Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Twinkle twinkle little Star

Back when people used to look up at the sky and wonder what all those lights in the sky were, back when so little was known about the processes by which the cosmos is lit, and by which almost everything we are was created... back then eh!

Nowadays we know that those lights in the sky are in fact massive balls of gas, converting hydrogen into helium at their cores though a process of nuclear fusion. Of course this is just a simplistic description of your standard main sequence star, there are many many other stages of stellar evolution, and indeed types of star.

The point is that we now know this. Through a multitude of methods we can determine the composition, size and distance of those stars that we see. They are no longer unfathomable objects in the sky.

That said, nothing beats a close up look. Most of the time stars other than our Sun are mere points of light. However, one of the better known beasties, Betelgeuse, is both large enough (absolutely freakin' huge) and close enough for surface features to be resolved.

So having read through all that, i'd like to direct you to this short article from the Cavendish Astrophysics website where you can read up on the imaging methods used to obtain the pictures of the stellar disk in question. The images don't show much detail - but you have to remember that this object is 430 lightyears away. Thats 27 million times the distance from the Earth to the Sun, so you can forgive it for not looking quite as impressive!

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

HiRISE is awesome.

So by now I imagine everyone has seen the absolutely incredible picture of the Phoenix lander parachuting to the surface of Mars as caught by the HiRISE orbiter. Up until now I had only seen the close up, but while investigating the HiRISE site I was immediately greeted by the much larger picture.

On the left is the closeup, click on the image or the link above to see the wide view. It is thoroughly breathtaking.

Now in the blown up picture the lander looks like it's falling into the big crater named Heimdall that dominates the view, when in truth it's actually around 20 kilometers in front of it, landing on the nice flat ground!

I highly reccomend a browse of the HiRISE site if you've not been there already, it's full of the most amazing things you'll see for a while.

I can't exactly let this post go without also showing the image of the Phoenix lander on the surface too, so here you go!

Click the image for the bigger picture, also featuring the parachute, heatshield and other associated bits.

Monday, 26 May 2008

Pheonix Lander touches down on Mars

Unfortunately that's about as much info as the Phoenix mission page gives at the moment, but it's certainly great to know that another probe has successfully made the trip to Mars.

Hopefully we'll see some images from the surface fairly soon!

Edit: Short article on the landing up at the Nasa site.

Double edit: Pictures are up, and the probe looks in good shape. The flat plains around it might seem slightly featureless at first, but remember that this is the surface of another planet - and thus, is awesome. Enthusiasm aside however, there is most certainly a lot to be learned here!

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Swift catches a Supernova in the act

In a bout of rather fantastic luck, Swift has managed to directly observe the initial x-ray flash of a supernova located in a distant galaxy . Usually by the time supernovae have been located they're already hours old, so this is one of those opportunities to get some new science done.

Bad Astronomy has a very well written page on it. Go, read, and enjoy!

Monday, 19 May 2008

Fun with Earth View

There are all sorts of applets out there that simulate astronomical viewpoints, most of which manage provide a reason to keep procrastinating that little bit longer. Having stumbled across one such thing earlier today, I thought I'd share it.

Earth View allows you to input your own data to gain views of the earth from varying distances, locations and levels of detail. The default setting has a nice night/day sim, lighting up population centres when dark so that they can be seen.


Sunday, 18 May 2008

Apod - The Origins of Gold

So gold, you see it all over the place, we make ornaments out of it, use it in expensive electrical devices, and hell, sometimes we even stick it in alcohol and drink the stuff. It's pretty and fairly valuable, but that ain't the half of it... you want awesome? Look at the circumstances surrounding its creation.

Now neutron rich elements such as gold are typically thought to be created in events such as supernovae, and usually that'd be more than cool enough, but it gets better. In our solar system the abundance of gold appears to be much higher than can be explained by conventional means, meaning that likely something else happened.

The answer it would appear, is that something along the lines of two neutron stars colliding could be responsible. In order to fully demonstrate how awesome this is I'd have to jump around making exploding noises and gesticulating lots. You're spared that for now, hopefully the mental image was enough.

