Friday, 28 February 2014


The Northern Lights, seen over St Mary's Island, Whitley Bay, Tyne and Wear.


The UK was treated to a rare glimpse of the Northern Lights after the natural display lit up skies across the country. One of nature’s true wonders, the Aurora Borealis could be seen as consisting of spectacular “curtains” of red and green lights, and was visible as far south as Gloucestershire, Essex and Norfolk last night (February 28).

But those in Scotland and northern England got the clearest view, with many taking to Twitter to share their experiences. Daisymay wrote: ‘You could see the Aurora Borealis in the Isle of Skye. So damn perdy.’

Richard Wilson, from Guildford, Surrey, who saw it from the air, added: ‘Great view of the Northern Lights from 30,000 feet over Scotland tonight. Awesome sight!’

The Light formations are usually only visible in the more northern parts of the UK so Alex Green, who works for the National Trust in Norfolk, was surprised when he saw them further south.


Big beautiful Saturn, complete with its astonishing set of rings. The Cassini Division is the black radial where astronomers believe a moon has cleared out the icy debris via its gravity. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL Cassini Imaging Team.


If there is one celestial object that is both readily visible in even the worst light polluted skies, and yet full of the astronomical “wow” factor, it has to be Saturn, our solar system’s beautiful ringed gas giant planet.

For anyone new to telescopic observing, Saturn is usually an early and easy target. The planet has fascinated me for a long time, revealing an interesting bright disk when viewed through my 10x50 binoculars, but definite and tantalising “handles” or “ears” when viewed with some old 12x50s - very much in accordance with Galileo’s findings in the early seventeenth century. It yearns for greater magnification.

Saturn is like an old friend to me, both often gracing our skies and never failing to impress when other planets, like Mars, often fail. Having had an hour observing the Moon, I simply couldn’t wait any longer to observe Saturn with my 200mm Dobsonian. Like most people, when I first observed Saturn I was unprepared for the awesome views of the planet as revealed through a large, quality telescope with a sturdy mount.

Friday, 21 February 2014



It's incredible to think that it's more than fourteen years since the world lost a most remarkable astronomer, pioneer exobiologist and populariser of science - Carl Sagan.

A son of Jewish immigrants to the United States, Sagan was born in Brooklyn, New York, where he spent his childhood developing an interest in astronomy. A high achiever, he studied physics at the University of Chicago, gaining a master's degree in 1956, before being awarded a doctorate there in 1960 in astronomy and astrophysics. He then lectured at Harvard University until 1968, when a move to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York beckoned. In 1971 this became a full-time professorship that included the directorship of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies. He also took an increasing interest in pioneering exo-biology and publicising the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). During this period, he also became an Associate Director of the Centre for Radio Physics and Space Research at Cornell, and later was instrumental in lecturing at Cornell in scepticism and critical thinking.

Such an academic career would have been amazing in itself, but Sagan had been heavily involved in the US space program since the 1950s -- including his celebrated briefings of the Apollo astronauts before their flights to the Moon. However, of utmost interest to this most talented of scientists was planetary science and the increasing number of NASA robotic missions to neighbouring planets in the solar system.

Thursday, 20 February 2014


Stellarium's astronomical object search facility.
Many people with 3G mobile phones and portable media devices such as Apple‟s iPod have been amazed at the quality of applications, especially those relating to astronomy and navigating your way around the night sky. Most of my colleagues who are not amateur astronomers have hours of fun with these planetarium "apps‟ for their devices. However, the software for computers pre-dates that for mobile devices by many years and it is much more substantial, effective and interesting.

The astronomy planetarium software genre for use by the general public dates back to the early 1990s with the release of ground- breaking programs such as Redshift. Excellent though such early software was, the applications available were limited by the technology of the era, and pale into insignificance by the plethora and quality of the substantial applications available today.

When it comes to planetarium software for both the PC and the Apple Mac there‟s a huge choice of capable programmes on offer including Imaginova‟s Starry Night in all its various incarnations, United Soft Media‟s Redshift, Sky X, SkyMap and Cartes du Ciel (Star Charts).

The bad news is that although these products come complete with bells and whistles and are used by amateur and professional astronomers alike, they‟re not free, and in their various editions can cost anything from £30 up to £200. In addition these heavyweights have unnecessarily high hardware requirements. Starry Night in its professional editions requires at least 2GB of RAM and a fast dual core processor. It also claims a massive slice of valuable hard drive space real estate.

