International Year of Astronomy 2009 trailer

Turn up the sound on your computer, get ready and watch this! It’s a new trailer for the International Year of Astronomy 2009. Very cool indeed. The Year is fast approaching and there will be lots happening around the globe. If you haven’t got any ideas on what to do (but want to get involved) contact your national node, get some ideas from here and get involved!

Credit: International Year of Astronomy 2009, IAU and UNESCO

P.S. another new site definitely worth a look is the new International Astronomical Union website. There’s a wealth of information on there. Especially make sure to check out the ‘themes’ section – it’s the definitive IAU reference for lots of subjects like naming stars, classifying planets and much more. Oh and if you want the HD version of the above trailer be sure to get it here.

The Carnival of Space no. 49

Hello and welcome to the 49th Carnival of Space. I’m really pleased to be hosting the carnival this week as we have some brilliant stories for you, thanks to some great writers and bloggers. This is where after a week of hard work you can now sit back and get your full dose of astronomy related news and views, finding out what the blogosphere has had to say about the Universe, in the last week. Don’t forget to check back soon and subscribe to the RSS feed on the right to keep up-to-date with the site. So, without further delay let’s begin…

The start of this week’s carnival takes on a distinctly stellar theme. Fraser at Universe Today responds to a superb astronomical question from his young daughter that I am sure we have all wondered about at one point or another.

Towards the end of March a massive Gamma Ray Burst (or GRB) was seen in the night sky. It was the brightest most distant GRB to date and one that was so bright it was visible to the naked eye! Dr. Ian O’Neill on Astroengine asks whether a peculiar type of star called a ‘Wolf-Rayet star’ could be responsible.

Complementing this nicely, Ethan at Starts With A Bang! poses the question “Do all stars eventually explode?”. The Hubble Space Telescope has certainly found a star that will eventually explode. In fact, as Phil on the Bad Astronomy blog says, Hubble astronomers have caught a supernova in a galaxy right at the point it is beginning to ‘go off’.
If a star is big enough when it dies it can form a black hole. Alan Boyle, of Cosmic Log, explores how new simulations of black hole interactions are showing the disparity between Newton’s and Einstein’s gravitational theories.

With the release of the new Indiana Jones film a matter of months away, Rob carries out his own astronomy related archaeological investigation of a prehistoric site in Alabama in the USA, over at Orbiting Frog. Though as far as I can tell didn’t find any rats, sacred relics or hidden treasure!

Meanwhile Chris Lintott reports from the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting (on the NAM blog) on the discussion held in Belfast on the current funding situation of UK astronomy and particle physics.

One of the big tasks for those returning to the Moon and then looking forward to Mars is how we are going to carry out day-to-day tasks, like exercise and growing plants for food etc. Ken Murphy at Out of the Cradle explores how we might be able to grow plants in the lunar soil in part one of his post ‘Of a garden on the Moon’. Let’s hope when we get to the Moon or Mars they also have Internet access.

For those of you that can’t get enough of Mars though the Martian Chronicles team have another update on the Opportunity Mars Exploration Rover, including a stunning panorama of the martian ‘Cape Verde’ rocky outcrop. When we do get to Mars maybe we will move our bases around with giant robots, Colony Worlds investigates what that might involve. And if you are new to the excitement of martian exploration then Stuart has some tips on how to survive your first Mars landing. Meanwhile, Bill Dunford at ridingwithrobots.org has an incredible animation of Victoria crater taken at different times (and illuminations) during a martian day.

Centauri Dreams skeptically ponders whether the SETI program should search for extraterrestrial constructions known as Dyson Spheres, and asks if any other potential civilizations around other stars think like we do. Clearly when we humans want to venture out into space we are going to have to develop new technologies. Next Big Future has an article on how carbon nanotubes may be used in future space power and propulsion system whilst Henry Cate reports from Space Access 2008.

Music of the Spheres blogs about the 2008 Space Expo at the New England Air Museum. Even though the Space Shuttle simulated flights made by visitors to his stand might not have had the smoothest landings that NASA has seen, their educational value was worth it all.

A Mars Odyssey also brings us up-to-date on the launch of the Soyuz from Baikonur on the latest ISS Expedition 17.

Well that’s about it for this week’s Carnival of Space, remember that you can find a list of all previous carnivals on the Universe Today website.

Top: Artist’s impression of a GRB. Credit: NASA
Middle: Hubble has spied an exploding star in this galaxy (NGC 2397). Credit: NASA, ESA & Stephen Smartt (Queen’s University Belfast, UK)
Lower middle: Artist’s impression of a MER. Credit: NASA/JPL
Bottom: Touchdown for the Shuttle. Credit: NASA

Brilliant Noise @ Bristol’s Arnolfini gallery

Yesterday a few of us from the magazine went to see the Brilliant Noise exhibit at the Arnolfini gallery here in Bristol. The exhibit is based around a 5 month placement of two artists at NASA’s Space Sciences Laboratory at the UC Berkeley.

I won’t give away all the detail but the exhibit uses raw videos of the Sun (from various solar spacecraft) followed by some interviews, on the big scientific quandaries, with scientists from NASA.

