The Sir Arthur Clarke Awards

Via this post on the SPA BB:

The Sir Arthur Clarke Awards

This is a reminder that there is still a little time to submit nominations for the Sir Arthur Clarke Awards – the Space Oscars:

Hollywood has the Oscars® - We have the Arthurs! Your chance to help recognise UK space activity.

Each year, there are various awards for the best in film, TV, the theatre and music, but there is also an award designed to recognise and reward the best in UK space research and exploration. The 2007 Sir Arthur Clarke awards will be presented at a gala dinner at the annual conference of the British Rocketry Oral History Programme (BROHP), to be held next Spring at the prestigious Charterhouse School near Godalming in Surrey.

The BROHP conference now attracts over 300 delegates from around the world for 3 days of presentations on various aspects of space and rocketry.

The 2007 event runs from April 12-14 and you can find more details from www.brohp.org.uk. On the Saturday evening, the 2007 Sir Arthur Clarke Awards - the space Oscars - will be presented at a gala dinner. The Arthurs are intended to recognise and reward the best of UK space achievement. Nominations are invited from the public. Simply go to the website and fill in the on-line form.

A panel of distinguished judges will draw up the shortlist and vote in a secret ballot, but it is up to you to submit your choice of names.

You can make as many nominations in as many categories as you wish, but they must be submitted by the end of December.

So if you have been impressed, intrigued or inspired by some aspect of space exploration, then go to the website at www.clarkeawards.org and fill in the on-line nomination form.

Please do your bit to support space in the UK.

Jerry Stone
Director, The Sir Arthur Clarke Awards


Always double-check your dates

As I know from personal experience, it can be embarrassing when you get your dates wrong. But there are some dates you'd think some people would get right:

Around 60 people turned up to celebrate the Winter Solstice at Stonehenge - on the wrong day.

After negotiating with site-managers English Heritage, the crowd performed traditional solstice activities on Thursday morning, and left peacefully.

One reveller, who wished to remain anonymous, said: "We formed a ring and held hands, and touched the stones. The man with the green cloak was there.

"But there were an awful lot of red faces," she said.
Serves 'em right for not reading Stuart's Astronomy Blog. ;)

Results of the Carl Sagan Blog-a-thon

Joel Schlosberg has posted a list of links to lots of blogs that took part in the Carl Sagan memorial "Blog-a-Thon".


Remembering Carl Sagan

This post is being written in the spirit of the Carl Sagan "Blog-a-Thon".

I'm not really one to do the hero thing, not to any great extent. There are people ("famous" and "non-famous") whose ideas and actions have impressed me, people whose opinions matter to me, but I'm not sure I'd go all the way and say "hero".

If anyone came close it would be Carl Sagan.

Unlike many people who'll be writing something about him today (the 10th anniversary of his death) I don't really have a long list of memories or anecdotes about his work and its impact on me, but two key things do stand out.

The first is (no surprise here) Cosmos. I'm struggling to remember when I actually watched it, I'm pretty sure it was the early 1980s (on the BBC). I'd been rather obsessed with all things astronomy and space for quite some time so, as a young teenager, it felt like the programme had been made just for me (it was also a very welcome change from The Sky at Night). It's hard to describe the impact the programme had on me, about the best I can manage is to say that my interest in astronomy was reinvigorated and I've got a recollection that it was partly responsible for me finally deciding that I had to get out and actually observe.

The other key moment for me was when I first read The Demon-Haunted World. I was quite late to the book. I'd owned a copy for a number of years and, like with many books, it had sat on my (rather too large) "to be read" pile. Finally, in early 2002, just before my son was born, I got around to reading it (right after finishing Dawkins' Unweaving the Rainbow). The book had a huge impact on me. It wasn't a case of it helping me form an opinion on the subjects covered in the book — I had enough of those — it was the fact that someone had managed to write down those ideas and opinions in a clear and easy to follow way. It was, for me, an example of what Carl Sagan did best: communicate clearly.

As a father-to-be I was faced with many concerns that, until that point, hadn't really bothered me before: issues regarding education and communication, issues regarding how society conducts itself, issues regarding the acceptance of idiocy and superstition. Sure, I'd thought about these things and held opinions on them (some informed, some not so well informed), but the prospect of being directly responsible for another individual meant that they were right on my doorstep. That's why the (accidental) timing of my reading of tDHW meant so much to me: it helped me better understand my concerns, my worries, my opinions, and it did it carefully and clearly. Right book, right place, right time.

