Lawalpha 3*Medium-high
ISOLDEalpha 3Medium-lower
Jyvasklaalpha 3Medium-lower
Liverpool Telescope23alpha 3Medium-high
Roadmap to XEUSalpha 3Medium-high
SOHOalpha 3Medium-lower
TRIUMFalpha 3Medium-lower
UKSSDCalpha 3Medium-lower
XMM Newtonalpha 3Medium-lower
e-MERLIN/JIVE42alpha 2Lower
Gemini43alpha 2Lower
HESSalpha 2Lower
MAMIalpha 2Lower
MINOSalpha 2Lower
UKIRT42alpha 2Lower
Astrogridalpha 1Lower
BaBaralpha 1Lower
Bepi-Colomboalpha 1Lower
BISON Operationsalpha 1Lower
CALICEalpha 1Lower
CASU/WFAU (excluding ESO committed)alpha 1Lower
EISCAT Supportalpha 1Lower
HERMESalpha 1Lower
HPC Band 3alpha 1Lower
Integralalpha 1Lower
LCFIalpha 1Lower
Legnaroalpha 1Lower
Louvain-La-Neuvealpha 1Lower
Maxlabalpha 1Lower
VERITASalpha 1Lower
1 These rankings are listed in the Ground-Based Astronomy STFC Consultation Ad-hoc Advisory Panel Report to PPAN Appendix 3 with 1 being high and 4 being low.
2 This ranking comes from the Response to Consultation Panels and Final Recommendations of PPAN (PDF) with 5 being high and 1 being low.
* Note that the Inverse Square Law experiment is listed as level 3 in the table but described as level 4 in the main text. Also, a few experiments no longer appear on the new ranking and I'm not sure why.

Are you confused? I am. Let's consider the PPAN rankings first. In the PPAN document they use five levels with level alpha 1 being low priority and level alpha 5 being high priority. This seems slightly at odds with the reported PPAN ranking in Appendix 3 of the Ad Hoc committe report even if we invert the numbers; the reported Liverpool Telescope rankings don't match. In the PPAN report there are some big movers. For a start Hindoe has jumped up the listing from Lower (lowest level of old ranking) to Level alpha 4 (Level alpha 5 being the highest priority) and this is due to more information on publication numbers and calibration status. High Performance Computing was previously Lower but has been split into three bands which are made Level alpha 1, alpha 3 and alpha 4 in the new ranking. That saves some of those experiments. The particle physics experiment ALICE has jumped from Lower to Level alpha 3. The Swift and Venus Express space missions have dropped slightly but not significantly. The ground based observing facilities of e-MERLIN, HESS, Gemini and UKIRT have all been lifted from the Lower level up to Level alpha 2.

The Ground-based Astronomy Advisory Panel don't fully agree with PPAN on the rankings. They say ING, e-MERLIN, Gemini and UKIRT are all more important. They warn:

"However, having reviewed all the material in depth webelieve that the ranking outcomeof the PR [Programatic Review] has got this balance wrong. The proposed closing down of world-class highly productive facilities on a very rapid timescale, in addition to the loss of science to the UK community, would seriously damage the UK's high-standing in international astronomy. In terms of metrics such as publications and citations this would jeopardise our hard won position as second only to the USA in general (and ahead in some areas), and number one in Europe."

The PPAN and Ground-based Astronomy Advisory Panels had extremely difficult jobs. They were told to produce a zero-sum solution which means that to save anything requires other things to be cut. The trouble is that three of the projects that were being considered to be cut (e-MERLIN, Gemini and UKIRT) cost around £23 million whereas there is only a "flexibility" of around £6 million pounds given that many higher ranking projects had already spent the majority of their costs. I don't envy either group for their tasks and it just shows how difficult it is to decide which excellent research projects are cut. Amongst the final comments of the Advisory Panel are:

"Finally, if it transpires that a major long term reduction in the UK's astronomy base is unavoidable, with all the negative consequences that this implies i.e. one cannot easily resurrect a community built around a subject area once it has been dispersed, then the panel strongly believes it is essential this is managed as part of an open and fully considered process. Our panel's efforts in just over 7 weeks may contribute to this process, but it cannot be considered as entirely adequate in determining the fate of whole areas of astronomy.

