Over the last 12 months I’ve been working, in my spare time, on a short film about meteors. Called The Story of a Shooting Star it “follows the journey of a tiny grain of space dust, tracing its origins all the way back to the birth of the Solar System before exploring its final fleeting moments blazing across the night sky as a meteor”. Having spent a while scriptwriting and researching I recently started filming for the project.
In May I spent a fascinating day at the Norman Lockyer Observatory, in Devon, with the Solar, Planetary & Meteor group there learning about radio meteor detection. And this past weekend I filmed in the stunning surroundings of Dartmoor National Park. I’ll be posting occasional updates on the film (and hopefully some short clips too) here, but for now here are some pictures from the first few days of location shooting.
The Norman Lockyer Observatory on day one of filming. Credit: Will Gater
It might not look like much, but this antenna can detect meteors. Credit: Will Gater
Ping! A meteor is detected vaporizing high up in our atmosphere. Credit: Will Gater
Twilight on Dartmoor, a truly stunning sight. Credit: Will Gater
Some serious peering going on in this shot. Credit: Will Gater
One Show presenter Lucy Siegle talks to Will live from the Brecon Beacons. Credit: BBC
I had great fun on Wednesday night in the Brecon Beacons filming a series of live segments about astrophotography for the BBC’s The One Show. The idea behind the evening was that I would help a group of twenty amateur photographers take their first images of the night sky before judging which was the best shot. When we arrived at the filming location the sky was filled with clouds, but as the Sun set the clouds thankfully dissipated and the photographers managed to capture their pictures (even despite some quite substantial haze).
If you missed the programme, and are in the UK, you’ve got a few days left to catch it on the BBC’s iPlayer; the astrophotography bits can be found here, here and here. And if you’ve captured an astro image lately that you’re particularly pleased with, don’t forget to send it into the 2013 Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition, which is now open for entries.
Just a quick heads-up to say that I have a new article in the January issue of the BBC’s Countryfile magazine. It’s called “Stargazing for Beginners” and it’s illustrated with a gorgeous opening picture (above) that was produced especially for the feature by artist Angela Harding. In the piece I offer some advice on how to get started in astronomy and suggest a few objects that can be seen with just the naked eye. There’s also a guide to locating some of the more prominent constellations that are visible in January.
Following my post about the results of this year’s Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition, here’s Sky at Night Magazine’s video from the awards night.
Video courtesy of Sky at Night Magazine. Remember to select the 720p HD option.
Martin Pugh’s winning image of the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51). Credit: Martin Pugh
If you’ve been following my Twitter feed you’ll probably know that on Wednesday night the Royal Observatory Greenwich, in association with Sky at Night Magazine, announced the winners of the 2012 Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition.
This year’s overall winner was Martin Pugh, from Australia, who won the top prize with a truly spectacular image (above) of M51. I was on the judging panel again this year and, in my opinion, it was the hardest year to judge in the history of the competition. The standard of entries across all the categories was, as ever, superb, but this year I was particularly impressed with the quality of the images submitted in the Best Newcomer and Young Astronomy Photographer of the Year groups – something that really bodes well for the future of the competition.
To tie in with the competition, myself, the ROG’s Marek Kukula, and Andrew Steele – whose striking moonrise image was highly commended in last year’s competition – also appeared in a segment about astrophotography on The One Show last night; my role was to help presenter Jamie Crawford take his first ever astro images. You can currently watch the whole piece on the BBC’s iPlayer here.
Jamie and I looking at some basic astrophotography kit. Credit: BBC Television
I had a lot of fun talking about astrophotography to Fiona Keating from Photography Monthly magazine a few weeks ago. The 4-page interview appears in the June issue of the magazine, which has just hit newsstands. In the interview I talk about some of the methods and equipment that can be used to take pictures of the night sky and the technical challenges astro imaging creates.
So if you’re thinking of getting into astrophotography, why not pick up a copy of the magazine and start snapping. And if you capture a great image, remember there’s a ‘best newcomer’ prize in the Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition.
Last year I wrote about a new BBC Radio 4 competition called ‘So You Want To Be A Scientist?’ that invites members of the public to submit ideas for a scientific experiment they’d like to carry out. One of the finalists in last year’s competition was amateur astronomer John Rowlands who investigated the summertime atmospheric phenomenon known as ‘noctilucent clouds’. The competition is back this year and the team behind it are once again keen to hear your ideas for experiments.
If your idea is one of the handful selected by the judges you’ll be paired up with a professional scientist to complete the experiment you’ve proposed. When the results of your study are in you’ll then have to present your research at the Cheltenham Science Festival; a panel of expert judges will then select their favourite experiment, with the winning citizen scientist being declared the BBC’s Amateur Scientist of the Year. You’ve got until 31 October to get your ideas in, so get thinking — you never know what you might discover.