As usual, the internet comes up trumps yet again with a highly capable free alternative, Stellarium. It is used in professional planetariums worldwide and is GPL desktop software which renders realistic skies in real time with openGL graphics software. The software allows you to see what you can observe with the naked eyes, binoculars or a small telescope.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014



A review of a superb documentary series that reveals the astonishing and gargantuan engineering task that faced NASA and its contractors in meeting President Kennedy's challenge of putting a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s.

The Moon landings are often regarded as mankind's finest achievement, and this 2008 Discovery Science Channel miniseries certainly gives an in-depth account of why.  At its peak in the 1960s, NASA's Project Apollo employed nearly 400,000 people, and this series is a tribute to the scientists, engineers and astronauts who made Kennedy's audacious dream come true.

Moon Machines is a series of six forty-five minute programmes, each focussing on a particular piece of essential hardware developed specifically to place an American on the Moon by the end of 1969.  It includes episodes concentrating on the Saturn V rocket, the Command Module, the Lunar Module, the Lunar Module's Guidance Computer, the Apollo Spacesuits and the Lunar Rover.

Using hours of original historic footage from NASA and its contractors, and interviews of the surviving engineers and scientists Moon Machines records those brief years in the sixties when (regarding spaceflight at least), anything seemed possible and when if materials orcomponents didn't pre-exist, they were almost magically developed and created by NASA and its engineers.

Monday, 17 February 2014



It seems to be a natural progression... you start with naked-eye observing, then move on to binoculars, then to visual observations with a telescope, and finally you progress to sketching. For the past few years I‟ve been perfectly content just to assemble my telescope in the back garden and enjoy a tour of objects of interest in the night sky. It was just plain, simple, relaxing, no-strings-attached observing.

However, having looked at some of the artistry contained in Observing the Deep Sky (Darren Bushnall, Crowood Press, 2005) I finallyfelt inspired me to act... and what a great feeling it is to have something to show at the end of an observing session!

Let me state from the outset that I‟m no artist... I tend to draw along straight lines! However, I hope that you enjoy my sketches (above), and that they inspire you to try sketching yourself. In addition to having something to show for your observing session, drawing the objects requires far greater attention to detail in the view through the eyepiece. 

Another benefit is that you‟re far more likely to recognise the object in future observation sessions, as what you see through the eyepiece is, of course, frequently very different from what is shown in photographic images.

Sunday, 16 February 2014


Many scientists think that the Ancient Martian Ocean Would Have Been Salty ‘Dead Sea’.


Evidence is mounting that Mars was once a wet and warm world, similar to the early Earth. What went wrong with the Red Planet -- is it possible that future explorers may find fossils from a more habitable time -- indeed did microbial life survive until the present time?

Once upon a time there were two adjacent planets orbiting a run-of the-mill star in one of the arms of an unremarkable spiral galaxy. Both were warm, both were wet, both had substantial atmospheres, both had vulcanism, both had oceans, seas and rivers, and both were in or on the edge of their star’s habitable zone. Life, we are certain began on one, but on the other – well we’re not too sure.

The planets in question are of course the Earth and Mars. Everyone is fascinated by Mars. From an earlier less-informed age, science fiction by Ray Bradbury and Edgar Rice Burroughs, or the imagined canals of astronomer Percival Lowell has fired our imagination, and has ensured that the Red Planet now has a special place in both our hearts and popular folklore.

The real Mars is even more fascinating however, and the planet’s formation and history can be the subject of some fascinating speculation. Mars is still one of the few places in the solar system that humans can think realistically about exploring on foot. Did life arise on Mars in its early past like it did on Earth? Even more speculatively, did life arise on one planet, only to be transported by ejecta to the other after an asteroid impact? Many scientists think that life, well microbial life at any rate, protected from cosmic rays and a fiery entry into the Earth’s atmosphere inside a space rock can traverse the vast distances between planets.