Visit today's Astronomy Picture of the Day for the story.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Devils on Mars

Though not of the sort the title may bring to mind, these are of a somewhat less fiery and more dusty variety.

Dust devils form when hot air close to ground level rises through an area of cooler low pressure air above, and are seen all over the world wherever there are flat plains and plenty of dust lying around. Considering Mars meets all the qualifications you may expect to see them there too right?


On Earth these whirling vortexes of air and dust are typically no larger than three feet in diameter, however on Mars they can be up to fifty times that, big enough even to provide a scare for the rovers currently wandering the surface of the planet.

Here (and in the above link) you can see a fantastic panorama taken from the landing site of one of the aforementioned rovers, and it quite noticeably features quite a few of our friends. I always think images such as these are particularly great as they really help to bring Mars to life, adding real dynamics to the still pictures we usually get back from our interplanetary voyagers.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Venusian orbits

A few days ago ESA's Venus express probe completed its first two years orbiting our sister planet. Since then it has been revising and updating our knowledge of the planet, having already returned to us over 1200 Gig of data.

Among the most recent discoveries is the presence of the molecule Hydroxyl in the Venusian atmosphere. The molecule was detected by the Visible and Infrared Thermal Imaging Spectrometer about the craft at an altitude of around 100km from the planet's surface.

This is significant as it is highly reactive stuff, playing many important roles in the relative abundance of substances such as Ozone in atmospheres.

Full story on the ESA site.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Nasa reveals all

Turns out the discovery mentioned in a previous post was that of a supernova remnant in our galaxy a mere hundred years or so old.
Radio and X-ray composite of G1.9+03

The Supernova who's official name is G1.9+03 is located right near the galactic centre at a distance from us of about 27,000 lightyears, and is the youngest supernova remnant that has ever been observed in our galaxy.

Very cool stuff. It's a rare opportunity to get some serious observations in on a remnant at such an early stage, and in a place where they can continue for a long long time.

Just noticed Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy has a fantastic rundown already up, so go there and read it!

Interesting Lectures - Part 2

So this week's lecture is part 7 of a 27 part series by Richard A. Muller, on his course entitled Physics for Future Presidents. The idea is that the whole course would give any potential president the knowledge he'd need to actually make informed decisions on the physical world and essential matters in physics that may be dealt with on a regular basis in that particular line of work.

Mandatory for all world leaders. If only eh?

In any case this part is entited Nukes, and you've guessed it - it involves some fun fun nuclear physics. Contained therein is an overview of the mechanics behind the bombs and reactors.

Everyone loves some good old fashioned particle physics, of the sort that was around back when things such as quarks were but a mere glint in a young physicists eye!

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Nasa plays it mysterious

For the moment in any case.
NASA has scheduled a media teleconference Wednesday, May 14, at 1 p.m. EDT, to announce the discovery of an object in our Galaxy astronomers have been hunting for more than 50 years.
So we'll know tomorrow!

Considering the discovery involves the Chandra observatory, it's going to be something that involves X-ray wavelength related stuff, which narrows the field down somewhat.

So black holes, supernovae, neutron and white dwarf stars, active galaxies and quasars even entire galaxy clusters could be involved, and thats just off the top of my head.

Edit: Evidently the Chandra observatory has recently been concentrating on our galactic centre, which would suggest that if this discovery is recent, it is possibly related to our rather massive black hole friend in the middle of our galaxy.

Cassini tour extended

The ten year old Cassini probe gets to live for another two years after a decision made by NASA means that the craft that has returned us some of the most fantastic pictures and comprehensive data on Saturn and its moons ever will be able to send us back the aforementioned awesomeness for a while longer.

Feel like seeing what the ringed giant and satellites looks like up close? Visiting the Cassini Huygens homepage will reveal all.

I have to say, my favourite image by far is this'un of the walnut shaped moon Iapetus. The way the light hits it really lets you to imagine that you're right there looking at it from a mere thirty thousand kilometers or so away.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Missing universe? it's ok, we've found some of it

It is well known the the majority of the universe is not composed of baryonic matter, the kind of stuff that we and everything we experience is made of composes a mere 4.6% of the total, with dark energy and dark matter making up the next 72 and 23 percent respectively. So the 'bulk' of the universe is pretty much invisible to us, plaguing cosmologists with the responsibility of finding the damn stuff.

