science writing

A new astronomy column in BBC Knowledge Magazine

I’m very pleased to announce that I have a new column in the BBC’s excellent Knowledge magazine.

It’s called Above & Beyond and it’s where I’ll keep Knowledge readers up-to-date with what’s happening in the world of astronomy and space. There’ll be a certain practical element to the column too. So if there’s a planet worth looking out for or a meteor shower you just can’t miss, it’ll have all the details.

Knowledge is published, every two months, in the UK as well as in Bulgaria, Brazil, North America and Singapore. You’ll find my first column – all about the magical lure of Saturn – in the May/June issue, on sale this Wednesday.

New article – “Enceladus: water world”

Enceladus as seen by Cassini. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Saturn’s moon Enceladus is a mysterious world. Measuring just 512km in diameter it should be a cold lifeless body, practically unchanged since its formation. Yet it isn’t. It’s very much alive. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has shown that this remarkable moon’s surface has, in parts, been smoothed and altered in the geologically recent past. Images sent back by the probe show great fissures on its surface and, most spectacularly, vast plumes of icy material erupting from its southern hemisphere.

Now scientists studying Enceladus have come to some fascinating conclusions about what could lie beneath its icy crust. In a new article for Sky at Night Magazine I talk to the scientists working on the data from Cassini. I explore their findings which, incredibly, seem to point to a liquid ocean of water under the ice at Enceladus. The article also discusses the various mechanisms which could be creating the plumes. You can read the full story, “Enceladus: water world”, starting on page 68 of the May issue.

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.

New BBC S@N article — “Frenetic fields”

freneticfieldsNGC 1275 as seen by Hubble and (inset) a magnetic active region on the Sun.
Credit: NASA, ESA and Andy Fabian (Univ. of Cambridge) & Hinode JAXA/NASA

I have a new feature article published in the January issue of BBC Sky At Night. It’s called “Frenetic fields” and is about magnetic fields in space and how they are responsible for shaping the Universe — everything from how they power the solar wind, to how they feed black holes and create galactic sculptures. You should be able to pick up the magazine in all good newsagents/bookstores early next week, as I’ve already seen it in a few places here in Bristol.

Milky Way’s black hole confirmed and more!

esogcimage2The stars at the centre of the Milky Way, in infrared. Credit: ESO/S. Gillessen et al.

My colleagues at ESO have just published a press release I worked on about a study into the black hole at the centre of our galaxy — the Milky Way. The release is the largest one I’ve done to date, and great fun to do too — not least because of the several fascinating intertwined stories within it. I’ll start with the big one though.

That is, a 16 year long study by astronomers (from the Max-Planck-Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany) has given us the best empirical evidence, so far, of the existence of truly massive black holes. Not only does the evidence verify the existence of these leviathan objects, it also shows that one is “beyond any reasonable doubt” hiding at the heart of the Milky Way, with a mass of some four million times that of the Sun. Here’s a section from the start of  the release:

“By watching the motions of 28 stars orbiting the Milky Way’s most central region with admirable patience and amazing precision, astronomers have been able to study the super-massive black hole lurking there. The new research marks the first time that the orbits of so many of these central stars have been calculated precisely and reveals information about the enigmatic formation of these stars — and about the black hole to which they are bound.”

esostarsintheirorbitsAn artist’s impression of the orbits of the central stars. Credit: ESO

Incredibly, over the course of the study, one star (known as ‘S2’) was even able to make a complete orbit of the Milky Way’s hub. Yet it gets even better. Thanks to the observations we can now watch S2 whirl around (with all its companions) in actual infrared images from ESO’s telescopes, taken over the 16 years. The telescopes use adaptive optics to counteract the problems associated with trying to observe through Earth’s turbulent atmosphere. Observing in the infrared also allows the telescopes to penetrate the thick dust and gas of the Galaxy, and thus peer straight at these intriguing central stars. You can watch the animation of these real images in a (7MB) Quicktime video here. The motion of the stars has been sped up by just over 30 million times!

s2A frame from the video (see link above). Credit: ESO/ R.Genzel and S. Gillessen

If you want to get the full story you can read the whole press release here. There are some great videos to go with the article so be sure to have a look at them on the ESO webpage. And of course check out the second episode of the ESOcast (summarising the result), here. It’s great to see that, already, this fascinating result has sparked the interest of some major news outlets including here, here and here.

An illuminating blast from the Universe’s past

Last week ESO, the European Southern Observatory, released a press release about their observations of the gamma-ray burst GRB 080319B – one the brightest gamma-ray bursts ever seen – that occurred in March of this year. The press release covers the results of a new investigation into the burst. Astronomers who studied the burst have come to a startling conclusion about its orientation! From the press release:

We conclude that the burst’s extraordinary brightness arose from a jet that shot material almost directly towards Earth at almost the speed of light,” says Guido Chincarini, a member of the team.

Above: Artist’s impression of GRB 080319B. Credit ESO

I was asked by the press team at the ESO headquarters, in Germany, to write the background story of that burst, including the many different observations made by telescopes around the world and how and when it appeared. The finished article has now been posted alongside the release as a two page pdf. You can read the ESO press release here and also download my feature story on GRB 080319B here (pdf download in link).

A prodigious pinwheel shines in the darkness

The stunning galaxy M83. Credit: ESO

My first press release for the European Southern Observatory has now been released. It accompanies what is, of course, the real interest in the story – a fantastic new image from the observatory’s Wild Field Imager camera. It shows the stunning spiral galaxy M83, arguably one of the most beautiful galaxies in Messier’s famous catalogue of deep sky objects. Here’s a snippet from the press release:

This dramatic image of the galaxy Messier 83 was captured by the Wide Field Imager at ESO’s La Silla Observatory, located high in the dry desert mountains of the Chilean Atacama Desert. Messier 83 lies roughly 15 million light-years away towards the huge southern constellation of Hydra (the sea serpent). It stretches over 40 000 light-years, making it roughly 2.5 times smaller than our own Milky Way. However, in some respects, Messier 83 is quite similar to our own galaxy. Both the Milky Way and Messier 83 possess a bar across their galactic nucleus, the dense spherical conglomeration of stars seen at the centre of the galaxies.

You can read the full press release and download a hugggeeee version of the image here.

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.

All done!

For the last week or so I have been editing the first full draft of the manuscript for my book. I finished writing about ten days ago but didn’t post anything, partly due to tiredness/forgetting and partly due to the deadline that is fast approaching! However from the picture on the left you can see that I am just over halfway through the proofing/editing stage.

I was prompted to post to say I had finished by Keith Mansfield (thanks Keith!) who is author of Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London (and tipped as the next J.K Rowling). Keith also has a very nice blog here, including posts on astronomy and space. So all being well, by around this time next year it will be the published book sitting on my desk and not my scribbled-on draft!

50 wonders you must see before you die

I have the cover feature on the new issue (August) of BBC Sky At Night magazine. It’s about the fifty sights you must see in the night and daytime sky, related to astronomy of course, before you die.

It’s ten pages long and there are some amazing celestial views that even a seasoned astronomer might not have seen yet! August’s issue is packed full of great features as well, plus all our regular slots, so be sure to grab a copy when it hits the shelves next week. Stay tuned to the blog for some more big news coming in the next few days.

Cover image courtesy: BBC Sky At Night magazine