Other than the two experiences noted above, I should probably also say that I'm a fan of the novel Contact, and also the film based on it (yes, even though it's rather different from the book).

In a world where pseudo-science and superstition still have a hold, where many people still seem to think that such things are worthy of respect and equal treatment, clear communicators and advocates of the scientific method help hold back the tide of nonsense. Thankfully Carl Sagan left a body of work that should help maintain those defences.

Those afraid of the universe as it really is, those who pretend to nonexistent knowledge and envision a Cosmos centered on human beings will prefer the fleeting comforts of superstition. They avoid rather than confront the world. But those with the courage to explore the weave and structure of the Cosmos, even where it differs profoundly from their wishes and prejudices, will penetrate its deepest mysteries.

— Carl Sagan, Cosmos.


BAA/CfDS/CPRE Star Count

I don't think I've seen this reported anywhere else: the BAA, CfDS and CPRE have organised a star count to run from December 20th to the 24th. The idea is, at some point between those two dates, you go out between 20:00 and 24:00 and count how many stars you can see in the "square" formed by the main part of the constellation Orion.

More details can be found on the BAA website.


Paul Sutherland, over at SkyMania, has written about Google's plans to link up with NASA on some interesting mapping sites. He goes on to comment on something he and I have spoken about before:

I am waiting for Google to act on a suggestion I emailed to them a while back - to produce a map of the sky that we could explore in a similar way to Google Earth. There is already plenty of data from observatories' sky surveys that could map the sky as a celestial sphere. Would anyone else like to see Google Universe?
Yes, I'd love to see something like that. And, funnily enough, yesterday, I stumbled on a site that appears to more or less fit the bill: Wikisky.

I've not explored it too much yet (I found it while in the middle of something else and posted it to my astronomy bookmarks list on del.icio.us with a view to having a proper look at some point later) but, on the surface, it does seem to have many of the features one would expect from a "Google1 Universe". There's a map of the sky that can be dragged about, has zoom, has detailed images and has links elsewhere.

Have a look at the getting started article to learn more about it.

1) Note to Google legal types, that's not an attempt to infringe on any sort of trademark, that's just an attempt to talk about a mythical product that some people would like to see.


A good night out

Finally, on Saturday night, I managed to break the bad run for December. Also, it was a rather different kind of observing session for me because it was the first time, since getting back into observing, that I've observed away from my own garden and in the company of someone else.

I met up with a fellow observer (based in Grantham) at Woodland Waters (it's about ½ way between our locations) with a view to seeing how good it is as an observing location. For the most part I was impressed. While there are some sources of light pollution on site they don't get in the way that much and it's much better than observing from my own garden. The big difference was how much sky there is available. With no houses to get in the way the view was pretty much horizon to horizon.

Most of the observing I did that evening was of an object I've generally managed to miss so far: M42. From my own garden Orion is hidden behind the house most of the time and, by the time it's in a position where I can see it, it tends to be rather low and lights in the village get in the way. On Saturday night I had a perfect view of it.

I also managed to observe M81 and M82 for the first time.

The other highlight of the night was my first telescopic view of Saturn for this apparition. The view wasn't that good, it was still rather low and moving in and out of view over some trees, but it was good to see it anyway.

Although I probably didn't observe as much as I would on my own (as much time was probably spent on conversation as was spent on observing), and even though I didn't log things as carefully as I would when observing on my own, I really enjoyed the evening. It was great to be observing with an unobstructed view and having company and being able to share thoughts and ideas added a totally new dimension to the experience of observing. It's something I aim to do again and as often as possible.


Mars: 2020

Yes, I admit it, I've stolen this from the Bad Astronomer, but this video really does deserve posting far and wide.

Caution: if you've not seen it yet, do not drink while watching it, you'll regret it.


December: So far so bad

So far December is looking like a pretty bad month for me. In the first week of the month I was away for a few days (down in London, even if I'd had clear skies the light pollution and the need to be up bright and early each morning meant that no real observing could take place anyway). That trip also meant that I had to miss the occultation of the Pleiades. Since then the weather has been pretty awful — even though we've had a couple of clear nights recently they've both been quite misty and hardly worth the bother.