One real problem lay in the fact that up till now, a fair amount of the baryonic matter we know should be there was in hiding. This stuff should be easier to find, but it was still missing!

Its all comes down to light, matter needs to either emit, reflect or even absorb electromagnetic radiation in one form or another in order to be directly observed, stuff that normal matter will always tend to do. Thus, with sensitive detectors and the right places to look, we should be able to locate the missing amount.

Enter ESA’s orbiting X-ray observatory XMM-Newton. A team of scientists used the detector to find the awol matter by targeting the areas around large galaxy clusters, and in doing so found the filaments of super hot gas in the space between galaxies, something that current cosmological models had predicted.


More work remains to be done in order to map the newly discovered matter, but this is the first step towards greater understanding and further mapping of cosmological distributions.

Full story on the ESA site

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Find the Mars Polar Lander

So Nasa wants your help to find the failed 1999 Mars Polar Lander.

They have a huge amount of data to sift through and so have released the imaging data collected by the HiRISE satellite to the public in order to speed things up a bit. Sounds like a good way to burn some free time to me.

As I originally saw this on Bad Astronomy it seems only right to link to the original post here.

Friday, 2 May 2008

The blog still lives

Apologies for the lack of posts over the last week or so, it's been a crazy few days. My computer suddenly decided it was going to get rid of a paper I had been writing mere days from the deadline, so some pretty hectic re-writing ensued. Fun!

In order to prevent boredom however, here's a quick piece of news on the Jules Verne freighter previously featured- It's being used to give the ISS an altitude boost
Artists impression of the boosting procedure being carried out by Jules Verne (ESA)

Monday, 21 April 2008

Sun takes offense to comet

What does it look like when a comet and a Coronal Mass Ejection meet?

Well, the answer is something like this.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Interesting Lectures - Part 1

Waking up too early is always an interesting experience, the day hasn't started yet and generally there's very little to do, so you need to find something to fill that space to stop yourself from going insane with boredom. Earlier today caught me combating this issue by browsing various interesting lectures on Google video. As there are so many of them worth watching, covering such a wide range of subjects I figure I'll make this a semi-regular thing on the blog.

So I bring you Part One of the new series, a lecture by Stephen Wolfram on the thesis of his book - A New Kind of Science.

The lecture itself is about the nature of experimental computation and the resulting implications in scientific methodology as can be applied to our understanding of the systems that govern our universe. Kapow!

It was certainly more than interesting enough to keep me going until I could grab some serious coffee with which to start the day. At around an hour and a half long be prepared to settle in for a good watch.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Scary stuff!

Ever wondered what the end of the world might look like? This shows a cool simulation of one possible scenario.

The reality is we'd have to have our heads buried in the ground not to notice something of this size coming right at us without a fair bit of advance warning. The question is what to do about it!

Friday, 11 April 2008

Take a picture

Imaging the cosmos is the very basis of modern astronomy, so whenever I find a site that has some good pictures, I make sure to bookmark it.

The latest discovery in this vein was this'un, which has some rather special pictures considering they're taken with a fairly small scope (6" f5 Newt) I'm impressed, and rather envious!

Seemed worth a share.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Closer to home

Far too often when people consider astronomy they look to the far reaches of the universe for their spectacular sights, it's something thats always best done at night right?

Wrong! Solar astronomy doesn't happen at night (for one rather self-evident reason), and just because the Sun is such a common sight don't be fooled into thinking it isn't utterly spectacular when viewed in the right way. By observing our closest star we can glean huge amounts of information about how stellar processes that are too far away to investigate in the same sort of detail might work.

And as per the usual this is all leading to a rather cool link.

This eclipse composite is my personal favourite.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

A dim view

Of a Brown dwarf!

Artwork like this is always inspiring, it really sparks the imagination and allows you to grasp that places like this can actually exist way out there in space. It is teh awesome.

Yeah yeah, Astronomers (and Protostronomers) are usually giant romantics about the universe...

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Fund the damn science already!

This sort of thing really ticks me off.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Exploding Stars

I'm probably a bit late to the news with this one, but it's good stuff, so here it is anyway.

