ESA in the UK

This week representatives of the member states of the European Space Agency (which include Canada and Switzerland) have been meeting at The Hague to discuss plans for the next three years. As well as proposing a total budget of 10 billion Euros, and agreeing policies, it appears that the long sought after UK ESA research centre may now go ahead.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) have agreed in principle to pay construction costs to build an ESA centre at the Harwell site near Oxford. ESA already have facilities in Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and France (the headquarters) and this will be the first in the UK. The centre is likely to focus on exploiting the benefits of space, support for planetary exploration and understanding of climate change. It will be nice to have an ESA research centre not too far from home.

According to the BBC article, STFC have agreed to pay for the construction costs of this centre which they claim could be "up and running within a year". Given STFC's financial situation, and the bleak outlook for the economy in general, I'm not sure how they're going to pay for it. Perhaps money will come from the Large Facilities Capital Fund. Presumably the centre will also create jobs to replace some of those that were to be lost at Harwell during the recent funding crisis.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 27th Nov 2008 (10:58 GMT) | Permalink

The Galaxy Song

2008-12-09: If you're coming here from the excellent Carnival of Space 82 I'd just like to point out that I'm not Stuart Atkinson who is lucky enough to live up north of me in the beautiful Cumbria. You can tell the difference because he looks like this.

And now for something slightly different. One of my favourite Monty Python songs of all time is the Galaxy Song. It occurs near the end of the film The Meaning of Life with a pink-suited Eric Idle climbing out of a kitchen fridge. He then leads Mrs Brown - a hair roller clad lady whose husband is donating his organs - into space and gives her a tour of the universe to demonstrate how utterly insignificant we are compared to the enormity of space.

What I find so brilliant about the Galaxy Song is that, not only does it make our insignificance sound so cheery, it contains a huge number of astronomical numbers that are good enough for back-of-the-envelope calculations. In fact, the figures used are close enough to accepted values that as an undergraduate I used them in order-of-magnitude calculations all the time. Even today I still replay the song in my head to remind me of the rough diameter of our galaxy, the orbital speed of the Earth around the Sun and the speed of light in miles per minute. So, without further ado, I leave you with this from the Monty Python YouTube Channel (spotted via Dave P's tweet).



Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 20th Nov 2008 (12:11 GMT) | Permalink

Carnival of Space #79

The Carnival of Space is now up to week 79 and still going strong. Head on over to One Astronomer's Noise for talk of space exploration, Paris Hilton (no, really), opal on Mars and a complete round up of all the exoplanet news from this week.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 16th Nov 2008 (21:08 GMT) | Permalink

STS126 Shuttle Launch Live!

In case you happen to have missed it, the Shuttle is about to launch from the Kennedy Space Centre in a matter of about three minutes. Catch it on NASA TV. There was an issue with a loose latch on a door but they've decided that it should be OK and they are go for launch.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 15th Nov 2008 (00:53 GMT) | Permalink

Two Planet Discoveries (four planets)

With the publication of Science today, we get two announcements of the discovery of exoplanets. Hubble has announced the discovery of a planet around the star Fomalhaut (suspected in 2005 but now confirmed) and a team using the Gemini and Keck telescopes have found three planets around the star HR8799. Go over to Sarah for more details.

Funnily enough I was looking at a picture of Fomalhaut's dust disc at Halloween a couple of weeks ago. I suggest the new planet orbiting Fomalhaut be named Planet Sauron.

Fomalhaut
Image taken with the Advanced Camera for Surveys aboard the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, shows the newly discovered planet, Fomalhaut b, orbiting its parent star, Fomalhaut. CREDIT: NASA, ESA and P. Kalas (University of California, Berkeley, USA)

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 13th Nov 2008 (20:46 GMT) | Permalink

Moon and Sky

I've been going through my digital photographs recently and thought I would share this shot from June 2004. It shows Earth's Moon seen from a plane window somewhere over northern Europe. It might make a nice desktop wallpaper (click the image for a 1280x960px version).

Moon and clouds
Moon and Clouds seen over northern Europe in June 2004. CREDIT: Stuart

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 12th Nov 2008 (15:23 GMT) | Permalink

RCW120

The RCW catalogue was created by astronomers Alex Rodgers, Colin Campbell, and John Whiteoak in the 1960s at Mount Stromlo in Australia. The catalogue surveyed the southern Milky Way looking for regions of emission from ionised hydrogen atoms getting back together. This is called H-alpha emission and occurs at the specific wavelength of 656.3 nm. That puts it in the visible part of the spectrum and it is quite a pleasant red colour to look at.

ESO have just released a new image of one of those RCW nebulae - RCW120 - combining observations of the ionised hydrogen and separate observations of the cold gas and dust.