I haven’t seen science portrayed so well, in art, for a long time — the exhibit is well worth a visit. The power of the Sun, its magnetic field and the turbulent nature of its surface and atmosphere was conveyed with incredible power and real feeling. If you are Bristol way then I definitely recommend you pop in.

NAM day two

Well today is day two of the National Astronomy Meeting. I’m going to be posting any future NAM news I have on the NAMblog so be sure to check there for the latest NAM news. Today has kicked off with some great plenary session lectures on the acceleration of the Universe and the dynamic nature of the magnetic fields on the surface of the Sun. Chris and I have posted two takes on Dr Brian Schmidt’s ‘Measuring cosmic acceleration’ talk, why not take a look.

Touchdown at NAM

It’s great to be visiting Belfast for this year’s National Astronomy Meeting. It’s my first visit to the city and having arrived only half an hour ago I’ve already seen many old friends. More importantly it looks as if there are going to be some really interesting science results coming out of this year’s meeting. Chris has a post up on the new Hubble result which astronomers here at Queen’s University (who are hosting NAM this year) worked on. There’s an interesting lecture session on galaxy formation and evolution on in just over ten minutes so more soon…

Hubble finds methane on an exoplanet

The Hubble Space Telescope has recently found the organic molecule methane on the extrasolar planet HD 189733b. Here’s a section of the ESA press release below.

“Under the right circumstances methane can play a key role in prebiotic chemistry – the chemical reactions considered necessary to form life as we know it. Although methane has been detected on most of the planets in our Solar System, this is the first time any organic molecule has been detected on a world orbiting another star”

With an atmospheric temperature of around 900 degrees there certainly isn’t going to be life (at least as we know it) on HD 189733b. The importance of this observation is more that it is “proof that spectroscopy can eventually be done on a cooler and potentially habitable Earth-sized planet orbiting a dimmer red dwarf-type star” says Mark Swain who led the team that made the discovery at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

I saw this exciting news come in when I was working with the Hubble group in Germany and I began scripting a Hubblecast to cover the result. To see the finished piece visit the ESA Hubblecast no.14 page here.

Above: An artist’s impression of HD 189733b around its parent star.
Credit: Credit: ESA, NASA and G. Tinetti (University College London, UK & ESA)

Lecture reminder

Just a reminder to those of you in the south-west UK that on Thursday evening ( 20.03.08 ) I will be giving a lecture to the Torbay Astronomical Society. The title of the talk is “Not just pretty pictures – the science behind Hubble’s greatest images”.

All are welcome and the talk starts at around 7:30pm at Torquay Boys’ Grammar School. For information on how to get there and visitor fees see the TAS website.

Odyssey’s end in sight for Ulysses

After just over seventeen years in space the Ulysses space probe looks as if its mission is drawing to a close. According to the European Space Agency Ulysses is beginning to show the signs of age, after nearly two decades touring the Solar System in orbit around its main interest – the Sun. The spacecraft is in a somewhat peculiar six year orbit around the Sun which takes it at one extreme flying right out to Jupiter and at the other extreme whirling over the Sun’s polar regions.


Ulysses has scrutinized the Sun in great detail over its seventeen or so years, telling us about the solar wind (the stream of charged particles emanating from the Sun), the Sun’s powerful magnetic field as well as how the Sun’s chromosphere and corona interact. One of Ulysses’ most interesting finds was that the solar wind at the poles of the Sun is emerging much faster than at the equator (with speeds of 750km/s and 350km/s respectively); and that the polar winds dominate about 2/3 of the heliosphere (the vast ‘shield’ around the Sun created by the solar wind). The probe, which was launched from the Space Shuttle’s cargo bay in 1990 has also studied Jupiter’s magnetic fields and the plasma environment around the giant planet.

So why is Ulysses dying after all these years? Well the probe itself is powered by the radioactive decay of a special isotope of plutonium. This decay slowly releases heat which the probe’s on-board technology converts into electricity. This in turn powers heaters, the science instruments and the communication antennae that are needed to send data back to Earth. However over time the radioactive isotope decay levels drop meaning that so to do the amounts of electricity produced.

This poses a problem for the craft because as it ventures out into space it needs its on-board heaters to keep the spacecraft at the right temperature. If they don’t and the craft’s temperature drops below 2°C then the probe’s fuel hydrazine (where have you heard that before) will freeze solid. It reminds me a bit of the lizards on David Attenborough’s incredible new BBC series ‘Life in Cold Blood’. They either need the Sun to warm them or find some heat of their own, otherwise they will freeze and die.

The scientists working with the Ulysses probe realised that if they didn’t do something the power levels would drop so much that the heaters and the science instruments would stop working – freezing the all important fuel. So in January they turned off the main transmitter that was sending data back to Earth in the hope that the re-routed power would go to the heaters and the science packages; keeping the hydrazine liquid. Unfortunately when they wanted to turn the transmitter back on to see if it had worked nothing happened. Now it seems Ulysses’ fuel will freeze as the probe cools in the vacuum of space to that crucial 2°C, bringing with it the end of an illustrious mission. Thankfully though there are many missions which are taking up Ulysses’ baton like SOHO, Stereo, Trace and Hinode. So solar science will be continuing into solar cycle 24, long after little Ulysses ends.

Above: An artist’s impression of the Ulysses probe
Credit: ESA