Monthly Archives: June 2010

Some space things to do…

As the British Astronomical Association put up pictures of their 2010 Exhibition, other things to do either physically or on the net popped up yesterday.

Armagh Planetarium have released details of their summer season of events.

NASA Blueshift have released another tour of sites of astronomical interest, this time taking in Stonehenge and Newgrange.

Six Citizen Science projects are highlighted in this NASA Needs You article from

If you’re in good voice, then 365 Days of Astronomy would like you to record their end credits for them. They got a bit hoarse after 20-odd days, apparently…

If you are a member of the media, then ESA would like to invite you to watch the first images coming in from the Rosetta probe‘s encounter with asteroid Lutetia between 18:00 and 23:00 local time at their Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany on the 10th of July. Experts will be available to discuss the images with. This will be Rosetta’s last spurt of science until May 2014, when it is next scheduled to encounter an asteroid. The probe will fly as close as 3,200km to Lutetia, which is as close as it can get while retaining the ability to capture the entire asteroid in one photograph. I know, I know, it is my birthday that day, but I’ll let you go…

If you’re a professional working in the field of Exoplanets, then there’s a workshop dealing with the proposed THESIS mission at UCL today (Thursday, July 1st). Thesis is a 1.4 m space telescope with NearInfraRed and MidIR spectrographs, expected to characterise spectroscopically the atmospheres of giant and terrestrial exoplanets transiting their parent star (or with the combined light technique). Thesis can also characterise planets in the habitable zone of later type stars. ESA’s internal final assessment of the mission is here.

…and if you’re hungry, Sir Patrick Moore is about to make you even hungrier as he samples some space-related snacks on youtube:


More from the Living Planet

ESA’s Living Planet Symposium in Bergen has been hearing from satellites dedicated to measuring the health of Earth. SMOS, the Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity satellite, recently began collecting data. It will be used to provide information on the water cycle and climate processes and also can be used for water management, weather forecasting and predicting drought and floods. Meanwhile Envisat results from 2003-2010 have been converted into an animation showing the thinning of the Antarctic ice over that period. The results agree with those of the GRACE satellite run by America and Germany.

Also in the news today was the ESA satellite Proba-2, which showed a stunning out rush of material from the solar surface. Proba-2 is a microsatellite, up there to test various components for use on other missions. Nevertheless, it is providing data on how the Sun can effect the Earth.

The Sun’s effects may not just be confined to this planet, it would seem. Experiments carried out using the Advanced Light Source at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s synchrotron have shown that illuminating a nitrogen-methane mixture with ultraviolet light can produce solid, nitrogen rich organic molecules. Organic in this sense just means hydrocarbon-carbon based, however they can be the building blocks of more complex things and adding nitrogen can make them more chemically active. The importance of the experiment is that the nitrogen-methane mix and the amount of UV light pumped in mimicked the conditions prevalent on Saturn’s largest moon Titan. Furthermore, the amount of solid organic material that rained down was produced faster than models predicted. There may well be another Living Planet out there in the solar system, somewhere.

Trying out some new equipment

With it being this time of the year, the chances of Kendal receiving its annual hour of sunshine means that astronomers can turn from the cold, cloud covered and all too brief summer nights to the cold, cloud covered and all too brief glimpses of the summer sun. As it happens, I have a few bits of new equipment that may help capture this rare event.

First up is the new T-ring. This is a screw-thread that has been specifically designed to fit onto my SLR where the lens normally goes. It has to be tailored to the camera as different companies have different lens fittings. Once the ring is on the camera, an adapter can be screwed into it that then allows the camera to be slotted into the back of a telescope. The one I use is my 60mm Tasco, which has an 800mm focal length, ten times the maximum of the camera’s native lens. The result is the Moon filling more than a small dot in the frame of a picture, but sadly I can’t put the result up yet as it is a film SLR…

The Tasco isn’t much of a telescope – 60mm is a very small aperture, which limits it to a maximum magnification of 120x in perfect skies and 60x in normal skies due to the diffraction limit – but it does the job so far as focusing for a camera goes. Newtonian telescopes don’t normally have sufficient inward travel for the focus, though Cassegrains are good imagers too. The Tasco’s day job before the arrival of the T-ring was something else refractors tend to be preferred for – solar observing. In this case, projection of the solar disc onto a metal plate that slots onto a rod that protrudes out the back. But another recent purchase has rather put that out of contention.