Picture taken by Hubble (Nasa/Esa)

A few weeks ago Hubble managed to catch a rare glimpse of a supernova in its early stages located in the spiral galaxy NGC 2397. When something as hard to catch as this is found it usually provides us with fresh insight into the phenomena in question - in the case of supernovae such as this one, recent findings imply that stars of as low mass as a mere seven times that of the sun may undergo this process, previously thought to occur only in even more massive stars.


Jules Verne docks - Success!

After passing all the trials set before it, the unmanned freighter Jules Verne docked successfully with the ISS yesterday afternoon.

Congrats to the ESA for achieving this feat, considering the ultra tight tolerances involved in docking with a manned platform in space, it's fully deserved.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

More Hubble awesomeness

Ok, so this one is a good few weeks old news wise, but still worthy of note.

Dark matter, exoplanets, distant (and I mean distant) galaxies - all things that we can find through the observation of gravitational lensing effects way out there in the cosmos. This useful phenomena occurs when a light source is 'bent' around a sufficiently massive object in such a way as to focus the light towards the observer.

In the case of this recent study performed by a team of astronomers using the Hubble space telescope, these lenses were used to search for and catalogue galaxies so distant that without the focusing effect of gravitational lensing they would be virtually undetectable to us. In this way we can observe objects from the very early universe, which once studied, will enable the testing of current cosmological models.

Mmm, science.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Sunday, 30 March 2008

Freighters in Space

Summons up images of all sorts of sci-fi craft doesn't it! The reality at the moment is somewhat more mundane than ships of the interstellar variety, yet still very cool, especially as it is meant to be capable of fully automated docking. Currently carrying cargo to the ISS the freighter Jules Verne is undergoing test maneuvers in order to ascertain that it is safe to actually go ahead and dock. Here's hoping all goes well, so far it's looking good.

BBC News has a nice rundown too, including a nifty tracking applet!


Apologies for the lack of posts over the last few days, I've been busy trying to write a paper up at the last minute (looming deadlines are always a great motivator for work!).

I'll get back to posting up some proper content tomorrow.

In the meantime, enjoy the following!

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

When Big'uns Collide

Oh yeah, it happens, and when it does it is truly a clash of the titans. Collisions are a major factor in shaping many of the galaxies we observe today, all the way from the more mundane (ha!) ellipticals to the very rare and extraordinary ring galaxies.

Don't worry though, we don't get left out the fun, it's going to happen to us too. Our beloved Milky Way and the closest (major) neighboring galaxy Andromeda are set to collide in a mere 3 Billion years or so. Now when galaxies interact like this there are rarely direct collisions between stars, however the gravitational forces often spawn rapid stints of star creation in a big way, literally lighting up the neighborhood.

In terms of observation from a distance, this means a pretty spectacular show - and this page at Galaxy Dynamics has some very interesting simulations that give us an idea of what it might look like when our turn comes around.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Apod - Cat's Eye Hubble Remix

Astronomy picture of the day is a fantastic site, full of incredible images and captions. This one really grabbed me, there is a majesty in planetary nebulae that never fails to amaze.

I'll leave it at that, there is more info on the Apod page - buts its a breathtaking image, sometimes its enough just to appreciate it!
Click the picture for a higher res image.

Saturday, 22 March 2008

The misuse of science and reason

After recent browsing of the interweb I've noticed a growing, and particularly worrying trend. To substantiate entirely un-scientific claims, people often mangle the word 'Science' in various stupid ways in an attempt to provide validity to whatever particular belief it is they hold.

In an earlier post I discussed the mechanic by which science works - being that of constructing a self consistent system.

This is where the proof comes into play. If you want to make grand claims about reality, there is an onus on you to provide evidence, and by evidence I mean rigorous, unbiased testing that can repeatedly show the claimed result in the real world.

So bias, the next issue. Whenever someone performs an experiment, it is to determine the result of putting a certain set of mechanics into play. It is highly unlikely that any person goes into an experiment without a thought as to what they think the result should be - this is unavoidable. The most important part is to examine the result closely, if a single piece of evidence does not hold true to the predictions made by your theory, whatever that theory may be - you must accept that your model is either incomplete, or incorrect - the extent of which is obviously determined by the scope of the error. This is good science, and it allows us to deal with something called 'reality'.

