Monday, February 20, 2006

Indian Space Research Institute Skylab

The Hindustan Times today reported that the Indian Space Research Institute will be launching a new space laboratory next June-July for trials to develop new alloys and drugs. The 525Kg capsule will use the micro-gravity conditions of space to research the creation of light-weight and long lasting alloys. Further tests will be carried out to develop spacecraft and aircraft materials.

The next mission expected in two years will generate data to design a container for future manned space missions. The capsule will be injected in to orbit by India's own home grown Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. The mission is intended to demonstrate the recovery of space capsules. It would also test systems like the reusable thermal protection, navigation, guidance and control, hypersonic aero-thermodynamics, management of communication blackout, deceleration and floatation system and recovery operations.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Time Galleries at the Royal Greenwich Observatory

On Monday 13th February, 2006, my wife and I attended the opening of the newly refurbished Time Gallery at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. Visitors are treated to an upgraded experience comprising interactive projection displays, videos explaining the concept of longitude and latitude and a plethora of different time pieces and watches on display. Centre stage is Harrison's four famous clocks. Over forty years, Harrison worked on resolving the problem of longitude which he eventually resolved with his meticulously engineered mechanical clocks which lead to the ability to navigate safely and accurately at sea for the first time.

The event was attended by Lord Sterling, one of the trustees and the head of the Millenium Lottery Commission who both gave very enthusiastic speeches with regards to the opening of the new gallery. Also speaking at the event was Peter Snow, the well known TV presenter famous for his loud ties and enthusiastic leaps and dives around virtual TV sets showing statistical analysis of election results. Peter has been following the progress of the new galleries and the development of the new Greenwich Planetarium over the last twelve months or more.

It looked like they had upgraded the green laser at the meridian line. It appeared VERY bright and was clearly visible way out in to the distance. The green laser is meant to be visible out to about 15 miles. Also open to view was the new Horology Centre. We went along to it and watched a young engineer carefully dismantle a pendulum that had been calibrated so that the metal parts making up the various components of the pendulum shaft can expanded and contracted according to the barometric pressure and temperature in-order to keep accurate time.

In the basement gallery we received an in-depth and lengthy description of how the original valve clock worked that produced the famous 6 pips on BBC Radio. The machine on display was the original dating back many decades, with all values fully working. Watching those values glow and whir was mesmerizing and listening to the engineer who restored it to working order and understanding the inner workings was very exciting.

The new planetarium is not open yet and won't be till 2007, however later this year the new space galleries are due to open. For anyone interested in the history of time, longitude and latitude the new Time Galleries are well worth a visit.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

I've been using an Astronomy book called Universe, 7th Edition for the last year and a half as reference material for the Astronomy course I am studying at University College London. It's taken a while to fully appreciate this book and it was only when I managed to complete a few home works that I realised what a superb book this really is. It's pitched at the under graduate student with a lot of excellent supporting material such as a CD ROM and hyper link references to extra resources on the publishers web site which directly relates to material in the book. The style of the book is very accessible and it makes subjects such as neutron star formation and stellar evolution quite easy to understand. The book covers a wide sperad of topics ranging from the basics of SI units, distance, time and angular measurements to the solar system, stars, galaxies, the interstellar medium and beyond. There is a fair degree of mathermatics in this books but nothing beyond basic high school algebra. If you're after a book to support your learning, this is a good one.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

It's gonna be a bright sun shiney day

"I can see clearly now the rain has come....." - Not the most favourite song, or sentiment for an Astronomer. Yes, as you can guess, weather has been pretty poor for a long time. The last partially clear nightI got in my neck of the woods was nearly one and half weeks ago. Tomorrow, so they say on the weather report, and possibly up to Friday it's meant to be sunny. Rejoice! Weather it'll remain clear during the night remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain, it's turning cold once again. Of course at this point those of you reading this on the east coast of the USA are both laughing and mummbling, "you don't have a clue what cold weather is, buddy," and to that I'd agree! We think it gets cold here in Britain when it hits -2 degree's C at night but wait till you hit parts of the north eastern sea board of the USA. Oooohhh, now there it gets a little more than chilly. Yikes.

Tonight's Astronomy Diploma class at UCL was pretty interesting. We briefly covered detached and semi-detached binaries, Roche lobes and material transference between binary stars. We also learned about quasars, active galactic nuclei, Seyfert galaxies, black holes and revised knowledge from previous lectures about differnet forms of radiation emission related to each object we studied, i.e. cyclotron and synchrotron radiation, thermal emission, compton radiation and reverse compton radiation.

