Opening the new Chigwell School observatory & science labs

Last Friday I had the tremendous privilege of opening a new observatory and two new science laboratories at Chigwell School in Essex. The telescope housed within the observatory dome is an 8-inch Meade Schmidt-Cassegrain on a German equatorial mount.

It was wonderful to meet such an engaged and enthusiastic group of students, teachers and staff during my visit, and I’m sure that the school has an exciting astronomical future ahead of it. Many thanks to Steve Davis from Chigwell School for the pictures of the day posted below.

5 Preparing to cut the ribbon. Credit: Steve Davis/Chigwell School

unveiling Officially opening the new science wing of the school. Credit: Steve Davis/Chigwell School

Lab 3 One of the new science labs at the school. Credit: Steve Davis/Chigwell School

lectureGiving a talk about the Mars Science Laboratory mission. Credit: Steve Davis/Chigwell School

Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2010 – the results!

Tom Lowe’s stunning winning image ‘Blazing Bristlecone’. Credit: Tom Lowe

Last night the results of the 2010 Astronomy Photographer of the Year awards were announced at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. You’ll have probably seen some of the amazing images in today’s press, including this great audio slideshow from BBC News and an impressive centre spread, of the overall winning image, in the Guardian.

All the prize winning images are now on show, until February 2011, in a stunning (and free!) exhibition at the observatory. They’re wonderfully displayed in a dimly lit room, on backlit plastic, which really brings out their rich colours and incredible details.

Also on show in the exhibition space are four superb mini-documentaries. They tell the story of some of the images in the exhibition and the photographers who took them. In the process they reveal the, often unseen, human element behind astroimaging. The videos are all on Vimeo and I’ve embedded two of them below.

If you’re suitably enthused by this year’s winning images, and would like to have a go at astroimaging, there are some great guides on the ROG website to get you started. Who knows, by this time next year, it might well be your images we’re admiring on the walls in the 2011 exhibition.

Video credits: Buzz Films & the Royal Observatory, Greenwich

A mega Omega Centauri

omegaceneso1Omega Centauri as seen by the WFI. Credit: ESO/EIS

I’ve just had a new press release published over at the European Southern Observatory’s website. It’s about an image (above) of the stunning globular cluster Omega Centauri, taken with the observatory’s Wide Field Imager camera. Here’s a snippet from the release:

This new image is based on data collected with the Wide Field Imager (WFI), mounted on the 2.2-metre diameter Max-Planck/ESO telescope, located at ESO’s La Silla observatory, high up in the arid mountains of the southern Atacama Desert in Chile. Omega Centauri is about 150 light-years across and is the most massive of all the Milky Way’s globular clusters. It is thought to contain some ten million stars!

Omega Centauri is roughly 12 billion years old and had long been thought to be just a massive globular cluster – a huge, roughly spherical, collection of ancient stars. But recent research has found that there are several generations of stars in Omega Centauri – not a typical trait of globular clusters. This discovery has led to some astronomers suggesting that the cluster is actually the remnant centre of a dwarf galaxy. You can read the full story here. And be sure to have a look at the high resolution image, to get a real sense of perspective, with the millions of stars in the cluster. I’ve included a small crop below.

omegacentesodetailA crop of the left hand side of the new WFI image. Credit: ESO/EIS

Inspirational instruments

Back in early June, two colleagues and I from BBC Sky At Night Magazine went down to Selsey to make a short film about the recent renovation of Sir Patrick Moore’s telescopes. We were lucky with the weather and managed to spend a whole day filming in the Sun, surrounded by Patrick’s telescopes and their observatories.

Above: Sir Patrick’s 2.8 inch refractor Credit: BBC Sky At Night magazine

Patrick told us about the history of his telescopes; from the 2.8 inch refractor, which he published his first paper* with, to the famous 12.5 inch which he used to map the Moon. Recently they have been restored by a skilled engineer and they are looking fantastic and (most importantly) are in perfect working order. Patrick’s observatories were also renovated by members of the Stargazers’ Lounge forum and two representatives from there joined us on the day, to be interviewed.

The film we made is now on the coverdisc of the September issue of Sky At Night. It’s my first stab at presenting anything on camera, so be gentle, I’m still learning. Below is a short trailer for the video. Also look out for my cover feature in the magazine on ‘The next supernova’ (pages 36-41).

*Small craterlets in the Mare Crisium, for the BAA Journal, written by Patrick when he was 14!

Latest episode of S@N

I’m manically busy at the moment so not much time to blog, but I’ve noticed that I haven’t mentioned the latest episode of The Sky At Night. It’s called ‘Double Vision’ and is mainly about the Large Binocular Telescope (the LBT). The LBT is huge, has two whopping 8-metre mirrors and it looks like it’s going to be an absolute beast of a machine, with some truly incredible science potential to boot. Did I mention that it will have 10x the resolution of Hubble and weighs nearly 600 tonnes? You can find out more about it here and watch the latest episode of S@N again on BBC iPlayer here, as well as all the usual other outlets.

Herstmonceux Astronomy Festival 2008 lecture

I’m very pleased to announce that I will be giving a talk at this year’s Herstmonceux Astronomy Festival, held at the famous Herstmonceux observatory in Sussex. The subject of my talk will be the science behind the Hubble Space Telescope’s greatest images. To find out more about the festival, which will be held on the 5th, 6th and 7th of September, visit the Observatory Science Centre’s website here.

NAM news 2: Massive starburst in the early Universe

Dr. Scott Chapman from the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge has just presented the latest results from a collaboration between the MERLIN UK radio telescope array, Keck (at optical wavelengths), the VLA in the US and the Plateau de Bure submillimetre observatory in France. The results show that there was a group of galaxies in the early Universe that experienced an incredible burst of star formation about 2 billion years after the Big Bang. This phenomenal burst of activity was observed in galaxies that were shining a mere 3 billion years after the Big Bang and is thought to have been vastly more dramatic than any star formation we see nowadays.

Remarkably it was only until relatively recently that astronomers detected a similar gathering of sub-mm galaxies in the early Universe. These galaxies are particularly faint in optical wavelengths but very bright in the radio wavelengths. Instruments like SCUBA mounted on the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT), on Mauna Kea in Hawaii could see the sky in sub-mm wavelengths and so could detect them; allowing astronomers to investigate their nature. Yet astronomers believed that these galaxies were only part of what was going on (star-forming wise) in the early Universe, because SCUBA was good at looking at relatively cooler sub-mm galaxies.

Now, these new results from the collaboration of many telescopes do indeed show a gathering of slightly warmer galaxies, not altogether different from those spied by SCUBA, undergoing dramatic star formation. The observations indicate that these galaxies are surrounded by vast clouds of gas. That gas, the astronomers argue, will keep the star formation going at a tremendous rate for “hundreds of millions of years”.

You can see images from the results and a very cool video here.

Farside radio astronomy one step closer

For a long time astronomers (specifically radio astronomers) have wanted to place a telescope on the Moon. Now it seems that that desire is slowly becoming a possibility. NASA recently announced how it was backing a series of studies to investigate potential experiments for its ‘Next Generation Astronomy Missions’. Included in that backing is one proposal from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to build a small radio telescope array on the Moon’s far-side.

Radio telescopes are really important tools for probing the Universe. All sorts of objects emit radio waves; quasars, very hot gas in the space between the stars, electrons rapidly whirring around in magnetic fields as well as planets to name but a few. On Earth radio astronomy has been at the forefront of astronomical research for decades. Indeed many of the great discoveries of modern astronomy have been made thanks to the use of radio telescopes; for example the radio telescope (MK1A) at Jodrell Bank Observatory in the UK discovered the first gravitational lens amongst its many great accomplishments.

But there is a problem with doing radio astronomy from Earth. Radio signals from astronomical objects are extremely faint; something that makes observing radio sources tricky even on a good day. But radio waves, of course, don’t just come from the sky. Radio stations, satellites, Wi-Fi networks and many other man-made sources all emit vast amounts of radio waves that are much more powerful than those coming from space. With this ubiquitous fog of radio waves often ‘spilling’ into the frequencies that astronomers observe in (combined with the fact that the Earth’s ionosphere blocks certain radio signals) it’s a wonder we can observe anything emitting radio waves in space; sorting the proverbial radio wheat from the chaff is no easy task.

What radio astronomers really need is something to block all the ‘noise’ coming from the Earth. Something like a massive shield…something like…the Moon. By locating radio telescopes (or groups of smaller telescopes called ‘arrays’) on the lunar ‘farside’ the telescopes are hidden from the radio noise from the Earth, since the farside is always in the radio ‘shadow’ of the Moon, plus they don’t have the Earth’s ionosphere to contend with!

MIT’s proposed telescope will consist of hundreds of small instruments set up across about 2 square kilometres to studio low frequency radio waves. The telescopes will be arranged by robotic machines and they don’t have to be that accurate since the wavelenghts that the array will study are fairly long. The array will probe some of the least well known periods of the Universe’s early history as well as looking at space-weather from the solar wind, radio emissions from the planets and possibly even galaxies too.

I’m going to be talking to Dominic King live on BBC Radio Kent at 10:30am tomorrow morning about the ambitious plans for these lunar observatories so if you are in south-east England tune in!

Above: ‘Farside’ radio telescopes will be able to tell us more about periods in the early Universe, earlier than the HUDF (pictured).
Credit: NASA, ESA, and S. Beckwith (STScI) and the HUDF Team

A glimmer of hope for UK astronomy?

UK research astronomy, space science and physics is currently going through a pretty rough time. This is due to an anticipated £80m worth of cuts in the budget of the Science & Technologies Facilities Council (STFC) who fund much of the UK’s astronomy and physics research facilities both here and abroad. One repercussion (one of many) of the cuts was that the UK was forced to cancel its subscription to the Gemini Observatory (one of the finest research observatories in the Northern Hemisphere). Subsequently UK professional astronomers and postdoctoral researchers lost access to their use of the telescopes meaning many will not be able to carry out their vitally important astronomical research.

However there may be a chance to resolve the Gemini issue. Stuart is reporting that the Gemini Board and the UK STFC have announced that they are going to sit down and discuss the future of the UK’s involvement in Gemini whilst at the same time reinstating the observing time (for the first part of 2008 at the moment at least) that the UK astronomers had lost. I’m not a research astronomer but Chris is. He has a post on what this means to those who have spent time and effort in formulating the observing proposals that were initially cut. Finally – If you want great inside view and commentary on the academic side of astronomy then I recommend you have a browse of Prof. Andy Lawrence’s blog (the e-astronomer); he also has some really interesting posts on the funding cuts issue.