Bad science is where this is not done. When you pick only results that support your theory, then ignore or do not give import to the bits that don't, you have already managed to forfeit any credibility the study in question may have had. The universe does not conform to whim, deal with it.

Apart from the aforementioned badly performed science we also have those who are content to simply lie about the facts. Stringing together lines of meaningless waffle that at first glance may sound plausible, but work entirely on making statements that we know are wrong, and can easily prove to be so. A prime example of this is Answers in Genesis (Try not to growl while browsing that site, I find it particularly difficult).

Then we have people with pseudoscientific belief systems, Astrology for instance. You'll regularly see people talking about the 'science' of astrology, this is a particularly irritating example of what I've been talking about. Astrology is not a science, studies have time and again shown that under proper testing conditions it has about as much to say about the real world as a roll of the dice. Homeopathy? Its not even worth a full sentence.

In conclusion I'll add that covering your eyes and ears and shouting "lalala!" when confronted with contradicting evidence, or a sound reasoned argument does nothing for your credibility. Many out there seem to have a talent for ignoring or dismissing out of hand anything that does not have good things to say about their beliefs - if you want a defense that people will actually listen to, come up with an explanation that stands up under proper analysis.

Friday, 21 March 2008

Don't mess with Pluto

Just had this sent to me and had to post it up.

Tangle with Pluto at your own risk.

Not that I particularly agree with the sentiment, but it is hilarious!

An admission of guilt

Behold, my god! Against all reason and thoroughly oblivious to everything and anything else I do believe there is a controlling power in the universe, and it looks like this:
Ok, admittedly this is just a Caffeine molecule, but have enough of it and it'll become your god too.

I promise to post something of substance (Hohoho!) tomorrow.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Interesting news from the Cassini mission

Evidently the Cassini spacecraft has discovered evidence pointing to the existence of an underground ocean of water and ammonia on Titan.

Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy gives a great run down on it all, so I wont even try!

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Organic compound found on extrasolar planet

Aliens! Zomg!

Well, possibly not. The planet in question is a Jupiter sized planet designated HD 189733b and orbits its parent star at a distance closer than that of Mercury to our Sun. Needless to say, it ain't the most hospitable place at a roasting temperature of 1100K or so.

Through spectroscopy researchers have managed to determine the presence of the organic compound Methane in the atmosphere of the planet. However, as co-author of the study Dr Giovanna Tinetti told BBC news "The methane here, although we can call it an organic consitutent, is not produced by life - it is way too hot there".

Still it's an interesting discovery, and nicely highlights the fact that astronomers are capable of detecting these compounds on other worlds, something that may one day reveal some astounding stuff when we apply it to an extrasolar planet that has more suitable conditions for life.

So no aliens, but some good science.

Finding a planetary system: How to

Planetary science is certainly one of the most interesting fields of astronomy, sure it can have a bit too much in the way of exogeology which is clearly squishy, but it's exciting as hell when it comes to the information we can glean about extra-solar planets from observational data.

Now the ways we obtain data about potential systems other than our own all require some pretty damn fine measurements, listed below are some of the methods currently in use:

The Transit Method - Based around observing changes in a stars visual brightness as a planet transits the face of the stars disk. The problem with this method is primarily that it only allows us to find planets with orbits edge on to us, which accounts for only a mere 10% or so of possibilities. Additionally it's fairly easy to get a false positive from this method, and so confirmation from other methods must subsequently be gained.

Doppler Spectroscopy - This method involves the measurement of the stars radial velocity through Doppler shift due the star 'wobbling' because of the gravitational influence of a nearby planet or planets. Thanks to recent advances in modern spectrometers this is by far the most productive method currently in use, and has allowed us to catalog thousands of extra-solar planets. A drawback for the moment is that we have so far only been able to detect massive planets in close orbits, this is because measurements must be taken over a period of time directly proportional to the orbital period of the planet in question. Basically we've just not been observing long enough yet!

