2 Earth Mass Planet

(This was going to be posted a couple of hours ago but my server had issues and I couldn't post it).

The European Southern Observatory have announced the discovery of a 2 Earth mass planet orbiting star Gliese 581. Exoplanet aficionados will recognise the star name because it already has three planet candidates - Gliese 581 b, Gliese 581 c and Gliese 581 d - orbiting around it. Now, after analysing over four years of data from the 3.6 metre telescope at La Silla, a fourth planet has been found: Gliese 581 e. This new planet has a mass of about 1.9 times the mass of the Earth while b, c, and d have masses 16, 5, and 7 times the mass of the Earth. The observations also show that previously discovered Gliese 581 d sits in the habitable zone of the parent star.

Check out the latest ESOcast for more information.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 21st Apr 2009 (12:47 GMT) | Permalink

Astronomy for iPhones

I don't have an iPhone but I know a few people that do. The two point touch screen is certainly cool and the ability for people to make applications is very nice (even if limited to what Apple approves). This ability to make your own software has allowed many ideas to be tried out and there are a growing number of astronomy related applications available. I thought I'd mention a couple of iPhone astronomy programs here and people can add any more in the comments.

First up is Star Walk. It is an "official product" of the International Year of Astronomy and acts like a cut-down version of Stellarium showing you what you can see in the night sky. It provides more detailed information about objects by linking to Wikipedia articles. It also has a helpful night mode (red) to keep your dark eye adaption if you're using it outside at night.

Next is Planetarium v1.0 which seems to be the iPhone equivalent to a cut-down Celestia. It allows you to zoom around the solar system seeing 3D representations of the planets. The YouTube video shows that you can zoom in with the iPhone's natural two-finger zoom control and the planets seem nicely rendered, especially when you remember that this is all being done on a phone.

Finally, I'll mention Alasdair Allan's iPhone version of my lookUP service. Alasdair has done all the hard work of building the iPhone side of things to interact with my back-end part. In fact, some of his finishing touches to his application inspired me to include pretty Wikisky/DSS images in the search results of the standard version of lookUP.

If you have an iPhone and want to know what that object in the sky is or where the planets are, you now have some options.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 20th Apr 2009 (16:55 BST) | Permalink

Help SOHO!

If you haven't heard, NASA are running Mission Madness to vote for "the greatest [NASA] mission of all time". It seems to be done in the style of Basketball (I think) with a "bracket". The bracket looks like the final stages of the football (soccer) World Cup with knock-out rounds through to a final. The voting is now in the final round with the excellent solar observatory SOHO pitted against a balloon that hardly anyone has heard of. SOHO is currently trailing by around several thousand votes with less than 11 hours to go. To let the greatest comet discoverer of all time lose to a balloon would be a travesty. Please go vote for SOHO.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 07th Apr 2009 (22:09 BST) | Permalink

Starparty Webcasts

The last few days have been very busy for anyone doing anything for the 100 Hours of Astronomy or MoonWatch. I'm no exception. I've been helping out online by trying to keep the 100Hours twitter account updated with info about things happening around the world as well as help with the pre-recorded video for a segment of the 24 hour Observatory webcast (I even got to be in the background on a live bit too). As I mentioned in my previous post, last night I was also at my local starparty and had a great time there.

Once our starparty had finished I couldn't go to bed. I knew that elsewhere in Europe, Africa and the Americas, events were still going on and the 100Hours twitter should continue to provide updates.

I spent the early hours of the morning visiting the live starparty webcasts around the world. I particularly enjoyed the one hosted by Elias Jordan in Wichita, Kansas. He did a really great job showing the people watching on Ustream demos of how to make a telescope, the telescopes that his club have and he even got live images of the Moon through an eye-piece of a telescope for us. He made sure that he interacted with the people in the Ustream chat and encouraged interaction between the viewers and the people at the astronomy club in Kansas as well as linking up with the live webcast from the Netherlands. This was all in the spirit of the 100 Hours of Astronomy bringing people around the world together through a shared interest in the night sky.

