Twitter MoonWatch

As I write this, the Newbury Astronomical Society are hosting a MoonWatch event live on Twitter. This virtual star party started at 21:30 BST and runs for another hour. The Moon is looking pretty good right now and amazingly there is a clear sky here in Manchester. As well as the Moon, Saturn can be seen a handspan away from it.

Below is a picture of the Moon taken with my cheap and cheerful digital camera pushed up against an eyepiece of my 10x50 binoculars. Not the best image in the world but you can make out some crater rims on the terminator.

The Moon imaged with a cheap digital camera looking through 10x50 binoculars. CREDIT: Stuart

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 30th May 2009 (22:43 BST) | Permalink


Tom reports (and so does Amir) that JAXA's KAGUYA (SELENE) spacecraft is planned to impact the Moon on June 10th at 18:30 GMT.

KAGUYA was launched in September 2007. Since then it has been mapping the Moon and sending back glorious HD video of Earthrise. It has exceeded its nominal mission and has been in an extended operational phase since February 2009. As the JAXA website says, the impact will "conclude its scientific mission to the Moon". Hopefully they'll be able to get some science out of those last seconds too.

Assuming that the time of impact doesn't change (it might), it looks as though KAGUYA will hit quite far south and on the dark side of the terminator. The final moments won't be visible in Europe, Africa or much of the Americas because we're on the wrong side of the planet at the time. If you live anywhere from India eastwards to Hawaii, however, you should get to see it. Hopefully Ian will get some pictures for the rest of us to see.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 26th May 2009 (22:35 BST) | Permalink

Hubble Release Video

On 18th May the crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis (STS-125) disconnected from the Hubble Space Telescope after a successful mission to upgrade the instruments and replace a few parts. This is the last servicing mission and it was most likely the final time that humans would be in close, physical contact with Hubble in space. This has been a very special mission for those of us who've grown up with Hubble over the past 19 years.

Of course, only the crew of STS-125 were lucky enough to be there in person. Other Hubble fans had to live vicariously through NASA TV. At the time of the parting I was hugely disappointed to find that there was no live video of the view. This momentuous event was shown via rather disappointing computer simulations and the reactions of the people in the control room at Goddard Space Flight Centre. GSFC employees are great but they don't really cut it compared to seeing the grand old space telescope for the last time.

After a few minutes of speculation on Twitter about the possibility of bad coverage by ground stations over Africa, or cover-up conspiracies, it turned out that the downlink antenna for sending video was being used in radar mode to track Hubble. That was pretty vital so I'll let NASA off on that.

Tonight, after a plea on Twitter for pictures, Alberto Conti (STSci) pointed me to an amazing video on YouTube. The video shows the view, from inside Atlantis, of the final minutes. You see the astronauts preparating for release, moving around in the Shuttle and filming the view out of the window of the Hubble slowly drifting away with the Earth behind. It is a stunning "home video" showing a fascinating perspective that I don't think I've seen before. It is well worth six or seven minutes of your time.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 21st May 2009 (22:47 BST) | Permalink

Finding the TARDIS

In the fictional Whoniverse, the time machine used by The Doctor is named the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space). In a silly mood this afternoon, I decided to find it with my astronomical lookUP service. Imagine my surprise when it actually returned coordinates for TARDIS with the note that it was "in our solar system". What!?

It turns out that TARDIS is the official name assigned to asteroid 3325 which was discovered in 1984 at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona. Brilliant!

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 17th May 2009 (19:42 BST) | Permalink


The past few days have been full of astronomical space missions. There was the launch of STS-125 with the Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission (ongoing and can be watched on NASA TV); NASA's Kepler ended its calibration phase and started taking science data; and ESA's Planck and Herschel spacecraft were launched successfully.

The last of these missions was particularly nerve-racking for me as I have a personal involvement. Over the past three years I've helped a huge team of scientists and engineers with some of the calibration and characterisation of one of the two instruments onboard Planck. This has been a truly international effort and has been a great experience. I'm particularly thrilled to have handled some of the amplifiers that are now on their way to Lagrangian point L2.