There was an interest question which came up in class tonight. "Why do neutron stars have a magnetic field?" Unfortunately we didn't get a solid answer to that question, but my guess is that all stars have some amount of ionized gas surrounding them and in them. By it's nature ionized gas has an inherent magnetic field. Big stars have a very large surface area so the magnetic field is spread out and thus moderately weak. On the other hand, Neutron stars are very small object, typically the size of the planet Earth and even smaller, possibily the size of a moderate city on Earth. This creates a much more compact surface area forcing the magnetic fields in the ionized gases to be much more closely associated, thus greatly increasing the magnetic field which for Neutron stars can run in to billions of Gauss. That's my theory anyway, but I'd like to find out if that's indeed true or if I'm totally barking up the wrong tree.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

TV Celebs

Whilst at Astrofest last weekend, a certain Chris Lintott of Sky and Night fame walked past me several times. I thought I'd search around on Google for his Blog, if he had one at all. Not surprisingly he does have one, although it has only very recently come in to existance. There's a link to it from the Astroblogs section on the side bar.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

The art of "seeing"

Tonight I learned what it really means to have good "seeing". Astronomers use the term "seeing" to define the stability of atmospheric conditions which can be effected by moisture in the air, heat shimmer, and the transparency of the atmosphere. All these factors combine to either give you a crisp and sharp image through your eye piece on nights of good seeing or on bad nights of seeing a fuzzy, wobbly and shimmering image which never wants to settle or come to a sharp focus. For the last two years since I bought my Meade ETX105 telescope I've read a lot about seeing conditions and I've even thought that on a few nights I have had good seeing conditions. This was until tonight when I set up my telescope after many weeks of grey and overcast skies. I've never experienced such stunning seeing conditions! Usually with my telescope, the 105mm aperture normally allows me to use a 4x Barlow with at most a 20mm lens. Any more magnification and the image would become blurred and dim. Tonight however, I put the 20mm lens in and noticed that the image was particularly sharp and steady. This got me thinking and so I popped back indoor and pulled out the 15mm lens and placed it in to the 4x Barlow. To my utter surprise the image of Saturn I was looking at previously with the 20mm lens just jumped out at me as crisp as anything. Moments like this usually cause amateur astronomers the world over to start frothing at the side of their mouths and whispering quiet expletives of wonderment. I shall not reveal which of these I was doing at this point in time. I stayed at the eye piece for a good fifteen minutes and gazed at this immensely brilliant site of Saturn and congratulated my little ETX telescope for exceeding all expectations. I thought I'd push my luck and swap the lens out for a 12.4mm lens. This I knew was pushing the telescope beyond its acceptable maximum limit of magnification but I thought it was worth a look. Once again, rock steady; No shimmer and no blurring. I was amazed. Not only had I blown away the maximum practical limit of my telescope, but I had almost perfect seeing conditions and I could clearly make out the Cassini division and faint banding on the atmosphere of Saturn. There was even a hint of the typical creamish yellow colour one often sees in high quality photographs of Saturn. I've not really managed to observe such detail in the past. The best I've managed to achieve whilst visually observing Saturn is to make out the rings and observe a very bright and washed out planetary disk.

The Meade 105 telescope constantly surprises me and tonight I saw first hand how and why this small telescope can match and out perform other much bigger aperture telescopes. I've often read such claims about the Meade ETX series from other observers but until tonight I had never experienced this superiority myself. Nights of such good seeing are rare but when they do happen, boy is it good. Strangely enough, tonight wasn't the clearest of nights. There was broken cloud dotted around here and there which kept obscuring Saturn on many occasions. I'd be really interested to hear from others who might have had good seeing tonight, especially around the area of North West London at about 21:35 UT.

Today was the second day of the European Astrofest. I attended the whole event from the moment doors opened to the very last lecture presentation of the day. Talks were given by Robert Walsh from the University of Central Lancashire on understanding the Sun - a decade with SOHO, David Hughs from University of Sheffield talking about probing comets - Deep Impact and beyond, Nik Szymanek demonstrating some excellent image processing techniques using Adobe Photoshop, MaximDL, The NASA Fits plug-in for Photoshop and a number of other excellent freeware packages. Other talks were given by John Zarnecki from the Open University about the Titan and Cassini-Huygens mission, a superb talk on globular clusters and their evolution by Gerry Gilmore from the Institute of Astronomy - University of Cambridge and a fascinating talk on Black holes and wormholes by Jim Al-Khalili of University of Surrey.

