Farewell @MarsPhoenix

As Dave Mosher and Nancy A have already reported, Mars Phoenix has been losing power. This is expected because Phoenix sits near the Martian north pole and the amount of daylight to power the lander is slowly diminishing as it enters northern winter. We all knew that the end would come eventually, but it is still sad to hear the final tweets from the plucky little lander with the big personality.

Thanks for all the great science you've produced. We'll miss you.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 30th Oct 2008 (20:01 GMT) | Permalink


Via astropixie I found a really nice video that follows two Gamma Ray Burst astronomers over the course of a day. The video was created for the TestTube website by Nottingham Science City's filmmaker-in-residence Brady Haran. His aim was to show sciencein a new light; warts and all. Looking at this video and some of the others he has made, I think he does a very good job.

The two astronomers - Rhaana Starling and Phil Evans - work at the UK Swift Science Data Centre at the University of Leicester.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 21st Oct 2008 (20:40 BST) | Permalink


In the weeks following .Astronomy my brain has been thinking over weird and wonderful ideas about using content on the web. Last weekend I was reminded about how Technorati used to list trending topics and I thought I would have a play about to build my own list tailored to the astronomy blogosphere. So, I present the work-in-progress that is spacebuzz.

Spacebuzz trawls through (currently) 59 astronomy and space related blogs looking for tags. It then ranks the tags based on the number of occurances and how recently they were posted. If you click on one of the tags on the spacebuzz page, you should get a list of relevant blog posts within the past 30 days with the most recent first. If your blog doesn't appear in the listings it is either because I don't know about it or you don't tag your blog posts. At some point I'll build a page that lists all the blogs it uses so people can check if their own is included.

Even if nobody else finds it useful, this morning it helped me spot that the Cassini team were releasing images of Saturn's polar hexagon.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 14th Oct 2008 (16:37 BST) | Permalink

365 Days of Astronomy

Next year - 2009 - is the International Year of Astronomy. Lots and lots of great things are already under way for this year of astronomical celebrations. One exciting project is a daily 5-10 minute podcast named 365 Days of Astronomy. Unlike many podcasts, most episodes will be created by different people; you might have a US astronomy professor one day followed by a school group from India the next and an amateur astronomer from Japan the day after. Subscribe now and get ready for the first episode on January 1st. It is going to be great.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 10th Oct 2008 (16:09 BST) | Permalink

Gamma-Ray Bursts and the Battlefield

Regular readers of this blog will know that I collect practical benefits of astronomical or space science research. This is mostly so that I have a handy list ready for people who think we should be generating widgets and such like. One story that appeared in the news back in August was about the adaptation of technology used in gamma-ray burst satellites to battlefield applications. The main aim seems to be to reduce the need for bulky lenses and mirrors by using coded masks (material with lots of specially placed holes in it) to focus light. Sounds like a nice idea.

My friend Peter spotted a summary of that BBC story on an Indian news website. In re-writing the story the reporters have got themselves a little confused. They seem to think that the hardware will be used "to help soldiers spot gamma-ray bursts on the battlefield". If there were any GRBs on the battlefield we would all be in serious trouble.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 09th Oct 2008 (16:22 BST) | Permalink

First Contact Messages

For many years humanity has pondered on communication from extra-terrestrial intelligences (CETI). These first contact messages tend to involve deeply meaningful communication of one kind or another. This isn't just confined to science fiction though; whilst we're waiting for ET to give us a call we've had a few attempts to send messages ourselves. The most famous example is probably the Arecibo message which used 1679 pixels to inform distant aliens about our number system, DNA, people, and even the design of the Arecibo radio telescope.

Would the first first-contact messages really be as deep and meaningful as we usually think? I'm not so sure. After all, we've already started sending advertising for potato chips, small ads and the Beatles into space and the social networking site Bebo will send a message from Earth to Gliese 581c on Thursday telling them about pop band McFly and breakdancing moves from the winner of Britain's Got Talent. With these precedents, I present a list* of what might be the five most likely first contact messages (in no particular order):

  2. How long you gonna wait to enlarge your tent@cles? Suffering from short tenta*les? You need the Tentac1e Growth Patch. This 100% all natural remedy can help improve your life. Contact us within the next 5 Sagittarian days for a 20% discount.
  3. Copyright statement. The following communication is for private viewing only, and may not be recorded, broadcast or re-transmitted. Breach of copyright is illegal and will be prosecuted by the Recording Industry Assocation of the Sagittarius Arm.
  4. Call centre. "Thank you for contacting the Golgafrinchans. Your interplanetary transmission is important to us, and will be answered by the first available sentient being. Please continue to hold."
  5. FW: FW: FW: HI THERE!! Forward this message on to 10 civilizations within the next 100,000 rotations of the Crab Pulsar or something horrible could happen to you. Yooden Vranx didn't and later that day he had an Acturan Megafreighter crash into his planet. This could happen to you! Send this message onto all your friends and everything will be OK.

* Thanks to Ed Boyce and others for the lunchtime conversations that helped create this list.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 06th Oct 2008 (19:15 BST) | Permalink

Widescreen Astronomy

I've just taken delivery of my brand new desktop at work and it is widescreen. In fact, it has two widescreen monitors! My first impressions are great; I can have my code, applications and terminals all open and visible at the same time. The downside of this change of aspect ratio is that my usual background wallpapers look very distorted. Luckily, there are plenty of high resolution astronomical images available these days so I can still have the Orion Nebula on my desktop but now stretching into my peripheral vision. It's almost like being there.

For more dual widescreen astronomy wallpapers, check out Forge22 or dmb.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 02nd Oct 2008 (18:11 BST) | Permalink
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