I look forward to December, especially given that it gets dark nice and early, but it's starting to look like a wash-out for me. The forecast at the moment doesn't look too promising for the Geminids either (something I wanted to have a crack at, having finally acquired the meteor shower bug thanks to the Leonids).

So far it's even been a bad month for solar observing (something that is made all the more annoying given that sunspot 930 has been putting on a nice display — I have managed to view it twice but I've not had the chance to put those logs online yet).


Million pound star chart

First there was the Million Dollar Home Page, and then came all the copycat sites (which all appeared to try and do exactly the same thing — apart from at least one clever and amusing take on events). Finally, things seemed to have calmed down and that internet meme seemed to have faded.

Now it seems to be back, with an astronomy twist: BuyMeToTheStars.com. The site has been created by a chap called Michael Halls-Moore — a 24 year old graduate student studying for a PhD in Aeronautical Engineering in London. And the reason he's doing it? Let me quote from his FAQ:

Why Are You Doing This?

I believe that access to space should be available to everybody on Earth. It seems that only professional astronauts and the rich are able to fly at the moment. However, by making this site and raising the cash I am showing that it is possible for a common bloke like me to realise my dream.

The way I see it, if *I* can do it, then anyone can do it. Challenges like mine raise public awareness of space exploration in general. This then causes more funding to be allocated to new space missions which in turn provide indirect benefits to mankind. For instance the Apollo missions helped bring us the digital computer (imagine life without those!).

On a more personal note, I also want to try and see if I can actually achieve this crazy goal!
I can't say I fancy his chances but it's hard not to applaud his attempt to raise awareness about spaceflight (and astronomy too I guess).

If you want to follow what he's up to he's got a weblog although, annoyingly, it doesn't seem to have an RSS feed.

Edit: It has now.


Daylight graphs

I've updated the my sky section of my main site to include a couple of daylight graphs. The first one graphs the rise and set positions of the Sun for the current day:

The second graphs sunrise/sunset times and total hours daylight for my location:

And the reason I added them? Well, no good reason really. They are sort of useful for a quick glance but the main reason I added them is because I fancied a quick bit of hacking (and also because I've been playing with compass-a-like graphs on my weather station site).


Exceptional sketches

Take a look at the two sketches in this thread on the SPA BB.

Wow! Just.... wow!


Request for images of Cassiopeia taken in October

Via this post on the SPA BB:

The Astro community are calling for images of Cassiopeia taken this October. There was an unusual brightening of a star which might have been a very rare gravitational lensing event. There are plenty of observations after it brightened but only a few before. These would help confirm the shape of the brightness change curve which must be symmetric for a lensing event.
This is in reference to an earlier thread on the BB.

Also see this news item on the BAA's website.


UK floodlighting petition

Via this post on the SPA BB:

Andrew Abbott has created a petition for the Prime Minister to ban floodlighting of buildings to reduce energy use, carbon dioxide emissions and light pollution.

You can read the petition and add your signature, if you wish, here.


Summary of petition...

Floodlighting of buildings is done purely for our own vanity. It is a significant waste of energy.

The Energy Saving Trust is asking us to cut down on our energy use by 20%, yet private companies and government still waste significant amounts of energy on floodlighting buildings. Why should our taxes pay to floodlight government buildings?

The Government must ban the floodlighting of buildings. Even before legislation is introduced, the government could set a lead in this to encourage private owners by switching off the floodlighting of government buildings.


Space wurzel

Warning: It probably helps if you're British, or, at the very least, know who Colin Pillinger and Kevin Warwick are and, ideally, why they're often the target for jokes (especially the latter — I really miss the KevWatch website).

Via Radio RTFM, Space Wurzel (MP3 file).

Mobile phones, the next big thing in astronomy?

Okay, I'm pushing it a bit with the title of this post, but I am fascinated by the results that people can get with the little cameras you get in mobile phones (or "cell phone" for those in strange parts of the world) these days.

I've used mine in the past to (try and) record sunspots, the Sun itself (although that one's really rubbish), Mars (yes, I know, I'm pushing it a bit there), the Moon, the Moon with Jupiter, a solar eclipse and various forms of atmospheric phenomena. The results have never been that great but I never really expected them to be that great.

