Monthly Archives: March 2010

Astronomy program headed our way

This was picked up on the Sky at Night Magazine forum:

A while back we mentioned a programme called Beautiful Minds in the magazine. It’s finally getting an airing on 7 April! (It got put back in the schedules after we went to press). Here are the details (taken from

Beautiful Minds

Wednesday 07 April
9:00pm – 10:00pm
1/3 – Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell describes how she discovered pulsars, the by-products of supernova explosions which make life in the universe possible. She describes the moments of despair and jubilation as the discovery unfolded and her excitement as pulsars took the scientific world by storm. Reflecting on the nature of scientific discovery, she talks about the connections between religion and science and how she sees science as a search for understanding rather than as a quest for truth.

The snaps are in

For those who participated in the HiWish website (allowing users to choose areas of Mars to be photographed in high resolution by the HiRise aboard the MRO), the photographs are in. The first eight areas can be found here. The camera has snapped 13,000 images of various regions of Mars including some designated by students in the NASA Quest program. Nevertheless only around one percent of the Martian surface has been mapped in this way. NASA’s press release detailing the history of public participation in this kind of mission is here.

If you want to go to the original website and choose a region for HiRISE to zoom in on next, then it is here.

Preparing for launch

The International Space Station should start to get a bit busier soon enough. On Friday, three people will be blasted toward the trio already up there. The rocket that will carry Expedition 23 is already being rolled out for the launch.

Also ready and waiting is the shuttle Discovery, whose next mission to the ISS is pencilled in for a launch on Monday.

But shuttles and rockets aren’t the only thing getting launched over the next few days. Tomorrow, the UK Space Agency receives its actual launch (and it now even has a website!). An interview with the UK’s first official astronaut, Major Timothy Peake by Astronomy Now at the press conference is now on their youtube channel:

But where might the European Space Agency end up putting him? One idea they’re seriously considering is the south pole of the Moon, a place where water ice still exists and where no human footprint has ever been pressed into the regolith. They’ve issued a call for industry proposals to this end and hope for a launch by the end of the decade.

Cox everywhere

Professor Brian Cox, presenter of the Wonders of the Solar System program on BBC2 (final episode Sunday) and the upcoming Universal series, has been making an appearance on breakfast tables throughout the country today with a couple of articles in the mass media.

On the front page of the Sun, there is a note on his article on ‘extremophiles’. These hardy creatures are bacteria that survive in the most extreme conditions of temperature, pressure etc, and which could spell the appearance of life in places hitherto unconsidered. Meanwhile, Cox is profiled by Jane Fryer in the Daily Mail.

Professor Cox’s day job is of course working on science related to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Yesterday saw the particle accelerator reach record energies with collisions of 3.5TeV beams of protons and anti-protons, giving a centre of mass energy of 7TeV. A summary of the events is in Jonathan Butterworth’s blog (he tweets here).

Meanwhile, displaying much the same level of energy on a larger scale, Cox (who tweets here) continues the fight for better representation of science in politics. One of the open fronts suffered a set back today when a group of Labour MPs and one Conservative voted against reform of the libel costs system. Tom Watson, whose concerns about there being no consultation were proven wrong by documents such as this, then resorted to throwing brickbats over twitter. Watson of course made his money as a lawyer using the libel system and now sits in parliament, where by law he can say what he wants without having to back it up in the courts. Scientists on the other hand are finding that the results of their research now not only have to be correct in fact, but sometimes also have to be uncontroversial to avoid anyone with an expensive legal team dragging them through a costly legal battle to suppress the results. The reforms would’ve reduced this cost by a substantial fraction, allowing some fightbacks to be maintained.

Meanwhile, back in the world of Wonders, here’s a preview of the final, Easter Sunday night episode:

(and why the big Cox post? Easiest way to cram all that stuff into one article instead of loads of little ones)

Supernova splatters stars

Observations of a supernova in three wavelength regimes has shown how material from the devastating explosion has covered nearby stars with a dusty envelope that has allowed astronomers to catch sight of a rare opportunity.

The star is G54.1+0.3, lying 20,000 light years from the Earth. At the very centre of the maelstrom, a white dot indicates the position of a rapidly rotating neutron star known as a pulsar. The neutron star is the remnant of the stellar core, crushed by the infalling outer layers of the star as energy intensive fusion of iron and heavier metals froze and contracted the core.

The blue region captured by the Chandra x-ray space telescope shows the highest energy winds and radiation from the neutron star lighting up the local area, impacting on the gas released during the supernova explosion. Further out, red glows captured by the Spitzer infrared space telescope show gas and dust from the explosion enveloping nearby stars and getting heated up by them. The stars are believed to be part of the star cluster that gave birth to the exploded massive star. Their presence has allowed the dust to be warmed sufficiently to be observable in the infrared, a rare thing. Normally events that warm up dust are violent and destroy smaller particles, this is one chance to see pristine space dust directly.

The stars and other things in the background are provided by visible light observations by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Image Credit: NASA/CXC/SAO T.Temim et al.; IR: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Looking to the future

Those familiar with military hardware such as unmanned Predator drones and the more recent high altitude solar powered wings won’t be surprised to learn that an even higher altitude drone is in the works. Originally known as the X-37, a drone that would’ve been carried to space on the shuttle had the Columbia accident not meant mission cancellation, the Orbital Test Vehicle, or OTV is a quarter of the size of the space shuttle and not equipped for manned transport.

It was transferred from NASA to the Air Force, who intend to launch the first one on the 19th of April. If testing is successful, research and reconnaissance payloads could be devised for it. The OTV is designed to remain in orbit for 270 days and could be used to deliver or return payloads. It was built by Boeing’s Phantom Works and like shuttles can be refurbished and reflown after landing.

Meanwhile, with a 2028 date pencilled in for Mars exploration, NASA has awarded funding to professor Roger Dube to develop an early warning system for increased solar wind pressure events. Dube intends a satellite constellation around Mars that utilises the kinds of solar monitoring telescopes and satellites that we have at the moment. Mars is not as well protected as Earth against particle radiation due to its lack of a substantive magnetic field. As says, the early colonists are likely to need shelters with thirty foot walls made of Martian clay to escape the worst of the Sun’s normal behaviour. With the Sun warming up again, albeit at a reduced rate equivalent to its behaviour at the start of the twentieth century, hopes of a quiet ride may be dwindling.

Meanwhile, Paul Davies has been looking into the future of searching for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. He seems to be popping up everywhere to promote his new book and is available yet again for a webinar tomorrow to discuss the issues within. Register or just read further details here.

Retro rockets to full?

The Great Moon buggy Race will be upon us soon. NASA’s annual competition for groups to run their rickety wheels over a simulated lunar surface will be rolling on the 9th-10th of April. Here is an interview with some of the expected 1,000 students competing.

…and if the idea of a Moon buggy doesn’t conjure up suitably retro thoughts, then the Cassini mission has gone into pop culture nostalgia overdrive. The so called ‘Death Star’ moon Mimas in orbit of Saturn is already well known for its unusual depression, a massive impact crater, that makes it look like the eponymous weapon of the empire. However, a map of temperatures on the surface, which the depression around the crater interferes with, brings to mind a different character – behold the pacman moon: