Slide through the spectrum with Chromoscope

A section of the Milky Way in microwaves. Credit: NASA / WMAP Science Team

If you’ve ever wondered what the Orion Nebula looks like in the far-infrared or what the Milky Way looks like at microwave wavelengths then you’re going to like Chromoscope. This exciting new website is the brainchild of professional astronomers Stuart Lowe, Rob Simpson and Chris North, who’ve brought together several all sky maps of the night sky (made observing at different wavelengths) into one clever interactive tool.

It couldn’t be easier to use. You can switch between different wavelengths quickly with the slide of the wavelength bar at the top right of your screen, or by jumping to them with a keyboard shortcut. Plus there’s a really handy search function built in, along with the ability to overlay labels onto the view.

I’ve found it fun to look at objects well-known to amateur astronomers whilst moving the slider — thus revealing them (quite literally) in a different light. From the dust enshrouded heart of our galaxy seen at visible wavelengths to its glowing core in the far-infrared, after a few minutes you’ll quickly begin to see why professional astronomers observe different wavelengths of radiation to get the big picture of what’s happening in the Universe.

To find out more about Chromoscope the team has a blog here with a video tour. But here’s where you want to go if you want to dive right in.

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.

It’s back and it’s better than ever

No it’s not the return of Red Dwarf to our TV screens*, it’s the new Galaxy Zoo that has got the blogosphere (and indeed the TV) buzzing. To refresh your memory, Galaxy Zoo is the online citizen science project, headed by Dr Chris Lintott, that gives members of the public the chance to help do real science in classifying literally thousands of galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

This morning the GZ team launched the follow-up (Galaxy Zoo 2), which will study a quarter of a million galaxies to “search for the strange and unusual.” This evening I had a go at the new classifying routine and interface and quickly remembered how addictive the site is. So why not head on over and have a go — as the team say “even five minutes’ work will provide a valuable contribution.” And if you’re sceptical that this isn’t a real zoo (as it doesn’t appear to have any animals), well…you just have to look very carefully!

(*although that is very cool)

Building ALMA

almaHow the real ALMA will look. Credit: ESO/Calcada/Heyer/Zodet

ALMA is the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, a huge arrangement of 80 astronomical antennas currently being built by several organisations on the arid plains of the Atacama Desert, in Chile. It will observe the sky to explore in detail, amongst other things, the origins of the Universe, stars and extrasolar planets. This morning I had somewhat smaller ambitions.

Stuart mentioned on Wednesday about the instructions/plans for a model ALMA antenna that the team at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan — who are involved in building ALMA — have on their website. So this morning I thought I’d have a go at making one. I printed the plans out and had them photocopied onto 300gsm A4 card at the local stationery store. A few hours later I had something that, remarkably for me, actually looked like the antenna in the instructions. Here are a few pictures I took during the construction process.

makingalmaMy attempt at making the NOAJ’s ALMA model. Credit: WillGater.com

In (1) the main dish and part of the fork arms are done; in (2) you can see the base taking shape (I substituted a small piece of dowel to support the weight of the main dish) and (3) shows the finished model. If you want the plans to build your own ALMA antenna then they are on the NOAJ website here and you can find out more about the project itself on the new ALMA website here. Now though, I’ve got to find the time to build the other 79!

IYA interviews and BLAST!

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.

Doug Ellison’s Open University Mars talk

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

Final Hubble talk for 2008

On Monday (13th October) I will be giving my final Hubble talk of the year to the West of London Astronomical Society (WOLAS). It will be, once again, entitled “Not just pretty pictures – the science behind Hubble’s greatest images”. The society has written a nice synopsis of the background of the talk, on their meetings page here.

What are these (different) things coming out of this cloud? Come to my lecture to find out! Credit: NASA and Jeff Hester (Arizona State University)

I’ve really enjoyed giving this particular talk this year however I’m going to be busy working on something else for the next few months, so this will be my last one for a bit. For now though if you are interested in coming along to the WOLAS meet-up here’s a map to Christ Church, Redford Way, Uxbridge where the meeting is being held.

.astronomy, IYA 2009 new media and more

Yeah I’m great with catchy post titles I know but I have lots of things to blog about that are loosely related, so this is going to be a bit of a round up of the myriad of thoughts swirling in my head.

Today saw the .astronomy conference kick off in Cardiff, here in the UK. It’s being organised by Rob from the Orbiting Frog blog and addresses the rise of new media and networking and its impact on astronomy. I’m really disappointed I couldn’t make it over to Cardiff, but thankfully Rob has captured the talks from today, on Ustream, so we can all join in. When I get a chance I will try and post up my thoughts on press releases and new media, I had initially prepared to present, here on the blog.