That said, if LPOD is anything to go by, some of the better phones seem to give amazing results.

But, for me, none of the above quite match the image in this post on the SPA BB. Sure it's blurred. Sure it's smudged. Sure there's no real detail. But you can instantly tell which planet it is. An identifiable planet, on a mobile phone! How neat is that?


A bit more documentation

Given that last weekend's sessions introduced a new type of observing to my logs I felt the need to add a new markup item to my logging system. While doing that I realised that I had no definitive list of all the forms of markup that could be used in the notes for a session or an observation.

So, this morning, I created the list in the (still incomplete) documentation for the file format I use. I've also created a page for each type of markup; each page gives a brief description of the purpose of the markup, the syntax of the markup and also gives an example or two of the markup in use.

I'm glad I finally got around to doing this. From now on I won't need to go looking at my source code or old logs to remind myself how a specific markup item works.


More time stats

After adding the time stats to my stats page earlier to day I realised that I now had most of the tools in place to figure out which part of the day was most "popular" in my logs. I decided that it called for a nice little graph:

From this I deduce I'm not the sort of person who likes to observe during the early hours of the morning. ;)

Time stats

This morning I made a quick addition to the code that manages my observing logs and added some code that extracts the elapsed times for all my sessions. Using this I've been able to add a new section to my stats page that lists some time-based values.

As of now, since 2005-04-16, I've spent 93 hours doing something related to observing. On average I've spent about ½ hour per session. My shortest session is 1 minute long and my longest is 252 minutes long (although the the longest session is a little misleading because there was a break of about 1 hour during it).

Gravity 3D

I stumbled on a really nice bit of software this morning called Gravity 3D (sorry, only runs on Microsoft Windows from what I can see). It's a galaxy collision simulator (and it's free). I can't say how "useful" it is in terms of the science but one thing I do know is it's very pretty and very addictive.

The Polygon Worlds site contains other astronomy related software too, including Mars Explorer, Mars 3D, Earth 3D and Venus 3D.

Be sure to have a look in the gallery too.


Time for a new look

Now that this blog has moved to the new blogger system I've decided to throw away the old template and have a new look. I partly did this so I could make use of the new template management system but I also did it because I fancied a new look anyway.

As far as I can tell the change has gone off without a hitch and I think I've managed to retain all the bits and bobs and links and stuff that I had before.

The layout isn't perfect, there's some changes I'd still like to make, but that's low priority stuff and might not happen for a while.

Let me know if you see any obvious problems.

Leonids: my results

The logs for Saturday morning and Sunday morning are now up.

Here's what I learnt over the weekend:

  • If the outburst did take place I didn't notice it. The numbers of Leonids I saw on Sunday morning pretty much matched with those I saw on Saturday morning.

  • I saw way more Leonids than Ian did.

  • I seem to have seen a similar rate to that seen by Tristram.

  • Planning is a good thing. But when you do plan, try and pay attention to what you're doing.

  • When you do mess up in your planning, try and come up with a really good explanation for it. Hence...

  • When trying to observe a meteor shower outburst, try and have a session 24 hours before hand so that you've established a baseline for the following morning's observation. If you don't it's just really bad science. Okay? (I almost typed that with a straight face)

  • Putting a sleeping bag on the chair and then sitting on the sleeping bag keeps you so much warmer.

  • When you're sat out in the cold, at stupid-o-clock in the morning, looking at the sky and waiting for something to happen, it's impossible not to start thinking that you should take up a saner hobby.

  • The thinking in the previous point totally disappears the moment you see the first meteor.

  • Shouting "Woah! did you see that one!" makes no sense at all when you're the only person sat in your garden at 5 in the morning.

  • You'll never, ever, convince other people that sitting in the cold at stupid-o-clock on a Sunday morning isn't insane.

  • Drinking over ½ a bottle of wine the night before might ensure that you get off to sleep nice and quickly, but it doesn't make waking up any easier.
Can't wait for the Geminids.


Leonids redux

Following on from yesterday morning's "accidental" session I managed to get out again this morning to try again for the predicted outburst.

The sky wasn't quite so good this morning, ever so slightly misty and when I first went out there was some thin cloud to the west (which did clear after a while). I was also quite a bit colder this morning — just below 0°C.

