Belgian Moon

Full Moon
Just past full Moon on 19th July 2008. Image taken in Liege, Belgium CREDIT: Stuart
I've been working in Belgium for the past three weeks and have been kept very busy. Hence the lack of posts here. The weather has been pretty overcast too, so I have only managed a few glimpses of the summer triangle, Jupiter and the Moon.

Tonight the sky was clear and the just-past-full Moon was particularly striking. I wanted a photograph but I only had my cheap and cheerful digital camera with me. It has no manual exposure settings so totally over-exposed the Moon on my first attempt. However, I managed to fool the auto exposure by pointing the camera at a bright security light, half pressing the shutter then turning around and fully pressing the button. The result isn't too bad and it is possible to make out some of the mare. I was taking the picture over the tops of the trees so the Moon is slightly eclipsed by a branch which blew into the shot.

Seeing the full Moon made me realise there are less than two weeks to go until the total solar eclipse. The solar eclipse will be visible from Greenland, Russia, Mongolia and China and a partial eclipse will be seen from parts of Europe, the Middle East, and India. I wish I was going to a point that can see totality but I'll just have to make do with a partial eclipse. If you watch the eclipse remember to view it safely and not to look directly at the Sun.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 19th Jul 2008 (23:49 BST) | Permalink

Looking the other way

The night sky is a big place. It is so big in fact that it is difficult to monitor all of it all the time. Sometimes, despite the many amateur and professional astronomers looking skywards, something goes bang and we miss it. That happened back in June 2007 when the star USNO-A2.0 0450-03360039 exploded and became a naked eye novae. Nobody on Earth saw it. Luckily, during October 2007, ESA's XMM-Newton accidentally spotted the novae as it was slewing from one target to another and alerted everyone else. It is pretty amazing that between six billion people we failed to spot one of the brightest novae for almost a decade.

There are plans such as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope to map the entire sky on a daily basis but they are have not yet been built. In the mean time we will continue to rely on the amateur astronomers of the world and serendipitous discoveries such as this one.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 19th Jul 2008 (01:25 BST) | Permalink

Make-make: the third Plutoid

Astronomy Picture of the Day is a brilliant resource with great pictures of the cosmos every day. It isn't usually a source of news for me but today is an exception. According to APoD, 2005 FY9 has finally been given a name and has joined the ranks of the plutoids. The new name for the large lump of stuff in the outer solar system tentatively named 2005 FY9 is Make-make (pronounced MAH-kay MAH-kay apparently). The name is that of the Polynesian creator of humanity and was suggested due to the placement of the discovery telescope on a Pacific island. Along with 2003 EL61 and 2003 UB313 (better known as Eris), Make-make was one of the objects discovered by Mike Brown that forced the IAU to reconsider the definition of a planet.

Although we have no images of the surface of Make-make, APoD have bravely substituted an artist's impression of Sedna until we do.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 16th Jul 2008 (08:35 BST) | Permalink

Adopt a Scientist

The uncertain funding situation of astronomy seems to be a global problem. Via etacar11 on Twitter I see that the SETI Institute has an "Adopt A Scientist" programme. Like animal adoption programmes, for only a few pounds, dollars, euros (or other favourite currency) per month you could help astrobiologists look for Martian analogs in California. You could even visit the Allan Telescope Array and have dinner with Jill Tarter and her husband.

The SETI Institute is a private, non-profit organisation and this type of fundraising is important to help them continue with their work.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 08th Jul 2008 (00:38 BST) | Permalink

It's the Moon, over

I first caught this via Will Gater and I notice that Rob has blogged it too. To highlight misuse of the 999 service - the UK's emergency services number - Welsh police have released examples of what you shouldn't call them about. The example in the BBC News story is of a man calling 999 to report a mysterious, unidentified, luminous object hovering over a nearby mountain. After a police car was dispatched to identify the object, they reported back on the radio with "It's the Moon, over".

The audio is quite amusing, and it is easy to laugh, but this also highlights something else. Some people (I hesitate to say many) look up into the night sky so infrequently that they can't identify something even as familiar as the Moon. For thousands of years the Moon has been familiar to humanity. Now, nearly 40 years after the first human landed on our largest satellite, it seems that some people fail to identify it in the night sky. Why is this? I don't know. Could it be the increase in light pollution? Perhaps people are just too busy to look up? No doubt they have more pressing concerns down on the ground. Perhaps they just don't share the thrill of knowing our place in the universe.

I hope that the International Year of Astronomy can be a call to arms to amateur and professional astronomers, and others that like space stuft to re-engage people with humanity's shared heritage of the night sky. In early April 2009 there will be a chance for a global star party as part of the 100 hours of astronomy. That will be a great opportunity for sidewalk/guerilla astronomy. Perhaps by 2010 there will be no more calls to the police wondering what the Moon is.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 04th Jul 2008 (21:00 BST) | Permalink

Looking into the Karman Vortex

With amazing missions observing Mars, Venus and the Saturn system, itis all too easy to forget that the Earth has some pretty amazing features tosee too. Chris Brooke sent me a link to his blogpost about the 30 Most Incredible Abstract Satellite Images of Earth. The images Chris uses were part of a NASA exhibitiontitled Earth As Art which showcases amazing landscape, seascape and atmospheric patterns seen by Landsat 7. I recognise a few of them but as always there are some new ones I haven'tseen before.