A noctilucent cloud display captured during summer 2010. Credit: Will Gater
I’ve just started using the website Audioboo to upload short pieces of astronomy themed audio to the Web. My first ‘boo’ (as they’re called) is all about noctilucent clouds – the ethereal glowing clouds that appear in the northern hemisphere’s night skies around this time of year.
A stunning noctilucent cloud display seen in the summer of 2009. Credit: Will Gater
It’s approaching that time of year when the skies of the northern hemisphere are graced by an ethereal phenomenon known as noctilucent clouds (or NLCs). These high altitude clouds of ice crystals shine long after the Sun has set and are visible from latitudes of around 50 to 60 degrees north during the summer months. They are beautiful to look at, glowing a bright blue/white colour against the reds and oranges of the twilight. We had some wonderful displays last summer and I’m hoping that this year they’ll put on a good show too.
Late last year BBC Radio 4 announced that they would be holding a new competition ‘So You Want To Be A Scientist?’ to find the BBC’s Amateur Scientist of the Year. People from around the UK submitted their ideas for scientific experiments they’d like to carry out, with the four best now being put into practice with the assistance of professional scientists. The finalists will be judged later this year at the British Science Festival to see who wins the coveted title.
I mention this because one of the finalists, aerial photographer John Rowlands, will be studying noctilucent clouds for his experiment, with the help of Professor Nick Mitchell from the University of Bath. You can read (and hear) more about John’s idea and the science behind noctilucent clouds on the Radio 4 website here. There’s also a Facebook page where John and the Radio 4 team are keeping everyone up-to-date with how the project is progressing. It should be a really interesting experiment to follow over the next few months, not least because the subjects of the study are so fun to look at and photograph.
Just a very quick post to say that, for anyone in the UK, I’ll be on Channel Five’s The Gadget Show tomorrow night (Monday 10th May) talking telescopes with presenter Jon Bentley. The programme starts at 8pm but I don’t know what time the section we filmed will be shown. The show has over 2.5 million viewers, so I’m hoping that there’ll be loads of people whose interest has been sufficiently piqued to find out what this astronomy lark is all about!
Update 11.05.10: The section of the show where we looked at telescopes is now online on The Gadget Show’s website here.
Whilst visiting London on Thursday I popped into the Science Museum to see the new IMAX film Hubble 3D. After buying my ticket I wandered amongst throngs of people looking at everything from the Apollo 10 Command Module to Stephenson’s Rocket. It was good to see the place heaving with people, hopefully learning about science and clearly having fun. I thought their presence even more remarkable considering it was a glorious sunny day outside! Great, I thought, these people clearly want to be here.
Yet I did wonder to myself whether any of them were a) interested in astronomy and b) sufficiently interested to buy a ticket to see a movie that is essentially about a telescope. Is Hubble really so well-known that it might draw crowds to the box office? Or has its magic only rubbed off on those of us who live and breathe astronomy, I thought? The answer came a little over half an hour before the film was supposed to start.
I had just passed the Apollo 10 command module when I looked to where the IMAX cinema entrance was. Snaking away from it was a rapidly growing line of perhaps fifty people or more. It was the queue for the Hubble IMAX show. Not wanting to miss the chance of a good seat I jumped in line. And still more and more people joined the queue until it had stretched right around the corner out of sight. Before long we were let in and the film started.
So what was it like? Well, frankly, it was stunning – visually, aurally, emotionally. Epic is the word that actually came to my mind as the lights came up.
When writing about science I’ve learnt it’s great if you can capture some essence of the character of a scientist or their own personal story and weave it in and around the hard facts and discoveries you’re trying to discuss. Sometimes that can be difficult, sometimes it comes easily. What struck me about this film is how naturally Hubble’s ‘personality’ leaps out of the screen. It’s every bit as arresting as the 3D effects, even to a hardened space nut like me.
There are some beautiful pieces of CGI which I’ll let you discover for yourselves. Though I shall say that there’s one zoom onto the Orion Nebula that, for me, was worth the ticket price alone. There are also some wonderful scenes which superbly convey why Hubble’s multi-wavelength observing capability makes it such a powerful instrument.
I tried to write down a few notes as I was watching. But in the darkness they just became random scrawled words. One simply says “Launch!!!!”. I’ll admit I had a tear in my eye at that point. It’s an incredible moment of cinematography coupled with a chest rattling crackle like nothing I’ve ever heard.
Do go and see the film if you get a chance. It’s running at the Science Museum until 28 May from what I can tell. I really don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Hubble image credit: NASA/ESA
A little while ago I had a lot of fun being interviewed by Jheni, J and Andy from Focus magazine’s podcast. We talked about a new astronomy TV series coming to our screens called ‘Seven Wonders of the Solar System’. Presented by particle physicist Prof Brian Cox the series will, according to the BBC, look at “how the laws of nature…carve spectacular sights throughout the Solar System.”