Today, like many others, we had a party to follow the launch. We had background talks, ESA TV by satellite, and a big countdown display with ongoing text commentary. The launch, and our party, even made it onto the local news. As well as the TV feed, we set up a projection screen showing a stream of Herschel/Planck-related Twitter updates from people around the world. This display automatically updated every 30 seconds so that the 100 or so people at the party could dip in to what the world was saying. It was a nice way to connect our party with the rest of the world and was quite useful to look back at if you'd not quite heard what was said on ESA TV. Amongst the many hundreds of updates that scrolled by, I spotted some from @orbitingfrog, @govertschilling and @Nancy_A. Thanks to them for taking part in our party, even if they didn't realise that they were.

Launch Tweets
The live Twitter display during the Herschel and Planck launch with a local TV news camera in the foreground CREDIT: Mike Peel.

Of course, a successful launch is not the end of the hard work. There is now a three month period of instrument checking and calibration before the science can begin. It is going to be fun.

All the events this week have made the International Year of Astronomy slogan, "The Universe: Yours to Discover", feel particularly apt.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 14th May 2009 (21:03 BST) | Permalink

JENAM in video

This year the UK's National Astronomy Meeting was joined with the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science into to massive JENAM 2009. I wasn't able to attend this year but the UK's two big astronomy magazines did.

Astronomy Now were blogging from JENAM about everything from the SKA, to astroseismology, to the mini brainiacs. They also had a lot of video output including an interview with Mike Lockwood about the quiet Sun, Richard Bower talking about galaxies, and astronaut Michael Foale amongst others. The rival Sky At Night Magazine has dedicated Episode Thirteen (MP4: 97.5 MB so large download) of their video podcast to JENAM interviews about the Gliese 581 exoplanet system and the planned Extremely Large Telescope. Their video is hosted by Will.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 12th May 2009 (11:40 BST) | Permalink

Star Wars... in order

As I mentioned last week, I'd never seen the original three Star Wars movies. You'll notice the past tense usage there and that is because it is no longer true. This post will contain spoilers if you haven't seen Star Wars.

On May 4th (an appropriate day if every there was one) I watched A New Hope. As Rob says in the comments to my previous post, it seemed to be made by a different person than the prequels. A New Hope was such an improvement. There was a good plot, there were characters that I cared about, there was good pacing and it seemed to be shot in real locations (too many scenes in the new films looked like they were on green screen). I loved the slow opening scenes in the desert that gave me chance to get to know the characters of R2D2, C3P0, Luke and Ben.

It wasn't all great though. Coming into the film with only knowledge of Episodes I, II,

and III, some of the lines of dialogue didn't quite seem to fit. I was watching a fairly recent edition and by far my biggest complaints are about the gratuitous CGI effects that were bolted on. There was lots of unconvincing CGI which seemed to be there purely because it could be added. I'd love to see a CGI-free version.

Tonight I watched The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. They also had great stories, introduced new characters well and were filmed well. The cinematography seemed much better too. I was pleasantly surprised by Darth Vader finally giving up on the dark side at the end of Return of the Jedi but given that I knew how Luke, Leia and Darth Vader were related, those dramaticrevelations were damp squibs.

The end of the series has left me with some questions. Why didn't Darth Vader disappear when he died? Obi Wan and Yoda did. If it was because he wasn't on the side of good, why did he show up as a shimmering blue ghost at the end? Even more strangely, why did he show up as his younger self? Luke had never seen him young so this was a bit odd.

There also seem to be some inconsistencies between the two sets of films. One example is that Leia told Luke that she remembered her 'real' mother? In Episode III she was taken away from her at child birth so that response seemed strange. Also, Darth Vader seemed a lot more subdued in IV and V than his character was in III. Had he mellowed with age? I cannot blame the older films for these inconsistencies; that blame is with the prequels.

To conclude, I really enjoyed the original three episodes of Star Wars. They were far, far better movies than the prequels. Of course, everyone else already knew that but I can confirm it from the perspective of watching the story in chronological order.

May the force be with you.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 09th May 2009 (23:19 BST) | Permalink

Two launches approach

Next week is an exciting time for astronomical space missions. On Monday 11th May, Space Shuttle Atlantis will be launched as Servicing Mission 4 to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. This is a much needed, and unfortunately final, servicing mission and Rob gives all the details.

On Thursday 14th May at 14:12 BST, the European Space Agency's Planck and Herschel spacecraft will be launched on a single Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou in French Guiana. These missions are two amazing telescopes which work at different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum and will cover different astronomical questions.

Herschel will be the largest infrared telescope ever launched with a whopping 3.5 metre diameter primary mirror. It will cover the spectrum from the far-infrared to the sub-mm and will study the origin and evolution of some of the earliest stars and galaxies. It will operate as an observatory with the opportunity for scientists to apply for some of the observing time for specific scientific projects.

