citizen science

So You Want To Be A Scientist 2011

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.

5 tips for making the most of the Perseids

The Perseid meteor shower is currently putting on a show in the night sky, as the Earth passes through the trail of debris left by the comet Swift-Tuttle. The shower is expected to reach a peak sometime between the evening of the 12 of August and the morning of the 13 August. Even so, it’s worth looking out for Perseid meteors a few nights before and after this time; on Saturday night I managed to spot 13 Perseids, including a spectacular fireball, during a roughly two-hour period of clear sky.

With the Moon out of the way, this year, we should have a fairly good view of the peak of the shower. With this in mind, I’ve put together my top five tips for making the most of the Perseids.

  1. The best time to look out for the Perseids will be between the evening of the 12 of August and the pre-dawn hours of the 13 August, around the time when the peak of the shower is anticipated. After midnight is a good time to look, as the patch of sky the meteors appear to come from will be higher in the sky then.
  2. Don’t get too hung-up on the exact direction in which to look. Simply try to find an observing site, away from sources of light pollution, where you can see as much of the sky as possible, and look up.
  3. My favourite piece of meteor shower observing equipment is undoubtedly my sunlounger. If you have one, dig it out. Being wrapped up warm lying back on a sunlounger is, to me, the perfect way to watch meteor showers. They’re great for binocular astronomy too.
  4. If you’re a budding citizen scientist then you can submit a report of your meteor shower observations to one of the astronomical societies. The SPA have a form here and the BAA have one here.
  5. For me, meteor showers are mainly about having fun and revelling in one of nature’s greatest spectacles. So my final tip is to invite your friends over to watch the shower with you. When the brighter meteors blaze over you’ll then have someone to share the excitement with. If you’re on Twitter, you can tweet your observations to other meteor watchers using the hastag #meteorwatch.

That’s it! Clear skies and good luck.

Radio 4 takes a shine to noctilucent clouds

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.

Study our star with Solar Stormwatch

A vast coronal mass ejection blasts away from the Sun. Credit: NASA/ESA/SOHO

In August last year I wrote a feature for Sky at Night Magazine about how you could help STEREO mission scientists search for the building blocks of the object, known as Theia, that’s thought to have formed the Moon when it collided with the proto-Earth. Now the latest citizen science project to launch, ‘Solar Stormwatch’, is using data from the STEREO spacecraft to get the public studying another Solar System spectacle — coronal mass ejections.

Coronal mass ejections (or CMEs) are vast and violent eruptions of plasma from the Sun that travel at high-speed across our Solar System. Studying how CMEs and other similar solar phenomena are formed, and how they interact with the Earth, is one of the biggest (and perhaps most important) fields of solar science. The twin STEREO spacecraft are (literally) in a perfect position to do this, as they fly through space separated by huge distances. This allows them to create a three-dimensional picture of the huge clouds of material thrown out from the Sun. The short video below from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center explains a little more about how STEREO does this.

Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Conceptual Image Lab

Solar Stormwatch, which launched today, is being run by the Royal Observatory Greenwich and the STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. It gives you the chance to monitor (almost) real-time images from the STEREO spacecraft to spot and track coronal mass ejections. Your efforts doing this can really help solar scientists as this page on the website explains nicely. I really like the smooth interface of the site and there’s a great deal of additional material to explore there on top of the citizen science activities themselves. Once you’re registered the website has everything you need to start seeking out solar storms, including several excellent tutorial videos (two of which I’ve embedded below) narrated by STEREO project scientist Dr Chris Davis. Who knows what you could discover? If previous citizen science projects are anything to go by it could be something very exciting!

Tutorial videos by the Royal Observatory Greenwich


Looking for LCROSS

lcrossAn illustration of LCROSS heading for lunar impact. Credit: NASA

The NASA LCROSS spacecraft, and part of the upper stage of its rocket, are due to deliberately crash into a crater (known as Cabeus) close to the Moon’s south pole on Friday (12:31pm UK time). Scientists are hoping that the huge plumes the impacts create will throw up material that can be studied for signs of water at the lunar pole. The LCROSS impacts come not long after the announcement of the discovery of small amounts of water found over much of the lunar surface. No doubt LCROSS will add something to this surprising result.

Astronomers, both amateur and professional, back on Earth are preparing to observe the impacts too, to add to the data from the LCROSS probe and other space based telescopes observing what happens. If you take an image of the LCROSS plume too you can also help out with a bit of citizen science. The UK isn’t well placed to observe the impact as, unfortunately, it will be daylight here and the Moon will be quite low. However if you have a large telescope (with a mirror diameter of 25cm or greater) it may still be worth a go. See here for more.

For those of us who won’t be able to look for the impact plume ourselves there are a few websites which will be broadcasting information and live feeds as the event unfolds. NASA will be having a live webcast of the event on NASA television with commentary and animations as well as live video from the craft. The remote observatory company SLOOH will also be showing live feeds from two telescopes located in the USA looking for the plume.

So with all that in mind, now all we have to do is wait.