On the Focus podcast I talked specifically about the lakes of liquid methane on Titan and the spectacular volcanism which occurs on Jupiter’s moon Io. The podcast is now online, on iTunes and embedded below, with my interview starting about 8 minutes 45s in. There’s a short trailer for the series here, so check it out when it airs in the UK sometime later this year.
I have the cover feature of July’s Sky At Night Magazine with an article entitled ‘Return to the Moon’, about NASA’s Constellation programme and the plans to send astronauts back to the Moon. In the feature I look at the how the programme is progressing, the various stages in a Constellation lunar mission, as well as how some of the key bits of new/proposed hardware and rocket technology compare to their counterparts of the Apollo era. Meanwhile if you want to look back on Apollo’s great achievements, what better place to start than the BBC’s own archive of footage about the first manned Moon missions.
Image courtesy: NASA & Sky At Night Magazine
I have a new article in Sky At Night Magazine this month, about asteroids, addressing a topic that I’ve often wondered about and one I’ve heard asked about quite a lot recently (especially after things like this happen) — “why do we miss some spacerocks and why do we spot some of them so late?”. It turns out there are a few reasons, and thankfully there are several things that are being done about it. If you want to get the whole story though you’ll have to see pages 39-43 of the June issue.
Video credit: Sky At Night Magazine. Click ‘HD’ for high quality version.
A few of us from Sky At Night Magazine visited the 2009 Joint European National Astronomy Meeting at the University of Hertfordshire, in late April. Whilst there we filmed two special episodes of the magazine’s vodcast, the first of which (an extended 10 minute episode) has just been released. In it we talk to Prof Michel Mayor, who tells us about a new extrasolar planet he and his colleagues recently discovered, and we chat with Prof Bruno Liebundgut from ESO about the European Extremely Large Telescope. Part 2 will be along next month with a special interview with another one of the JENAM’s wheely interesting delegates!
In February the folks at Google invited astrophysicist Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson to their New York offices to speak about his latest book The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet. Tyson is the Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York and a wonderfully engaging and humorous public speaker. Last week Google uploaded the video of his talk, which I’ve embedded below.
In the video Tyson explores the historical context of Pluto’s re-classification, the controversy surrounding the ‘demotion’ of Pluto and what it means to be a planet today. The Q&As after, not necessarily relating to the book, are interesting too; his description of the smoothness of the Earth for example, towards the end of the video, is just brilliant.
Whatever your views on Pluto’s status today, Tyson’s ability to eloquently and enthusiastically communicate science, in particular astronomy, is something we can all really enjoy.
Video courtesy AtGoogleTalks YouTube channel. Hat tip to my colleague Kerry.
The new vodcast from the BBC’s S@N Magazine. © Sky At Night Magazine
Keen-eyed readers of the Sky At Night Magazine website will have noticed that the magazine has just launched a new vodcast. The first episode covers the Mars Science Laboratory and how it will land on Mars whilst Paul Money gives us top tips for observing, amongst other things, Comet Lulin. Plus there’s a section about the new Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition. You can find the vodcast on the magazine’s podcast/vodcast page here.
Will MSL now land close to a methane rich area (in red)? Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The recent story about methane being detected in Mars’ atmosphere has lead to huge interest around the world, simultaneously renewing fervent media speculation of the “is there/isn’t there life on Mars?” question. There is, as there often is in these things, a lot of excellent analysis of the news out there in the blogosphere. So I’ll point you to Emily at The Planetary Society and Discovery Space’s “Wide Angle” for the run-down, as well as Chris and Dave who tackle aspects of the political and journalistic back-story of the result.
One thing that has already been noticed by some, including Nature’s Eric Hand, is that one of the places that the methane appears to be originating from was also on the potential landing site list for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory. It’ll be exciting now to see if the MSL, due for a 2011 launch, will be sent there or another of the methane rich areas. Wherever MSL is sent it will have to be able to touchdown right where the scientists want it to; which brings me nicely onto my plug. In the February issue of Sky At Night Magazine I have a new feature entitled “Landing a lab on Mars”, all about how the MSL will use an ingenious landing system to get down safely and precisely onto the red planet’s surface.
As for if there are gassy microbes on Mars? Well, MSL’s drill probably won’t be large enough to get deep enough beneath the Martian surface to sample what’s there. Maybe the planned ExoMars rover will just reach, with its 2 metre long drilling capability. But who knows exactly how far below the surface these processes (geological or biological) are actually occuring? It may be some time before a direct sample is made.
Well telescope night has been and gone and now the documentary BLAST! is up on iPlayer, for any UK readers. Having now seen it I can definitely recommend it. The way the film both generates and conveys the genuine drama and excitement, of carrying out a mission like BLAST, was particularly good. Worth watching right to the end to see what happens! You’ve got until 11:19pm on Wednesday 14th January to watch it, so log on here.