I hope we aren't doomed and I seriously hope people are very busy working on the next Comprehensive Spending Review submissions to government to improve the situation for next time.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 14th Jun 2008 (14:25 BST) | Permalink

A Case of the Plutoids

Do you remember the momentous events of summer 2006? You mean you've forgotten already? It was at the International Astronomical Union's General Assembly in Prague. How could you have forgotten that? Despite all the hugely interesting astronomy and astrophysics that was being presented at the General Assembly, the main topic of interest for some surrounded the definition of the term 'planet'. This was discussed at great length on my blog at the time and I'm now totally apathetic.

One outstanding matter from that General Assembly was the need for a decision on the name for the class of dwarf planets beyond the orbit of Neptune. The term Pluton was initially suggested but rejected once the geologists pointed out that the term was already used for a type of rock. The wording of the final resolution had settled on "plutonian object" but that was also rejected in the final vote and the IAU told to go off and think of a better name. Now, two years later, they have settled on Plutoids. Don't panic, I'm sure there will be a cream for it.

A plutoid is an object orbiting the Sun at a distance (semi-major axis) greater than that of Neptune, whose self-gravity is strong enough for it to be in hydrostatic equilibrium, and has cleared the neighbourhood around it's orbit. For practical purposes, an object's absolute magnitude will be used to work out if it is to be classed as a plutoid. I worry that that will cause problems for the future.

If you are the type of person who really likes to have well defined boxes for your solar system objects, you may like to know that the two currently known plutoids are Pluto and Eris.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 11th Jun 2008 (16:56 BST) | Permalink

VLT: For Your Eyes Only

Back in March I mentioned that the Very Large Telescope's Residencia was being used as a location in the upcoming James Bond Movie - Quantum of Solace. ESO have now released a short video clip in the style of those classic spy movies to show what they have at the Paranal site. The video, titled "Top Secret: The VLT Files", is pretty good with some nice 3D/2D effects.

Check out the Bond At Paranal site for more information about ESO, an interview with the stars of the real movie, photos, downloads and more.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 09th Jun 2008 (19:07 BST) | Permalink

IYA New Media Live!

I forgot about this and was making my dinner but luckily caught a tweet from Will Gater reminding me that the IYA New Media workshop in St Louis is being web cast. If you're interested in the internet and the Year Of Astronomy, check it out.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 01st Jun 2008 (21:01 BST) | Permalink

Eddington and Einstein

Flicking through the latest edition of Physics World I see that the BBC and HBO are making a film about Arthur Eddington and Albert Einstein with some big star names. The part of British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington will be played by Doctor Who star David Tennant, and Andy Serkis (Gollum in Lord of the Rings) will take the role of Albert Einstein.

Eddington was an accomplished astrophysicist who had been chief assistant to the Astronomer Royal at Greenwich and was made director of the Cambridge Observatory (located a few miles from the more recent Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory) in 1914. He carried out research into stars and the processes by which they work. Amongst his achievements he showed that radiation pressure was necessary to keep stars from collapsing under their own gravity and the Eddington Limit now appears in most undergraduate astronomy texts.

One of Eddington's other famous contributions were his observations taken on Principe during the total solar eclipse of May 1919. He (and his team) observed the positions of stars near the limb of the Sun during totality and compared them to the positions seen at other times of the year. The stars were seen to be in different positions because the light from them had been deflected whilst passing the huge mass of the Sun. All this happened in the context of World War I and there was muchnational pride at stake; would the British Newton be superseded by the

German Einstein? Although it was possible to explain half the observed deflection using Newtonian gravity, the observed deflection required Einstein's Theory of General Relativity. The announcement of those measurements, at the Royal Society, caused an international sensation at the time as one of the first observational tests of relativity.

All this exciting physics combined with the personal stories of scientists communicating across the front lines of a war and good actors should make for a good drama. Filming is already underway in Cambridge and Einstein and Eddington will air later in the year on BBC TWO. I can't wait.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 01st Jun 2008 (16:43 BST) | Permalink
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