One of the meteorites discovered on the snows of the Allen Hills of Antarctica showcased by NASA in 1996, and confirmed as Martian by isotopic analysis, contains tantalising crystal structures that may be either chemical in origin or fossilised bacteria (albeit very small bacteria!). Meteorite ALH84001 may surprise us yet. Will future geologists as they explore Mars discover fossils in the sedimentary rocks that are so indicative of the planet’s wet and warmer past? Did creatures swim in the seas and rivers of ancient Mars – were they washed up on the now high and dry fossilised Martian beaches that we’ve identified with our Mars orbiters? Did they take the ultimate white-knuckle ride over waterfalls to dwarf Niagara in the Vallis Marineris, a gargantuan canyon the length of North America? As the late NASA astronomer and planetary scientist Carl Sagan (1994) speculated, “Now that would be a world to explore – unfortunately we are four billion years too late!

Whether such speculation turns out to be confirmed, things started to go wrong with Mars about 3.8 billion years ago, about the time life got started on Earth. Mars is about half the size of the Earth so its interior began to radiate heat to space much more quickly and its core began to solidify. Without a molten iron core acting as a dynamo, any magnetic field surrounding the planet started to dissipate exposing the atmosphere and surface to the Sun’s charged particles. Any tentative carbon cycle would grind to a halt too -- despite having the largest volcano in the solar system (Olympus Mons), vulcanism would cease, and with it any possibility of recycling the planet’s carboniferous rocks.



It's an embarrassment of gargantuan proportions that lies at the heart of modern physics, a kind of cosmic elephant in the room. Put simply, physicists realise that when we look out 13.7 billion light years across the visible universe with our telescopes, whether at visible, infrared, gamma ray or x-ray wavelengths, we are only seeing a tiny proportion of all that there is. Modern physics and its key theories of Newtonian and quantum mechanics and general relativity, which have successfully provided us with everything from iPods to GPS systems, simply doesn't have a clue as to what makes up 96% of the universe.

The best estimates of cosmologists and physicists reveal that only 4% of the universe is constituted of normal baryonic matter, consisting of the things we see with our eyes and
detectors. This is made up of atoms and their constituent parts -- and includes stars, planets
and intergalactic dust. Einstein said that mass and energy are equivalent, and since the late
1990s astronomers and cosmologists have found that a staggering 73% of the universe is made of something called Dark Energy, which reveals itself by an anti-gravitational force. 

It turns out that the expanding universe as first revealed by Edwin Hubble isn't just expanding at a linear rate; the expansion is accelerating. One day in the far and distant future, cosmologists will no longer see galaxies outside our own cluster -- they'll simply be over the horizon, too far away for light to have had enough time to travel to Earth. For now, though, we have little idea as to what Dark Energy actually is.

We may have rather more success in identifying Dark Matter, first postulated by astronomer Fritz Zwicky in 1934 to account for the 'missing mass' needed to sustain the orbital velocities of galaxies in clusters. Subsequently, other observations have indicated the presence of Dark Matter in the universe, including the rotational speeds of galaxies,gravitational lensing of backgroundobjects by galaxy clusters such as the Bullet Cluster, and the temperature distribution of hot gas in galaxies and clusters of galaxies. It is believed thatmost Dark Matter, by its very nature, does not consist of atoms. It doesn't interact with electromagnetic radiation, and therefore we cannot detect it withour telescopes.

There are are many possibilities as to what Dark Matter may be, including the following:

normal matter that has so far eluded our gaze, such as dark galaxies, brown dwarfs,
planetary material (rock, dust, etc.) or black holes. Some of these could be MACHOs
(Massive Astrophysical Compact Halo Objects), which would explain the distribution of Dark Matter in galaxy halos;
massive standard-model neutrinos;
massive exotica. These can be divided into two possible classes: 
* axions (hypothetical elementary particles), additional neutrinos, supersymmetric particles, or a host of others. Their properties are constrained by the theory that predicts them, but by virtue of their mass they solve the dark matter problem if they exist in the correct abundance;
*  particles with unspecified properties, but that are merely required to be massive and to have other properties such that they would so far have eluded discovery in the many experiments that have looked for new particles. Possibilities include WIMPS (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles), CHAMPs (Charged 
Massive Particles).

Whatever Dark Matter turns out to be (and there are many experiments being conducted around the globe to detect it, including at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and in subterranean laboratories such as the one at Cleveland Potash's mine at Boulby, Whitby in the UK), we are likely to have an answer as to what this fundamental constituent of the universe is, long before that for Dark Energy. Whichever way you look at it, it's an embarrassment for modern physics to only know what 4% of the universe is actually made of!


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