Lastly then, I’ll be doing several interviews over the coming weeks with BBC radio stations up and down the country about the International Year of Astronomy 2009. We’ll be talking about all aspects of the IYA, I imagine, so listen in if you’re interested. The first interview kicks off with a chat with BBC Radio Jersey’s Sara Palmer and Carrie Cooper at 11:15am on Monday morning. I won’t post any more about these interviews but if you want to keep up-to-date you can follow my Twitter feed here.
Here’s a quick heads-up for some astronomy related television due to be aired in the next few days. This International Year of Astronomy marks the 400th anniversary of the first use of the telescope for astronomical purposes, by the English astronomer Thomas Harriot and later the great Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei. This coming Wednesday (the 7th January) BBC Four will be celebrating this with a night of four programmes about the telescope and astronomy. The evening kicks off at 8:00pm with a special hour long episode of The Sky At Night entitled “Light Fantastic”. The programme covers the four century long history of the astronomical telescope as well as an interview with one of the astronauts who fixed the Hubble Space Telescope.
Hubble is just one of the stars of Wednesday night’s TV coverage. Credit: NASA
After The Sky At Night, at 9:00pm, there’s a documentary about the history of Hubble. Then at 10:00pm there’s a new documentary called “BLAST!“, billed by its producers as “astrophysics Indiana Jones style!”. It follows a group of astronomers who journey to the Arctic and Antarctica, in order to launch the Balloon-borne Large-Aperture Sub-millimeter Telescope (a.k.a BLAST) on a high-altitude balloon, to study the formation of high redshift (and therefore very distant) galaxies.
Finally then the evening rounds off, back down to Earth, with Adam Hart-Davis who presents a look at “Britain’s 40,000 amateur astronomers” with appearances from Colin Pillinger, Terry Pratchett and Patrick Moore. And before you settle down to watch this little lot of TV, don’t forget to look outside to see the Moon occulting (that’s moving in front of) the Pleiades star cluster — at about 17:15 UT. The Moon will be about 45 degrees high in the east at this time and should look great, in front of the cluster, through a good pair of binoculars. What better way to kick off the International Year of Astronomy 2009!
I’ve just started ‘following’ unmanned spaceflight expert Doug Ellison on Twitter and, out of curiosity, I went back and had a look at a few of his most recent tweets. I’m glad I did, because I spotted a mention from him about a talk he recently gave to the Open University about Mars. Entitled “Exploring Mars – A crash course on the Red Planet”, the talk is a comprehensive run down on the exploration of Mars from Schiaparelli’s ‘canali’ and ground based images of Mars to the up close exploration of the MERs.
Doug is the founder of the Unmanned Spaceflight forum and his expertise and enthusiasm really comes through in this talk. He uses images and animations from the recent Mars missions, to illustrate the talk, which he sews together with his commentary. If you want a summary of humankind’s recent robotic exploration of Mars, this video is a great way to spend an hour on a wintry Saturday afternoon. The video is available in an high quality version as well, so you can read the notes that Doug occasionally puts up on the screen. The video is below (wide-screen & high quality version on the YouTube site) and a link to Doug’s Twitter feed is here.
“Exploring Mars”. Credit: Doug Ellison/The Open University
For any of you reading the blog who came to my Hubble talk last night, hello! As promised here are a few select links to some of the videos from the presentation. First up is a zoom into the Hubble Ultra Deep Field.
Next is a pair of videos showing the creation of the stunning Cat’s Eye nebula – first the companion star dies creating the concentric shells of material, then the jets and magnetic field of the other (alive) star warp and twist into the nebula to create the central detail and swirls. The first part is here and the second you’ll find by clicking here.
Lastly then is a video of the bizarre object called V838 Monocerotis. You can download the video by clicking here. And remember that you can see more videos and (almost) all of the images from my talk on the ESA Hubble website here – www.spacetelescope.org.
I’m going on the radio today to do several interviews mainly about the cover feature I wrote for September’s Sky At Night magazine – “The next supernova”. However I’m also going to be talking about the Large Hadron Collider and how it is not going to destroy the Earth. This webpage here is a good read if you still aren’t convinced. This morning most of the interviews are pre-recorded so I’m not sure exactly when they will be aired; but if you are in the Coventry and Warwickshire area I’ll be talking live to Annie Othen on BBC radio there just after lunch, today.
Lastly, I wanted to say thank you to everyone who came to my lecture on Saturday at the Herstmonceux Astronomy Festival in Sussex. I really enjoyed the weekend and can really recommend the science centre there if you are visiting the area. Look out for a special episode of the S@N podcast on Herstmonceux coming out soon.