Noctilucent clouds and Audioboo

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.

I’ve embedded the audio below. If you’d like to see some of my pictures from previous years’ displays you’ll find them here and here.

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.

The Gadget Show looks to the stars

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.

Hubble IMAX 3D at the Science Museum, London

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

Focusing on Titan’s lakes and Io’s volcanism

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.

New S@N Magazine article: ‘Return to the Moon’

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

New asteroid article in 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.

Special S@N vodcast from the JENAM 2009

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!

Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks to Google

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.