At the show I picked up a superb 5mW green laser pointer from BCF, a really nicely made Hartman mask from Venturescopes and a camera adapter and eye piece projection piece again from BCF. The Starry Night stand was always very popular and they had the latest version of Starry Night Pro Plus on display with live demos being given to anyone and everyone. The Campaign for Dark Skies was out in force and ran an excellent raffle which managed to make over £600 for a good cause. I had a long and very informative chat with the guys from Starlight Xpress and did a compare and contrast with their CCD camera's and the SBIG series. I've still not decided which one is the better CCD camera but one thing I do know is that the Sony CCD chip used in the Starlight Xpress series of CCD camera's has about one tenth of the dark current of the SBIG Kodak CCD which apparently removes the requirement of taking a dark frame. Very interesting and also VERY expensive equipment! Starlight Express also had their active optics attachment on display which I noticed many members of the public incorrectly referred to as adaptive optics. Of course, actice and adaptive optics are two totally different things aimed at correcting different aspects of CCD imaging. Screen shot demonstrations of the active optics relay at work showing before-and-after examples were truly impressive. Finally, the British Astronomical Association and the Society for Popular Astronomy were both manning busy stands. I hope they both managed to sign of up plenty of new members. As I was leaving the exhibition I noticed a stand from UK-SEDS which managed to lure me to their stall with the offer of a free t-shirt if I signed up to join their "cause". What I discovered was that SEDS is the world's largest space enthusiast organisation for both school and university students. Anyone who is interested can become a member of UKSEDS, young or old, student or non-student. The organisation was founded in the US in 1980 by students at MIT and Princeton University and is continuing to grow, currently having more than 60 branches worldwide. UKSEDS was formed in 1988 and is one of the fastest growing national SEDS groups. Their five main aims are to promote the exploration of space, and the research and development of space-related technologies. Provide a forum through which students can become involved in the international space community. Motivate students to excel in space-related fields.
Share in the advancing knowledge and growing benefits to be reaped from space and improve space-related education through both academic work and hands-on projects. Yes I did join UKSEDs and yes I did get my t-shirt and a UKSEDs pen as well! Very nice chaps and I wish them success and hope to participate in their UK wide events.

Over-all, this was a thoroughly excellent European Astrofest for 2005. I look forward to next year’s event - hopefully at a bigger venue. The town hall in Kensington High Street is starting to get rather cramped. Wembley Conference Centre could make an excellent alternative as it's very easy to reach by public transport, has ample parking space and it very large.

The clouds have cleared, I think I'll get in another half an hour of observing and see if Saturn is still centred in my 12.4mm lens.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

London Planetarium closure - the end of an era

To be more accurate, the planetarium building is not closing - it's just being filled with different type of stars. Those star are the wax variety that are spilling over in to the planetarium from next door. Madamme Tussards, world famous for it's wax models of super stars, sports men and women, world leaders and people from many other walks of life are officially moving in. What is probably Europe’s most expensive tourist attraction is explodes like a super nova and swept away the London Planetarium with its shock wave and forever changed a historic landmark of London and cherished astronomical facility for countless people. Celebrity stardom has officially taken over from the stars shown on the London Planetariums dome - an era has truly come to an end.

I hate to be negative at a time like this, but I have to admit that even before its closure, the London Planetarium was - in my personal opinion - a sad and sorry excuse for a modern planetarium. This feeling was further solidified after recently visiting the Birla Planetarium in Kolkata (Calcutta), India. Shows there are not only an hour long, but they're captivating, the seating is extremely comfortable and the speakers are engaging. The exhibits around the building are excellent and the Birla planetarium run a healthy public education and outreach program, organise astronomy classes for students both young and old and hold regular city observation sessions. These are qualities that were sadly lacking from the London Planetarium for many, many years as the emphasis moved away from education and entertainment to shifting as many bodies through the doors, shortening the length of the shows and therefore maximising profit at the expense of quality and value for money. Another prime example of what a planetarium should be is the amazing New York Rose Center for Earth and Space, home to the Hayden Planetarium. The facility in New York is ultra modern, a gem to behold, houses visually stunning and engaging exhibits, tactile displays and children’s activity areas, detailed information for those with more advanced knowledge, dark room video walls and excellent shows inside the planetarium using state of the art project equipment. I shall not even begin to talk about the education programmes they have going at the Hayden Planetarium or I could fill out another ten screens with text.

I'm eagerly looking forward to the brand new planetarium at the Royal Greenwich Observatory which is due to open next year. The new facility is currently under construction along with a whole slew of new refurbishments and upgrades throughout the rest of the historic Royal Greenwich Observatory site. Hopefully it shall take over the mantle of being the leading inspiration in the London region for attracting the public and fascinating a whole new generation of children in to astronomy. Good luck to them - all is not lost!

Saturn opposition - almost

The actual day of Saturn's opposition this year, 27th January 2006, was clouded out in my neighbourhood so I had to wait till the 28th. Seeing was really awful, and I mean down right uselessly awful. The wind didn't help either but I managed to capture a few AVIs. After processing them all, these two images were the best I could come up with. Significantly worse than most of the other images I've taken of Saturn. These images were taken as AVI movies using a Philips Toucam Pro II and later processed in Registax. Enjoy!

I'm started to realise the limits of the ETX105 for photography. The lure of larger a larger telescope is tempting, but I ask ya.... where the heck would it fit in to the living room? Exactly.... DOH!