The AstroZap solar cap is a ring that fits onto the end of a telescope and covers the aperture with Baader solar filter paper. This is essentially one of those eclipse glasses made up for a telescope (both my eclipse glasses and this cap have a Neutral Density rating of 5). It produces a bright white disc, which retains much of its details even in thin cloud, unlike the projection, which vanishes at the first suggestion of a haze. Being on a telescope, details can also be zoomed in on and as I’ve stuck it on the 130mm Celestron SLT, the image has a higher resolution than the 60mm Tasco can produce.

Before an image can be taken, the telescope has to actually point at the Sun. But how is this achieved when there is no way to look through the thing and the finderscope is also out of action? The answer is to use the shadow of the telescope. If the Sun is looking directly down the barrel, as it needs to, then only the shadow of the barrel, a nice black circle rather than a line or an oval, should be visible. At this point, then start jigging the telescope about to get the fine adjustments – in the case of projection, do this while looking at the thing the projection should shine on, in the case of a filtered telescope, do it looking through the eyepiece, making sure you have first checked the filter for holes before putting it on the telescope.

Once in place, the image was focused, showing the disc of the Sun and one prominent sunspot, which easily showed its umbra and penumbra. Zooming in with the other eyepieces showed little further than confirming what was there. I took a close to full disc image afocally, using the digital camera at 10:50am on the 30th of June. No prominences were seen or expected as in white light, they are drowned out by the disc of the Sun. An eyepiece filter would be required to get that sort of view.

On twitter, there were noises about various effects caused by sunlight passing through ice crystals in the late evening. This provided a range of effects including Sun dogs (fake Suns either side of the real ones) Circumzenithal Arcs (small, intense rainbows above the Sun) and the like. Sadly, the haze set in here so hard the sky turned a blank white and the Sun vanished, so I missed out on all of that.

Checking up on, the sunspot is number 1084, the 29th spot of the year. The equipment was bought at First Light Optics, and there’s a few more bits and pieces I have my eye on…

IoP 2010 Award Winners Announced

The Institute of Physics has announced its 2010 Award Winners.

The Isaac Newton Medal, for outstanding contribution to Physics, which is accompanied by a certificate, £1,000 and the offer of a lecture, has been awarded to Professor Edward Witten of the Institute for Advanced Studies for work on particle theory, quantum field theory and general relativity.

The Business and Innovation Medal, for outstanding contributions to the organisation or application of physics in an industrial or commercial context has been awarded to Professor Sir Michael Pepper of UCL for translating advances in semiconductor physics into the commercial arena.

The Dirac Medal, for outstanding contributions to theoretical (including computational or mathematical) physics, accompanied by £1,000 and a certificate, is awarded to Professor James Binney of Rudolf Peierls Institute for Theoretical Physics, Oxford University, for contributions to understanding how galaxies are constituted, how they form and how they work.

The Faraday Medal, for outstanding contribution to experimental physics of a physicist with an international reputation in any sector, accompanied by £1,000 and a certificate, is awarded to Professor Athene Donald of the University of Cambridge for her highly original investigations of the structures of natural and synthetic polymers.

The Glazebrook Medal for leadership in a physics capacity – eg a national laboratory or large facility – accompanied by £1,000 and a certificate, has been awarded to Professor Peter Roberts of the Atomic Weapons Establishment for leadership in the design, physics and safety of nuclear weapons.

The Appleton Medal and Prize for distinguished research in environmental, Earth or atmospheric physics, accompanied by £1,000 and a certificate, has been awarded to Dr Myles Allen of the University of Oxford for important contributions to the detection and attribution of human influence on climate and the quantification of uncertainty in climate prediction.

The Franklin Medal and Prize for distinguished research into physics applied to the life sciences, accompanied by £1,000 and a certificate, has been awarded to Professor Thomas Duke of UCL for the application of physical principles to the development of elegant molecular sorting devices, for providing new insights into the organising principles of cells and for his primary contributions to a new generation of theories of how the inner ear works.

The Gabor Medal and Prize for distinguished work in the application of physics in an industrial, commercial or business context, including work that has enhanced the economic or social well being of the UK or Ireland, accompanied by £1,000 and a certificate, has been awarded to Professor Pratibha L Gai of the University of York for her pioneering development of atomic – resolution environmental transmission electron microscopy and its application to instrument manufacture and industrial processing.

The Hoyle Medal and Prize for distinguished research in astrophysics, gravitational physics or cosmology, accompanied by £1,000 and a certificate, has been awarded to Professor Carlos S Frenk of the Institute for Computational Cosmology, University of Durham, for his major contributions to the development of the now widely accepted cold dark matter model by using cosmological simulations, novel methods for calculating the physics of galaxy formation and analysis of galaxy surveys.