As for the outburst? If there was one I think I missed it. I started out around 04:30UT and didn't move until around 05:30UT. In that time I counted 7 Leonids. By 05:30UT I was feeling cold and tired (two early mornings on the trot, I'm going to regret this) so I started to pack up. While in the process of packing up I saw 2 more meteors, both Leonids. One of them was probably the best one I saw for the whole of this session.

I'd like to have carried on observing right up until the sky getting too light but I just couldn't stick with it all the way this morning.

I hope the outburst did take place and that the time was off. Hopefully someone out there had a pretty good show.

As with yesterday the session log isn't up on my site yet. I expect to get this weekend's logs typed up some time on Monday.


Talking of meteors and radio astronomy...

Talking of meteors and radio astronomy... If anyone is interested in this subject and doesn't know much about it this post over on the SPA BB has some interesting links.

The Leonids (and a silly mistake)

Despite what I said yesterday evening, I did get to do some Leonids observing after all.

Late on last night I caught the forecast on the BBC and it said that things would clear up around midnight or so and stay clear into the morning. I then recalled having read an article in the November issue of Sky & Telescope about a predicted burst in activity set for around 04:45UT on the 19th (those quick off the mark will have noticed a problem already).

So, excited at the prospect of getting some meteor observing in and also excited at the prospect of observing a possible outburst of activity, I set my alarm for 04:10.

Despite some reluctance to get out of bed I was finally out and settled by 04:39 and stayed out until 06:00 (by then the sky was starting to get light and the cold was starting to get to me). I had quite an enjoyable time. I counted 9 Leonids in total. I also saw 2 sporadics and quite a few satellites.

And now for the silly mistake (you've seen it already, right?): I came into the office to warm up and to make this entry and then I realised the date. It's the 18th, not the 19th. I went to all the effort of getting out really early to try and observe an event that wouldn't be happening for another 24 hours!

I feel like a total idiot. A cold, over-dressed (hat, two coats, two t-shirts, jumper, two scarves, two pairs of socks, etc...) but very satisfied idiot. But I still feel like a total idiot.

That said, at least I got out and managed to observe something. The weather wasn't good late into the night last night and the forecast isn't that promising for tonight and early tomorrow morning (although, if it changes, and I'm up to it, I might try this again tomorrow).

The session log isn't up yet, I'll be typing that up in the next couple of days.


Megan is back!

Yay! Megan is back! And with a fascinating post too.

I really should have a go at this business of listening to meteor showers. I've being looking forward to the chance to observe a shower but, ever since I got back into observing, I've always had pretty bad luck with the weather. The same looks true for the Leonids this month — it's raining right now, has been raining for most of the day and the forecast for tonight is more rain. Tomorrow night looks like it'll be cloudy.

On the move, sort of

This afternoon I decided to make the move from the classic blogger system to the new beta system. For a short while there I thought it might have all gone horribly wrong but, thankfully, it all seems to have worked in the end.

However, given that this is a beta system... In other words, if something odd happens to this blog, if it goes missing or something, you know why.

In the event that anything does happen I'll try and ensure that some sort of note is placed on the front page of my main site.

One plus point: the new system appears to support the labelling of posts so I can finally do away with my old "file under" system (which was simply a set of pointers into Google's blog search engine).


Lunar mystery part II

Back in July I wrote about a little Lunar mystery that had turned up on the SPA BB. It seems that the mystery hasn't been fully resolved yet.

Geoff is still trying to clear up what it was he observed and he now has an observing plan in place to try and reproduce the situation. He's posted a list of dates and times when conditions should be the same as his original observation and is hoping that a few other people might be able to join in and help.

I thought I'd mention in case anyone reading might like to join in and also because not all the times listed are practical for UK observers — perhaps someone over the other side of the pond (for example) might like to join in to cover those times when most UK observers would be fast asleep?


A future for Hubble?

The Bad Astronomer is reporting that the Hubble servicing mission is go.



More comet M4 Swan

Last Friday night was another clear night so I managed to get out and view comet M4 Swan again. This time I got the 130M out to observe with and was rewarded with a pretty good view. I even had the time to attempt a little sketch too:

The full log of the observing session is available online.


You could fill a book... Part II

Something I forgot to mention in my previous entry is the fact that last night's session saw me filling my second log book — it's taken since since January this year to do that.