Anyway, I’ve been watching the Ustream videos whilst having tea this evening and have so far seen Chris Lintott‘s and Paul Roche‘s talk. Both are well worth a watch, particularly Chris’s. He’s a great public speaker and his talk summarises very nicely the cool Galaxy Zoo project. It also seems that this week should see the opening of Galaxy Zoo 2, which is exciting – we’ll probably hear more about that soon. Paul’s talk covered the Faulkes Telescope and the work he and his team are doing with outreach and education. The Faulkes project gives schools and societies access to a huge 2-metre telescope via the Internet , which they can control to take their own images and data; if you think your local school or society might be interested you can find out more on the link above.

Paul also mentioned that the next step for this type of project is the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network which looks very impressive. The aim is to get students in schools doing more of their own research via a large network of telescopes all over the world, alongside a similarly large network of actual research telescopes. The network should be able to study all sorts of interesting celestial objects including extrasolar planets, supernovae and gamma-ray bursts! There are more videos from today’s sessions on the .astronomy Ustream channel and you can follow tomorrow’s talks and events via the conference’s Twitter feed.

Moving seamlessly on to more new media news from the new media wing of the International Year of Astronomy. Via an email from Pamela Gay (a.k.a Star Stryder, the chair of the International Year of Astronomy New Media Task Group) comes news of the Portal to the Universe and the digital treasure amassing therein. Put simply, the Portal is going to be a vast repository of astro links, news, feeds and tools to get astronomers, educators and people from all over the world talking, interacting and communicating about astronomy via the web and in real life. Not just for 2009 but forever.

You can submit your own astronomy blog/website/feed if you have one, or you can use the already listed links to navigate your way to more content than you can shake a feed reader at. I’ve already found some very nice astro-blogs I didn’t know about! If you haven’t subscribed to my RSS feed then you can find it here, should you so wish. There are only 100 days left until the International Year of Astronomy so it’s time to get involved and make 2009 an international year like no other!

Finally, as part of the 2008 Magazine Week here in the UK BBC Sky At Night magazine will be guests (alongside BBC Focus magazine) at the Borders bookstore in Cardiff on Thursday 2nd October. Come and say hi if you are in the area. We will have a stand inside the store, for part of the day, where we’ll be displaying some of the latest NASA images from space and we should have a PST solar telescope with us too if the Sun comes out.

Big bang interviews

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.

Mars madness, Hubble and some book news

I’ve had several emails, in the last two weeks or so, asking when Mars is going to appear the size of the Full Moon this August. I was going to post something up about this, however it seems Phil has been asked about it too. So I’ll leave the Bad Astronomer himself to debunk it, but in short this is absolutely not true and will not happen. It’s an email/Internet hoax that has been going around the Internet for the last few years. Unfortunately it seems to rear its ugly head every August.

Mars’s mean distance from the Earth is about 225 million kilometres meaning that even through a powerful amateur telescope it will only appear as a disc showing (at best) the polar ice caps and a few dark surface markings. At the moment Mars is not well placed for viewing as it’s far too close to the Sun (as seen from Earth). As the Earth and Mars travel through their orbits around the Sun, the distance between the two planets changes dramatically. So some years Mars does come closer to us and telescopic views do show it much better at these times than others. Yet even at its closest (56 million km) it only appears with the naked eye as a bright ‘star’ with a ruddy tint, certainly nothing like the diameter of the Moon which is a mere 380,000 km from Earth.

Anyway on to much more sensible things – like a reminder of the talks I will be giving in the next few weeks! On the 2nd September I will be talking at the Wiltshire Astronomical Society, details are here. So if you are in the region come along and say hello. I will be giving my talk on the science behind Hubble’s greatest images entitled “Not just pretty pictures”. Then on Saturday 6th September I will be giving a lecture (starting at 2:45 pm) at the 2008 Herstmonceux Astronomy Festival, again with the my talk on the science in Hubble’s images. You can find out about the festival here as well as information on the main Saturday lectures here.

Finally then a bit of random book news. Yesterday I finished editing the manuscript and tomorrow will be sending off my final draft of the book to the publisher’s in New York. It’s quite exciting for me, as the next time I see it it will probably be in the form of the galley proofs. Lastly (I mean it this time) If you’re in the shops this week the new issue of Sky At Night magazine is out. You can read my cover feature on “The Next Supernova”, to see which Milky Way star astronomers think might be next to go supernova.