The Rutherford Medal and Prize for distinguished research in nuclear physics or nuclear technology, accompanied by a prize of £1000 and a certificate, has been awarded to Professor Martin Freer of the University of Birmingham for establishing the existence of nuclear configurations analogous to molecules and demonstrating the existence of nucleon-clustering in key light nuclei, a long-standing issue in the field.

The Thomson Medal and Prize for distinguished research in atomic or molecular physics, accompanied by £1,000 and a certificate, has been awarded to Professor Gaetana Laricchia of UCL for her contributions to the development of the world’s only positronium beam and its use to probe the properties of atoms and molecules.

The Maxwell Medal and Prize for outstanding contributions to theoretical physics, mathematical or computational physics by physicists early in their careers, accompanied by £1,000 and a certificate, has been awarded to Dr Peter Haynes of Imperial for his work on linear-scaling methods for large-scale first-principles simulation of materials based on density-functional theory, in particular his leading role in the development of the ONETEP code used in both academe and industry.

The Moseley Medal and Prize for distinguished research in experimental physics by physicists early in their careers, accompanied by £1,000 and a certificate, has been awarded to Professor Jeremy O’Brien of the University of Bristol for his outstanding contributions to experimental quantum optics and quantum information science and in particular for pioneering the field of integrated quantum photonics.

The Paterson Medal and Prize for distinguished research in applied physics by physicists early in their careers, accompanied by £1,000 and a certificate, has been awarded to Professor Stefan Maier of Imperial for his important contributions to the fields of plasmonics and plasmonic metamaterials.

The Bragg Medal and Prize for significant contributions to physics education, accompanied by £1,000 and a certificate, has been awarded to Peter Campbell of the Science Learning Centre, London for his leading role in a wide range of projects that have made a significant impact on the physics curriculum and the teaching of physics.

The Kelvin Medal and Prize for outstanding contributions to the public understanding of physics, accompanied by a certificate and £1,000, has been awarded to Professor Brian Cox of the University of Manchester for communicating the appeal and excitement of physics to the general public through the broadcast media.

Russia tries to get it up as astronauts deny doing the same

Russia’s Deep Space program lost its libido as the eighties came to a close. The last time they got it up and out beyond Earth orbit was on the 12th of July 1988 with Phobos 2. They tried another time in 1996 with Mars 96, but failed to leave Earth orbit. Indeed, while the shuttle has been preparing for retirement and Soyuz becomes the transport of choice for human spaceflight, Russia’s Federal Space Program is notable for not having even ESA’s level of launches into deep space. This time they’re headed back, with the Phobos-Grunt mission, also headed to that satellite of Mars. Phobos-Grunt, which aims to drop onto the surface, with a couple of thrusters providing extra sticking power, will be gathering material from that surface and bringing it back. The mission has been heavily delayed – first by the collapse of the Soviet Union, then by the economic problems that followed, then by the time required to develop the mission to modern standards when the money became available, and finally due to missing the 2009 Mars launch window. The next window is 2011 and the team behind the mission are confident of hitting it.

One set of people never accused of dawdling about on the ground when they could be out there are astronauts. However, they’ve been denying any reports that the long night of space or the myriad of sunsets watched above crystal clear skies have translated into the 100+ mile high club. Space Shuttle Discovery commander Alan Poindexter broke the heart of many a colleague when he stated that those on the International Space Station were professionals and that their working relationship was such that not only had other relationships never happened, but they never would. He also stated that it was far too cramped up there for anything to happen. Which rather sounds like something you’d only know after trying and failing to me…

Some solar system (and beyond) science

As ESA’s living planet symposium continues, news comes in of a number of missions that point inwards rather than outwards, using data gathered from the planets and Earth itself to improve our own understanding of this world.

First off, we have MetOp-B. This is a weather satellite, presently stuck in the middle of the Large Space Simulator in ESTEC. This vacuum chamber simulates the pressures and temperatures the satellite is likely to routinely face. It is large enough to house a double decker bus stood upright and previously held the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which is due to fly to the International Space Station on the final scheduled mission. Its next inhabitant will be part of the BepiColumbo mission to Mercury.

Forty-nine years ago today, another satellite that gave aid to people on Earth was launched. Transit-4A was a navigational satellite that beamed out signals on two radio wavebands. The Doppler shifts from these monitored over a fifteen minute pass could then be used to estimate position on Earth. The system was replaced by Navstar’s gps and the satellites fell out of navigational use in 1996, but then transferred over to the Naval Ionospheric Monitoring Systems, which used the refraction of the signal by the ionosphere to monitor the ionised layers of the upper atmosphere. Transit 4A was also a testbed for the first nuclear power source sent into space.

