Pulsars Galore!

This week I seem to be all about pulsars. On Wednesday my 365 Days of Astronomy episode from early 2009 was repeated to fill an empty slot (if you have an idea for an episode, please think about submitting one). My episode described what pulsars are and I talked to some leading pulsar astronomers about the latest research. It even included some clips from the discoverer of pulsars, Jocelyn Bell.

Today, whilst continuing to improve Chromoscope, I updated one of my test KML files that contains every pulsar from the ATNF pulsar catalogue. I use these Google Sky-compatible files containing lots of objects to

test how quickly Chromoscope can process them. The pulsar list on Chromoscope (the development version) is now up-to-date with all 1973 currently known pulsars. It'll take a few seconds to load but it is worth it as you get to see the distribution of pulsars on the sky and you should notice that most of the known pulsars sit in the plane of the Milky Way.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 22nd May 2011 (13:00 BST) | Permalink

Timezone Sociology

This morning, whilst updating the Astronomy Picture of the Day (APoD) account on Twitter, I learnt a valuable lesson about the sociological side of timezones. Having worked with people in California and Europe I should be used to the issue. I think I may have just re-learnt that lesson but with a twist.

First some history. Back in 2007, just as Twitter was finding its feet, I decided that APoD should be on it. It was already being mirrored in a few ways and I thought it would be great if it could appear in my Twitter stream. I contacted Robert Nemiroff - one of APoD's curators - to check if it was OK and then set up an automatic script to update the feed each day with the title and a link. At some point the @apod account was lucky enough to be "featured" by Twitter during the sign-up process and so gained a whole bunch of followers that wouldn't necessarily know to seek it out. As it stands today, the account has 184,570 followers.

Last year Twitter changed their API (the way computer software can talk to Twitter) to require extra security and I ran into problems. The new way was much more complicated and my server won't let me install the extra software necessary. However, I discovered that Twitter's Android software was still allowed to use the old method so I just had my software pretend to be Twitter for Anroid. That worked until the end of March this year when Twitter finally closed that loophole. Since then I've had to manually update the account every day. It has been pretty annoying to make sure I always have an internet connection in the morning but the side-effect is that I never miss an APoD!

This morning I awoke particularly early and noticed that the main APoD page had been updated early too. I updated @apod a couple of hours earlier than usual at 05:25 am BST. Two hours makes a massive difference! Within 20 minutes around 60 people had commented on the picture. I don't remember such an immediate and large response to an update. Although it was a stunning image of aurora, there have been equally as beautiful images before that haven't had such an immediate response.

Most of the people commenting were people I've not seen mention @apod before (I keep track of all mentions on Twitter as it can remind me if I've forgotten to update it). What was different this time? The thing that most of them had in common was that they are from the Americas, both south and north. By updating early I suspect I caught them before they went to sleep. Normally they'd be off Twitter for another 8 hours or so by which time the @apod update would have moved down their stream and they would probably miss it.

The lesson for me is that the precise timing of a tweet can really affect which parts of the planet may ever really see it. At this time Europe and Africa are just about to wake up, Asia has been awake for a while, and south & north America haven't quite gone to bed. It may be that a little after 5am BST is the best time for planet Earth to get an update.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 17th May 2011 (06:40 BST) | Permalink

.Astronomy: the interviews

A month ago I had the pleasure to attend the third .Astronomy conference at New College, Oxford (the previous ones had been at Cardiff, Wales and Leiden, The Netherlands). Carolina and Sarah both wrote excellent reviews of the conference and hack day.

In amongst all the fun and creativity of .Astronomy, I managed to get some audio interviews. Those are now on the May 2011 edition of the Jodcast. The final one ends suddenly because I had to jump in front of the coach that was to take Jonathan Fay to the airport in order to stop it leaving without him. Although that interview is cut-short, you can watch a video of World Wide Telescope being controlled with a Kinect courtesy of Thomas Boch.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 04th May 2011 (19:37 BST) | Permalink

Virtual Sky

This is old news but I realised that I hadn't actually mentioned it on my own blog. A while ago, as part of my job at LCOGT, I created Virtual Sky. I made it to fill a need.

Over the years I've known many websites that need a view of what you can see in the night sky. Many astronomical societies do this on a monthly basis and Ian Morison at Jodrell Bank often uses screenshots from various planetarium software. The problem is that these images are static and only show the view from one location on the Earth. I've often seen Java applets used to get around this. These work if people have Java installed. With HTML5 becoming usable, the time had come for a true web-based solution.

I created Virtual Sky using Javascript and it can be embedded in other webpages fairly easily (unless you are on a Wordpress hosted blog as they won't allow it). It is also easy to customise to your specific requirements. You can turn constellation lines and labels on and off, show grid lines, invert the colours, set the location, specify a particular date and much more. You can move the sky around with your mouse and there are keyboard shortcuts similar to those in Stellarium.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 01st May 2011 (21:37 BST) | Permalink
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