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.