Just another little arbitrary milestone that's worth remembering...

File Under: Logbooks, Milestones, Amateur Astronomy.

Comet M4 Swan

I had another clear night last night (it's so nice to be getting out and observing at night again, especially at a reasonable hour) so I made a point of heading out to see if I could catch Comet M4 Swan. I managed to find it without any problems and had a pretty good session observing it, the full text of the log for the session is now online.

It's at times like this that I wish I had some sort of imaging equipment. Given that I don't I can console myself with Pete Lawrence's excellent images and those that can be found in the SpaceWeather gallery.

File Under: Comet, Comet M4 Swan.



Last night was a first for me. For the first time ever I knowingly observed Uranus. The details of the observation can be found in my online log.

It was an interesting experience too. Unlike observing the likes of Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn this required a bit of preparation and plenty of checking and double checking during the session. Also, given the nature of my equipment (I first used 10x50 binoculars and then followed up with the Antares 905), the view itself was never going to be as rewarding as most of the other planets so I found that, in this case, the real enjoyment came from finding the planet and then spending time ensuring I'd really found it.

After having found it, and after spending some time observing, I found myself thinking of a particular house in Bath, back in 1781, when William Herschel will have first realised that he'd discovered something important.

Sometimes, in this hobby, the view isn't the reward, it's the chase and the thoughts it triggers.

File Under: Uranus, William Herschel.


I'll never complain again...

Via Astronomy Magazine, reporting on the earthquake in Hawaii :

The observatories atop Mauna Kea didn't escape entirely unscathed. The W. M. Keck Observatory, whose twin 10-meter telescopes are the world's largest, canceled all observing through Wednesday night. Some guiding and pointing systems were affected and must be repaired before observing resumes. Technicians reported yesterday that the primary mirrors of both Keck telescopes appear undamaged.
Okay, that does it, never again will I complain about having to collimate my 'scope.

File Under: Mauna Kea, Hawaii.


Royal Society Journal Archives

A friend has just pointed out to me that the Royal Society have opened their journal archives for free access (I'm told this will last until December).

So, anyone out there interested in a letter from someone called Mr Newton, going on about something to do with optics...

File Under: Royal Society, Isaac Newton.


SPA Convention 2007

I noticed something good in the forthcoming events section on the SPA home page the other day:

March 10, 2007. SPA Convention 2007, Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge. Details of the main speakers to be confirmed.
Excellent! I really enjoyed the first convention in 2005 so I'm really looking forward to this!

File Under: Society for Popular Astronomy, Astronomy Events.


Here comes the wedge...

First off, an apology. Normally I'd have placed a post such as this in my personal weblog but given the subject in question, and given how we've seen in the US that astronomy can be one of the next targets for this sort of thing, and given that one or two readers of this weblog are involved in science outreach in the UK, I thought it worth a mention — if only so I know that they're aware of this happening.

It would appear that the wedge strategy has finally found a firm foothold here in the UK. Yesterday Tim Haynes was kind enough to alert me to this article:

Creationists and anti-evolutionists in the United Kingdom have established a new website, called ‘Truth in Science’, to try to persuade school parents to lobby for their ideas within the British education system.

The move is the latest attempt by opponents of Darwinian theory to ‘teach the controversy’ by claiming equivalence for non-scientific theories of origins often derived from fundamentalist interpretations of Christian scripture.

[Read More]
The site in question can be found over here.

I've not had the chance to have a proper read of it yet but the little I've seen so far bothers me and bothers me a lot — one reason being that my son just started school the other week. It's bad enough that he's only been there a couple of weeks and, already, he's been press-ganged into one religious performance. Given the current laws about education in the UK that's almost excusable (in regard to the school), but I fear for his education in general when I see that the "intelligent design" brigade are now pushing hard to have their nonsense presented as an equal scientific theory in UK schools.

All that said, I'm glad that the website exists — this way it should be easier to keep tabs on what they're attempting to do.

Was there ever a better time for Richard Dawkins to launch a foundation and an associated website? Not to mention release a new book.

File Under: Truth in Science, Intelligent Design, Creationism, Education.