As well as the astronomy club live starparties, the 100 Hours of Remote Astronomy were still in full swing too. My experience of this was through the brilliantly enthusiastic Gianluca Masi of the Bellatrix Observatory south of Rome. Gianluca had turned over his remote observing business to free public use for much of the 100 Hours. His webcast combined audio, video, chat and live screencasting so that everyone could see what was happening at his observatory. There were some really nice shots of Saturn, the Sombrero Galaxy, the Ring Nebula whilst I was watching. Gianluca was a great host and obviously enjoyed showing his audience around the night sky with his telescopes.

Eventually, at about 4am, I left (I still had a long drive to do) so that I could get some sleep in time for SunDay. More on that in the next post.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 05th Apr 2009 (20:48 BST) | Permalink

Spring MoonWatch star party

Tonight marks the second of the large, global events during the celebration of the Universe that is the 100 Hours of Astronomy. The 24-hour global star party kicked off in New Zealand some hours ago and as the terminator line moves around the world, star parties have been springing up all over the place.

At Jodrell Bank Observatory the star party was also part of the UK's Spring MoonWatch week so plenty of telescopes were set up by the Macclesfield Astronomical Society to give people amazing views of our celestial neighbour. I must say that the Moon is a brilliant object to look at especially as it is constantly changing. One lady had even brought along a phase of the Moon simulator that she had made out of a shoe box, a ping-pong ball and a torch. It showed the change of the phases surprisingly well. If you've never seen the Moon through a telescope before, give it a try.

As the early evening cloud cleared a little, we got to see Saturn looking like "an onion on a tooth pick" as one person described it. The "toothpick" was actually the rings of Saturn as we are now seeing them almost edge on. We also spotted a Moon halo briefly as some high altitude ice crystals moved by. I was able to point out constellations to a few people and generally chat to them about planets, constellations and cosmology. I also bumped into at least three people who'd listened to the Jodcast!

I had a great time chatting with people and sharing the excitement of glimpsing distant objects through telescopes. It seems many of the visitors had a great time too from the person who'd never looked through a telescope before to the serious amateur astronomers. I heard that one young person was so enthralled they decided that they want to pursue a career in astronomy as a result.

Our star party is now over but it isn't the end of the 100 Hours of Astronomy as we still have one day left. The Solar Physics Task Group of the International Year of Astronomy have set tomorrow aside as SunDay. It will be a chance to enjoy the wonders of our nearest star - the Sun. This can be anything from appreciating the dawn or sunset to looking through a solar telescope. I've borrowed a Coronado PST and am planning to head into the middle of Manchester with it tomorrow, if the weather is good, for a little guerilla astronomy.

Remember, the Universe is yours to discover.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 04th Apr 2009 (22:14 GMT) | Permalink

What's going on?

What are the astronomy blogs talking about right now? Unsurprisingly, the 100 Hours of Astronomy is quite far up the list as is the International Year of Astronomy.

Spacebuzz - 100 Hours edition
The buzz during the 100 Hours of Astronomy CREDIT: Stuart
Two items of note are numbers 9 and 10 which refer to the UK STFC's withdrawal of funding from the Clover experiment in order to save £2.5 million. Clover was ranked alpha-4 by PPAN last year (5 being top and 1 being lowest) so this seems quite surprising. This swingeing cut has been covered by Peter Coles, Alan Heavens (a guest at e-Astronomer), Sarah and Physics World. It seems to be yet another example of the fall-out from the physics funding crisis (what crisis?) that started to become apparent at the end of 2007.

Another side-effect of the funding crisis is the reduction in postdoc jobs (the jobs after finishing a PhD). Last year at the National Astronomy Meeting we heard that postdoc places would be reduced by 10-25% over the three year period of funding (the CSR) even though STFC can claim to be spending more on research because they were now paying for the full economic cost of academics. In reality, less research will be done and more young researchers will leave the UK.

It is funny how certain economic institutions in the UK are receiving billions of pounds for making huge mistakes when physics is being forced to cut jobs and world class experiments to save the comparitavely small amounts of a few million pounds. It isn't even as if astronomers can now get jobs as stockbrokers as Keith Mason suggested last year during a House of Commons Committee Meeting.

All this leaves me wondering just what the plan is for UK astronomy. Which bits will be allowed to remain? What do STFC think everyone should be studying or building? Should I be digging out the Save UK Astronomy banner again?