Karman Vortices
These vortices appeared over Alexander Selkirk Island in the southern Pacific Ocean. Landsat 7 WRS Path 6 Row 83, center: -33.18, -79.99 CREDIT: USGS/NASA
Given my fascination with clouds - they always get in the way of observing the night sky (and sometimes the day if you observe at 30 GHz) - I thought I would show a Von Karman Vortex Street. These vortices were caused by the unsteady separation of air flow over Alexander Selkirk Island in the southern Pacific. As I've shown it here, the wind would be heading towards the right. To observe the effect you need the correct ratio of the speed of the flowing fluid - in this case the atmosphere - to the viscosity of the liquid. Basically this causes eddies to form from each side of the obstructing object in turn. As a result, the eddies also have opposite rotations. As they move further away from the obstruction they disappate their energy through friction and gradually disperse.

The Earth as Art site has more examples of pretty Karman Vortices.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 03rd Jul 2008 (19:14 BST) | Permalink

The Big Science Read 2008

I seem to spend most of my days sat in front of a computer. Although I tend to be reading a screen in one form or another I don't feel that I actually spend enough time sitting down with a good, eye-strain-free, book.

For many years in the UK we have had various national book weeks - this year running from October 6th to 12th - to encourage kids to read more. In fact, I remember taking part in one myself when I was at school. My class were even lucky enough to receive a personal letter from the brilliant author Roald Dahl thanking us for all the events we organised.

Of course book weeks focus on reading in general and usually encourage people to read fiction. However, the arts and the sciences are not mutually exclusive things and there is no reason for them to be separate. So, this year sees the launch, in Manchester, of the Big Science Read. The aim is to encourage people to "explore, re-discover and get excited about" science-themed books. That includes both science fact and science fiction. I think this is a great idea and I have just started reading a pretty interesting science-themed book myself. I'll post a review of it here in a few days time.

Go lose yourself in a book for a while.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 03rd Jul 2008 (14:14 BST) | Permalink

Changes to ESA?

Update (3/7/2008): Welcome to readers of Carnival of Space #61. If you read an interesting space or astronomy themed blog post around the internet this week, send it to Fraser Cain and it might end up in Carnival of Space #62. After that public service announcement, on with the blog...

Via Orbiting Frog I see that President Sarkozy is wanting a more politically driven European Space Agency (ESA). The claim is that without more political control ESA may "fall behind" other space agencies. I must admit that I'm not sure what that statement means exactly.

ESA is a strange organisation in many ways. Unlike it's US counterpart, NASA, it is composedof 17 member countries. Many of these states are also in the European Union, but two - Switzerland and Norway - are not. Canada is considereda cooperating state and is obviously not in the EU either. This hasmeant that the EU, whilst having some influence on ESA, doesn't control it.

Under the reported French proposals, European Union politicians would have more say in what gets funded. Currently, ESA managers/scientists/engineers decide what projects will be funded based on scientific merit and by taking into account what other space agencies are/will be doing. This seems quite similar to the UK's Haldane Principle which leaves decisions on which science projects are funded to the scientific community. The BBC article claims that the French think the UK would be a good ally in this plan although the UK government claims to follow the Haldane Principle (otherwise it could bail out STFC).

Despite having a much smaller budget (€2.9 billion in 2006 not including funding of the national agencies BNSC, ASI, CNES, DLR and INTA) than NASA ($15.1 billion in 2006), ESA is currently supporting a host of missions: Mars Express (Mars), Venus Express (Venus), Rosetta (comet rendezvous), Ulysses (Sun), Cluster (Sun/Earth), INTEGRAL (gamma-ray observatory), XMM-Newton (X-ray observatory), and is a partner in Hubble, Cassini-Huygens (Saturn and Titan), SOHO (solar), and Double Star (Sun/Earth). It will soon be launching BepiColombo (Mercury), Planck (Cosmic Microwave Background), Herschel (Far infrared and sub-mm observatory), Gaia (3D mapping of the Milky Way), LISA pathfinder (gravitational waves) and is involved with JWST (infrared observatory). ESA also has plenty of future plans too so it isn't exactly slacking in terms of science output.

The proposals suggest that political control would give a greater emphasis to exploration, especially of Mars. Most people are in favour of that and indeed ESA already has plans to send robots and people to Mars. However, I'm worried that with more political control this will be at the expense of science missions as I don't really think more funding will become available. Of course, it is important that some effort is put into human exploration of Mars and the Moon but it seems a huge waste of resources for NASA, ESA, JAXA, CNSA and ISRO to all put huge effort into separate plans.

Although I don't think EU politicians know best which space projects to fund, that doesn't mean I wouldn't like to reform some aspects of ESA. I think there is probably more beauracracy than necessary and some other administrative changes could be made too. I would also suggest that ESA improve its external communication as the agency does a poor job of releasing catchy press releases, scientific results for public consumption and exciting websites. Exceptions such as ESA's Hubble site exist but plenty of exciting results get lost in the 24-hour news landscape. Things are improving but there is a long way to go to catch up with the likes of NASA. Increasing the budget in line with NASA's would certainly help!

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 01st Jul 2008 (18:17 BST) | Permalink
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