Infra-red imaging of Circumstellar disks - Protoplanetary disks around a star will tend to absorb ordinary starlight and emit it back out into space as infrared radiation which can usually be detected, even in relatively small quantities. The presence of a formed planet can sometimes be inferred from this due to observed gaps in the disk itself that may be caused by the gravitational influence of a planet clearing the material in its orbital path.

Gravitational microlensing - By far the coolest method listed here. Entirely dependant on having a background star almost exactly inline with the system you wish to observe. It works by detecting fluctuations in the lensing effect of the parent star when a planet is positioned in such a way as to cause measurable changes. Drawbacks? Primarily that this method requires highly improbable alignment and thus a large number of sample subjects need to be monitored at the same time.

Or, just directly observe em forming
- The pretty way, just check out those Proplyds!
Image of infant solar nebulae taken by the Hubble space telescope

However you look at it, some pretty ingenious methods have been devised in our quest for other planets, certainly not all of which have been listed here. Driven by the burning question as we are - are we alone? - many amazing discoveries in this field still await us.

Arthur C Clarke dies aged 90

Sad news indeed. We've lost a fantastic writer and a great man.

Full story at the BBC news site.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Links, a few of my favourites

I've updated the links section on the right hand side of this page with a few of my favorite sites, they're all related to astronomy or science in some way, and are well worth a visit!

Just like in the movies

'Astronomy is like an awesome action movie, because everything inevitably explodes.'
Damn skippy! While this is not exactly an accurate statement, it brings to mind some of the more fantastic processes that happen way out there and, indeed, those which can provide us with the most spectacular views.

In this vein I'd like to apologise for having just quoted myself for my own nefarious purposes and introduce you to my new friend, Wolf Rayet.

Nebula m1-67 image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope

At the centre of the picture is Wolf Rayet star WR124 and it is a really, really big explosion just waiting to happen.

A Wolf Rayet star represents one of the final evolutionary phases in massive star's life during which they undergo high mass loss. These stars are sat in turbulent shells of ejecta being blown outwards by stellar winds at around 200 km/s. This is what can be seen dominating the view in the picture above. Pretty soon (In terms of astronomical time) the core of this star will run out of fusible material and end its life in a titanic type Ib Supernova.


This is why I love astronomy.

By which we discover... Science!

Science is awesome.

Oh fine then, I suppose I'll have to elaborate...

Science is the best tool we have with which to describe the world we live in. It is a system by which we attempt to create a self-consistent model of reality that can be used to make accurate predictions about the universe and advance understanding of natural phenomena. It is the means by which we have advanced beyond the imperatives provided us by genetics and become the single species in the cosmos (so far as is currently known) to have ventured, in whatever small way, into the vastness of space.

It is of fundamental import that we all understand these basic principles. Any proposed system must be consistent with reality wherever it makes predictions that can be tested, and until that point we have only a theory which cannot be considered factual truth, however much we may wish it to be so.

This of course brings up points that can lead us down rather abstract and metaphysical paths of conjecture and fantasy - What is reality? To nick a quote by Phillip K Dick
'Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.'
Which I in turn nicked from a post over at Principles of Parsimony where BenD further asserts that
'The world isn't going to go away, it's going to come and bite you in the ass if you believe stupid things about it.'
This is what science endeavors to prevent, to do away with any proverbial ass biting and allow us to get on with growing as a species. We can come closer to understanding the true nature of the reality we live in, and from what we have learned so far, it's more incredible than ever imagined.

And dammit, thats why science rawks.


So what do I mean by Protostronomy? It's pretty much just a play on words to describe what i'm currently doing, so in order to qualify - let me make a quick introduction.

I'm a student studying with the OU in Britain to obtain a BSc in the field of Physics with bias towards Astrophysics and Astronomy. This blog is a place where I can voice thoughts, musings and/or post generally awesome stuff pertaining to Astronomy, Science and a bit of anything else that turns out to be particularly cool.

So I am a Protostronomer (Or more accurately a proto-astronomer), and as I endeavor to de-protify and be able to proclaim myself a fully fledged astronomer i'll be posting up all sorts of bits and bobs that, with any luck, will both make sense and stand up to scientific scrutiny.