Mark Smith on the move

A heads up for anyone who used to read Mark Smith's astronomy weblog:

Due to problems with Blogger (they appear to have totally lost his weblog and have not answered a single query he's sent to them) Mark's had to start again. You can find his new weblog at http://marksmith-1986.blogspot.com/.

His isn't the only astronomy weblog I've noticed go missing recently. Daily Planet seems to have gone AWOL as well.

I'm also finding that Blogger is becoming increasingly flaky (publishing seems to be a hit-and-miss affair) and I've been giving serious thought to hosting my weblogs over on the same server as my main sites. In some ways it would be a shame to have to do this, this blog is linked to from quite a few places and appears to have got a reasonable Google PageRank — I don't relish the idea of having to try and build all of that up again from scratch.

And, of course, there's all the hassle of trying to get the content over...

File Under: Blogger.


Sundogs and Circumzenithal Arc

Late this afternoon I was treated to a rather nice display of a circumzenithal arc and a pair of sundogs. Using a little digital camera I tried to get a few images (the full set of images can be found over here):

File Under: Sundogs, Circumzenithal Arc.


A rare event

Last night was a very rare event: a significant astronomical event, visible from the UK, and I wasn't clouded out.

After a very cloudy afternoon it cleared up really well in the evening so everything was on for a view of the partial lunar eclipse. Given that there was no way I'd be able to see the rising full Moon from my own garden I walked to the east side of the village to get a view out over Billingborough Fen. When I got there I had a perfect view of the eclipse around maximum phase:

I don't really have anything by way of imaging equipment but I did attempt a couple of shots using a little digital camera that I've recently acquired. Unsurprisingly most of the shots didn't come out at all well (hand held, full optical and digital zoom — it was never really going to work was it?) but at least one or two give a hint of what the Moon looked like:

I stayed in my observing location, watching unaided and with a 10x50 binocular while making various notes, right up until I could no longer make out the umbra of the Earth's shadow (around 19:44UT).

Given that I've managed to do hardly any observing this summer (other than solar observing) it was really nice to be out and observing in the dark again.

File Under: Moon, Eclipse, Lunar Eclipse.


Planet Astronomy

On and off, this year, I've been toying with the idea of creating a "Planet" site for astronomy related blogs. As usual with this sort of "neat idea" (you know the sort of thing, you probably have a dozen a day too) I filed it away somewhere in my head, on a "I'll do that one day, no, really, I will" TODO list.

This morning, while checking the weblog stats for www.astronomer.me.uk, I noticed a new referrer in the referrer list: www.planet-astronomy.org. Looks like someone's saved me a job and have been kind enough to include this little blog in the list of feeds!

Whoever you are, if you're reading this, thanks! That's a handy resource!

File Under: Weblogs, Astronomy, Planet, Planet Astronomy.


A holiday with a little bit of astronomy

Last week I was away for a few days holiday, first a few days staying in Whitby and then a couple of nights camping in Teesdale (staying at Highside Farm if anyone is looking for a good campsite in that part of the UK — great location and very friendly and helpful owners).

Before we set off I had a serious think about packing the Antares 905 but, given that the forecast wasn't looking too good and given that I wasn't that happy with the idea of keeping it in a hotel room for 4 nights, I decided against it. Instead I packed a tripod, L-mount and a 10x50 binocular.

The forecast turned out to be about right and during the whole week there wasn't a single reasonable clear night.

I did, however, manage to have some astronomy-related moments.

On the evening of the first full day in Whitby, at the top of the west cliff, I saw a chap putting out some signs for a star party later that evening. The society running it was the Whitby and District Astronomical Society. Even though the weather didn't look at all promising I couldn't ignore the fact that there was an AS event almost on the doorstep of my hotel. Later on in the evening I went along and had a chat with the chap running the event (sadly I forgot to take a note of his name). Normally, if the weather is good, they have a few members and many 'scopes at such an event but that evening they'd decided to keep it small.

Although I didn't get to look through anything (pretty much constant cloud) I did get to have a look at the equipment available and had a good chat about the problems and rewards of running an astronomical society.

The weather was a little better the following night (mostly cloudy with some reasonable gaps) so another small gathering was held and I went down again. This time it was fun to have a chat with some children who had come along with their parents to have a look at (and through) the telescopes — they also all seemed very keen to demonstrate their great understanding of astronomy my telling me that there were only eight planets in the solar system. ;)

The couple of nights spent in Teesdale passed without any clear skies at night (but lots of rain) so I didn't even manage to get the binocular out. That was a bit of a shame really given that the views looked like they might be quite good from Highside Farm.