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 03rd Apr 2009 (23:57 BST) | Permalink

100 Hours Live!

Yesterday the 100 Hours of Astronomy got underway. The24 hour live observatory webcast started at 10 am BST (9 am UT) this morning and I've been following it on and off all day. At the start there were technical difficulties but those were eventually sorted out and the video has been fairly reliable since. It is an amazing feat to get all these remote observatories to send live video back to the hosts at the European Southern Observatory in Germany. Even though we are only 7 hours in, I'd like to say congratulations to Douglas Pierce Price and the team at ESO for (eventually) pulling this off.

If you can't watch live, or had problems with Ustream, you can watch all of the segments that have already occured in the archive on the ESO website.

I'm helping out with the segment at 6 pm BST (5 pm UT) from Jodrell Bank. Thankfully we've got nice weather (not much wind) although our camera doesn't seem to be able to cope with the contrast difference between the control room and the telescope so there might not be any views out of the window. If you tune in, you might see me sat in the background.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 03rd Apr 2009 (16:17 GMT) | Permalink

Dark skies at Langdale

Last weekend I went to the Lake District with a few friends for a couple of days walking. On Saturday evening - the first night of the UK's Spring MoonWatch week - the sky cleared and I saw a brilliant thin crescent Moon hanging low in the west. Later in the night I was reminded just what I miss from Manchester due to light pollution. In fact, there were so many stars visible that I was initially a little lost in what should be the familiar territory of the night sky. Thankfully, trusty Orion was setting over in the west so I was able to get my bearings.

Orion The Hunter
Constellation Orion seen from Langdale, Lake District on 28th March 2009 CREDIT: Mike Peel
Using Orion I quickly found Canis Major (The Big Dog), Gemini (The Twins), Leo (The Lion) and Auriga (technically The Charioteer but I call him The Hobbit). Leo was looking particularly nice in the south with Saturn sitting below the main body. Here is an exposure showing Leo and Saturn's "star trails" framed by the trees.

Leo and Saturn
Leo and Saturn 28 March 2009 CREDIT: Mike Peel
Between Leo and Gemini is the constellation of Cancer (The Crab). Usually this area of sky looks totally empty when observing by eye from Manchester but in this dark site we easily spotted the Beehive Cluster (M44).

Beehive Cluster
The Beehive Cluster (M44) 28th March 2009 CREDIT: Mike Peel
Apart from Orion, one of my other standard helper constellations is Ursa Major (the Great Bear). Ursa Major contains the famous asterism of The Plough (or Big Dipper in the US) which helps you find the north star using the two "pointers". I told Mike about following the arc of the handle of The Plough to Arcturus ("arc to Arcturus") and then remembered the "speed on to Spica" addition that I heard from Twitter (I think it was from @etacar11 but can't find the tweet). Here you can see The Plough peeking through the trees.

Ursa Major
Ursa Major (The Great Bear) seen through the trees 28 March 2009 CREDIT: Mike Peel
Mike and I moved down the road to get a better view of the skyscape of Orion, Taurus and Cassiopeia. Whilst taking pictures, we were passed by some rather confused people on their way back from the pub. They wondered why we were taking pictures in the dark and I heard one person say "Are they from the BBC's Springwatch?".

It was getting quite late (especially considering the move to British Summer Time that was approaching) so we decided to round things off by including ourselves in a picture. Here is the result with me pointing at Cassiopeia. It looks like we may have caught a satellite too.

Looking at Cassiopeia
Mike and me looking at Cassiopeia CREDIT: Mike Peel
I had a great time. Many thanks to Mike for providing the camera to record it.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 02nd Apr 2009 (12:21 GMT) | Permalink

Jodcast Changes

The Jodcast - an astronomy podcast from Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics - has been going for over three years. It takes a surprising amount of work to put together twice a month. Nick Rattenbury is leaving and the rest of the Jodcast team don't have the time to take on the extra workload. Rather than stop the show, the Jodcast team have handed over the keys to the RSS feeds to Fraser Cain and Pamela Gay of Astronomy Cast.

Pamela and Fraser will be keeping the show twice a month but will be making some changes to the format. The current show notes have already taken on a different style and the opening music/introduction have been changed too. It will take time to get used to the changes but at least the music has improved.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 01st Apr 2009 (04:28 BST) | Permalink
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