Another anniversary, this one looking a bit further back to the tune of one hundred and forty two years ago, is the birth of George Ellery Hale. He was a solar astronomer who invented the spectroheliograph. This was essentially a prism or spectrograph that split up all the visible light from the Sun, selected one or two colours of interest and ignored all the rest. Because this meant most of the light from the Sun had been ignored, the image was then faint enough to view or to photograph, allowing the sort of details to be seen that modern solar telescopes view regularly with filters and the like.

Another interesting thing scientists look at when studying our planet is the gravity field. A recent satellite called GOCE, still up there, still watching and recording, has been mapping the gravitational pull of the Earth. Deviations can be caused by changes in composition (sea water pulls differently from land, which pulls differently from magma inside a volcano) or density (temperature and currents in the sea). This feeds through to the atmosphere, which is bound to the Earth by gravity. As such, researchers like to have a map of what is known as the Geoid – the apparent shape of the Earth as measured by its gravity field. The GOCE team has taken a parabolic curve that matches a smooth Earth and produced a contour map of deviations in depth that the Geoid has from this simpler shape. The one presented today is only made from the initial GOCE data. GOCE itself was quite a technological marvel when first put together. In order for the gyroscopes to smoothly measure the gravity of the Earth, moving parts that would cause the satellite to jerk one way or another were banned. The engine was an ionic system that put out smooth bursts to counteract the slowdown caused by friction with the thin atmosphere. This system worked so well, GOCE operated at very low altitudes for satellites – averaging 254.9km, the lowest for any long period Earth Observation satellite.

In order to have a good idea of how planets in general operate, we need data from as large a sample of them as possible. Fortunately, one extrasolar planet has been confirmed as being the first one ever photographed after further study of its orbital features ruled out it being a line of sight pseudo-planet. The planet is eight times the mass of Jupiter and was first introduced to the public back in 2008. With more than four hundred planets of this ilk confirmed and a similar number from the Kepler mission alone waiting for confirmation, a conference to chart the diversity of the worlds we’ve found has been scheduled at Exeter (ExoTerra?) on the 7th-10th September this year. ExoClimes 2010: Exploring the Diversity of Planetary Atmospheres will look at topics such as atmospheric models, atmospheric-interior coupling, comparative planetology within this solar system, extending those models to the known characteristics of some exoplanets and then habitability and climate change.

And it goes both ways as techniques used to study minerals on Earth are being fixed onto Mars rovers to explore Earth-analogue minerals on Mars, to determine when and how widespread Earth like conditions could once have been on the Red Planet.

If this has raised any questions, or left plenty unanswered, then a NASA specialist, Dr Jonathan Cirtain, will be available to answer questions on the solar system at 8-9pm BST on Thursday the 1st of July on this webpage.

More on science in the new Parliament

An adviser to the Parliamentary Officer for Science and Technology (POST, which tweets here) has written a blog post on the CaSE website. In it he describes the status of various science interest groups in Parliament such as the Science and Technology Select Committee in the House of Commons, the cross party interest group the Parliamentary and Science Committee, the Science and Technology Select Committee in the Lords – now including Lord Rees and POST itself. He also mentions a few events that have happened with science in mind.

One event he didn’t mention, no doubt due to it happening after he composed the blog entry, was a conference The Times held between CEOs of big business in the UK and members of the Coalition Government. In their leading article summarising what happened (for which you’d need to register for a free trial to get behind the paywall or buy the paper to see…), one illuminating anecdote is the one shown below about what the CEOs want the Government to do to help them:

Many voices yesterday suggested that Britain could do more to foster clusters of excellence. The case for investment in high added value was made dramatically by Sir John Rose, chief executive of Rolls-Royce. He held up a turbine blade, smaller than his hand, grown out of a single crystal, to give it strength, and drilled by lasers with fine holes to enable it to spin at very high temperatures. The blade was developed by 37 universities and 35 companies, and was protected by 40 patents. It is worth as much in weight as silver, he said. A car, by comparison, has the same value pound for pound as a hamburger.

This feat of engineering offered both hope and a warning. Britain will not produce these “crown jewels” without an educated, skilled workforce. One of the main themes at yesterday’s gathering was the lack of coherent government focus on this core need. Britain could, in theory, compete well with countries where average wages were far lower, many said, but only if its workers could control quality and pace of production, and drive productivity higher. A better grounding in science and technology would also inject into the workforce the flexibility that Britain has sorely lacked.