RCW120
Colour composite image of RCW120. CREDIT: ESO/APEX/DSS2/SuperCosmos
The image shows the massive hot star in the centre which is ionising the hydrogen gas surrounding it. The ionised areas were observed in the SuperCosmos H-alpha survey and are displayed in red (for once the red isn't a false colour). The blue parts of the image show submillimetre radiation from the cold gas and dust and were observed with the cool (literally, as it is cooled to 0.3 K) LABOCA bolometer camera on ESO's APEX telescope. Although both observations have been shown separately before, combining them together in a colour image makes it much easier to see the differences between them and makes it far prettier.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 11th Nov 2008 (13:08 GMT) | Permalink

Galactic Centre: Arcs, Arches and Bubbles

Each year the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) organises a radio image contest to find the best images made with their radio telescopes; the Very Large Array, the Greenbank Telescope and the VLBA. The best of 2008 have been chosen and the overall winner is this nice image of the central parts of the Milky Way.

The Galactic Centre
A 2 by 1 degree field of the Galactic Center (the plane of the galaxy is horizontal in this image) and the surrounding Central Molecular Zone CREDIT: NRAO/AUI, Adam Ginsburg and John Bally (Univ of Colorado - Boulder), Farhad Yusef-Zadeh (Northwestern), Bolocam Galactic Plane Survey team; GLIMPSE II team
The three colours in the image represent different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum and highlight different physics. The purple shows 20 cm emission observed by the VLA, the orange parts are 1.1 mm emission observed by the Caltech Submillimetre Observatory and the cyan shows infrared emission seen by the Spitzer Space Telescope. The 20 cm emission is due to electrons spiralling in magnetic fields and regions of ionised hydrogen (HII), the 1.1 mm emission shows cold dust, and the infrared shows stars, point sources and regions with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (which are also found in grilled meat).

For context, the bright white area towards the right-hand side of the image is Sagittarius A (the Galactic Centre) but I find the purple ribbons to the left of that to be the most intriguing part of the image. These are the Galactic Centre Radio Arcs and are linked to the centre by filaments known as the Arches. Like iron fillings close to a bar magnet, they probably show hot plasma flowing along large scale magnetic field lines.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 09th Nov 2008 (15:23 GMT) | Permalink

Different Perspectives on Particle Physics

A few weeks ago I was returning to Manchester from Trieste in northern Italy. My journey was going to be long because it involved a change in Paris, so I had loaded up my MP3 player with plenty of podcasts to while away the hours. As I was crossing the beautiful snow covered Alps, I turned on a fascinating TED podcast. The talk was given by "surfing cosmologist" Garrett Lisi who made waves* at the end of last year with a model of the universe based on E8 symmetry.



I don't understand much about Lie Groups but I found the graphical way that Garrett Lisi was showing the charges, forces and particles to be intriguing. Although Sean at Cosmic Variance - who understands all this far more than me - is quite pessimistic about it, Garrett does predict 20 new particles with particular properties. A theory with predicitons is a good thing as it can be tested against reality.

At the end of the podcast I looked out of my window to see the Sun starting to set over the Swiss town of Bern below me. From my understanding of the landscape I realised that I was looking in roughly the direction of CERN, and the epic Large Hadron Collider, around 120 km away to the south west. Given that particle physicists have used their understanding of the standard-model landscape to predict the location (energy) of the Higgs Boson, and are using the LHC to look for it, my temporary vantage point felt strangely symbolic.

* Apologies for the pun-crime.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 08th Nov 2008 (15:14 GMT) | Permalink

Swingeing Cuts in Italy

Save Italian astronomy!

Save Astronomy
Astronomical research is under threat once more. This time it is from the Italian government who are enacting a law forcing deep and widespread cuts in funding at the country's universities and research institutes.

The proposed bill would effectively sack 2000 'temporary' research staff and divert those funds towards shoring up the nations banks struggling in the economic crisis. The bill states (Art. 66.13) that funding to universities will be reduced by .63 million in 2009, .190 million in 2010, .316 million in 2011, .417 million in 2012 and .455 million in 2013.

Not only is funding being reduced but ridiculous limits on employment are being enacted too. Only one in five vacant academic positions will be allowed to be filled and any short-term contract researcher that has worked for more than three years will have their contracts terminated. About half of the 2000 researchers affected had already been selected for permanent positions but those jobs are now likely to disappear.

These new employment rules have huge implications for the lives of the researchers and for long-term astronomical research projects. I work on a large, long-term European project and a number of my colleagues are young Italians in exactly the type of jobs that will go. This will have an awful effect on their lives and careers, and it will have a negative impact on the rest of the project as brilliant people are lost. This is a human and research disaster.

Understandably, the researchers and students are extremely angry with this anti-education policy of Silvio Berlusconi's government. Huge protests have already taken place and many more are planned. In Bologna the main piazza will be covered in images of the faces of researchers as a physical representation of the way they are downtrodden by their government. In Trieste young researchers are protesting by taking it in turns to occupy the office of the director of the observatory. The homepages of many Italian astronomical institutions are also protesting these government attacks.

La ricerca calpestata
Researchers occupying offices in Trieste hold up the daily newspaper like hostages CREDIT: Precarea-Trieste

Frankly, I'm horrified by the proposed cuts in Italy and am very worried for many of my Italian friends. If you are Italian you can join the protests and say no to 133.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 05th Nov 2008 (14:23 GMT) | Permalink
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