Planck is the mission closest to my heart. It will look at the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation that comes from a time 300,000 years after the big bang when the Universe cooled enough to allow protons and electrons to form simple atoms and stop being a plasma.

Planck's primary mirror is only 1.5 metres (about 60% the diameter of the Hubble which is 2.4 m) but the key parts are the fantastic array of detectors covering the spectrum from 30 GHz all the way up to 857 GHz. With such a huge range of frequencies covered, two different detector technologies are needed; radio receivers and bolometers. Planck will be following in the footsteps of COBE and WMAP which have mapped the entire Cosmic Microwave Background before. This time there will be even higher sensitivity, better resolution and a chance to investigate the polarization of the light in more detail than ever before.

Unlike Andrew and others, I'm not going to be at the launch but will be watching it live via ESA TV, Arianespace and the ESA website. You can also join Herschel and Planck on Twitter (live launch coverage via @Planck and probably @HerschelPlanck), Facebook, Flickr, and on the UK mission blogs.

After launch there is going to be a very busy period of instrument checking and calibration as Planck and Herschel head towards the special, and increasingly busy, L2. For Planck this will last about three months after which the main mission will start. Things will then go very quiet for a couple of years as the science and instrument teams collect and process the science data to tease out as much science as possible. Finally, a few years from now, the results of the first two full-sky surveys will be released. That is going to be a very exciting indeed. Until then, there is still a lot of work to do. It's going to be great.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 08th May 2009 (19:36 BST) | Permalink

I've never seen...

Warning, this post may contain spoilers, but probably not.

I have a confession. This may result in some people never talking to me again but I should come clean. I've never really seen Star Wars. There, I've written it down for all to see.

Before your brains explode at this revelation, I should explain myself. As I grew up I should have seen Star Wars. Everyone else did or had. Somehow though, it never happened. Actually, this isn't strictly true as I have seen tiny bits of the original three movies whilst at other people's houses. In all these cases it was on in the background (everyone else had seen it countless times) and I never got the opportunity to sit through any of the films from beginning to the end or even from middle to end.

Of course, Star Wars references are everywhere in popular culture and I have grown up with an awareness of Darth Vader, Stormtroopers, R2D2, C3PO, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Yoda, the Death Star, Ewoks (from a cheesy cartoon series), the Force, and some classic lines of dialogue. I've had some vague idea that there is a Republic and an Empire and some rebels but I've never really been sure which of these was the good side and which was the bad (Empire doesn't sound good though). I do know that you shouldn't turn to the dark side.

When George Lucas announced that he was releasing the three prequels, he said that this was the order he had wanted people to watch them in. Given my general ignorance of the original three films I decided I would take his advice and watch them in the 'correct' order. So, in 1999, I went to the cinema to see Episode I. I was very disappointed. It felt like a two hour long trailer for a pod-racing video game. Perhaps there were some inside things for people who had seen the original films but, as someone looking at the film out of that context, it wasn't good. In 2002 I went to Attack of the Clones. This was a little better but the plot still seemed weak. I'm not sure either film stands by itself but perhaps they shouldn't be expected to.

After the release of Attack of the Clones, someone bought me IV, V, and VI on DVD. Before I could watch them I needed to see Episode III. Somehow I missed the cinema release and, after my disappointment at I and II, I couldn't bring myself to buy the third. This week my Star Wars saga took a step forward when someone finally lent me a copy of Episode III. It was... mostly disappointing. The first part of the film contained supposedly dramatic battles and fights but Anakin and Obi-Wan never seemed in any real danger so there was no tension. Then there was a lot of fighting on different planets but nothing made me care about any of the characters. I only got interested when the fight between the Chancellor and Windu came to a pause. At this point some character development occurred and it finally felt like there was peril. The plot definitely picked up from that point. Overall though, there was far too much use of CGI that looked like CGI. People looked superimposed on CGI sets and too often turned into CGI versions of themselves. The CGI drew attention to itself and distracted me from the story.

I may have been underwhelmed by what I've seen so far but I am getting excited that I can finally watch episodes IV, V and VI. Soon I'll no longer have to say that I've never seen Star Wars. After that? Well, I've never seen Alien.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 03rd May 2009 (02:36 BST) | Permalink
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