After Teesdale it was back home and then, last Saturday, off to The National Space Center for a British Astronomical Society out-of-London meeting (dragging Bob D'Mellow along with me — he'd twisted my arm to go camping so it only seemed fair that I try and push him into astronomy a bit more <grin>); the subject for the day was Birth & Death of Stars and the Bits In-between. It was a really enjoyable day with some very enthralling talks. Given that I've recently got into some (simple) solar observing I especially appreciated the talks given by Alice Courvoisier (The Magnetic Sun), James Wild (Aurora Watch & the UK Sub-Auroral Magnetometer Network) and Graham Vernier (BiSON — Birmingham Solar Oscillation Network).

I was also very impressed with the talk given by Dr Darren Baskill (The Evolution of Cataclysmic Binaries). While the talk as a whole was very interesting (and it's rekindled a desire I've had for a while to get into observing variables) the thing that impressed me the most was his open and honest discussion about the fact that he'd done many years research on a theory regarding a particular problem with the periods of cataclysmic binaries and how, recently, all that work has been thrown into doubt. While some people might view this as a failure I (and Bob, who was with me, shared this view) saw this as a great example of science doing what science can do best: being honest about results and documenting intriguing mysteries. Even better was the fact that I got to have a brief chat with him later and he was more than happy to answer (what must have seemed to be) my rather simplistic questions. That sort of patience and desire to help never ceases to impress me.

The only real downer during the whole day (other than the less-than-ideal room with its really uncomfortable seats — give me a proper lecture hall any day) was the fact that we'd all been given free tickets for the Space Center itself but, by the time the day finished, last entry was a couple of hours in the past. Although I've been a couple of times in the last two years a quick whiz round would have been nice.

So, a week without any form of observing at all, but at least I managed to get some astronomy-related activities done.

File Under: Whitby, Teesdale, National Space Center, British Astronomical Association, BiSON.


Now I've got a chance

Having been rather busy with other things I've not had the chance to write about the news regarding the IAU's vote about the definition of a planet. There's little point in doing so now given that pretty much everyone else has written about it.

But I did realise one small side-effect: with only eight planets in the solar system they should all now be in easy reach of my equipment. ;)

File Under: IAU, Definition of a Planet, Pluto.


Stuart the spymaster

Stuart, over at Astronomy Blog, seems to have set himself up as a spymaster.

Well worth a read if you're interested in that uninteresting subject.

Of course, like Stuart, I will point out that there are plenty of interesting astronomical issues being discussed during the week other than this.

File Under: IAU.

Spell checking and the IAU

Not long after the proposed definition of a planet was published I saw a couple of reports that mentioned that pluton (the term the IAU have proposed to describe "Pluto like" objects) is a term used by geologists to describe a type of rock.

I admit that I wasn't aware of this until I read it, but after reading it I did think it a little odd that they'd try and overload the word in this way — it's not like geology and planetary science are fields that don't overlap.

Reading an article in Nature this morning it seems the committee were aware of the term but took a very curious route to deciding if they should overload it or not:

Owen Gingerich, an astronomer at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and chair of the IAU committee that created the definition, says that they were aware of its usage amongst geologists, but unaware of its importance to the field. "Since the term is not in the MS Word or the WordPerfect spell checkers, we thought it was not that common," Gingerich wrote in an e-mail to news@nature.com. The geologic definition of the word does appear in common dictionaries, including the Oxford English.
What a really strange approach to things! I'm loath to take a quote in isolation but the above really does seem to suggest that they used common spell checking software, rather than a dictionary, to decide if they should use the word or not.

File Under: Planet, Pluton, IAU, Spell Checking.


New sunspot coming into view

Today has generally been cloudy but I've just had a brief clear spell so I took the Solarscope out to do a quick sunspot count.

I could only see a single, large spot in AA904 (which was now very close to the limb of the Sun).

I had quite a surprise when I noticed, right on the opposite limb of the Sun (to the point that it seemed to be right on the limb), a spot that appeared about as big as the one in AA904. I've checked on Spaceweather and with Solar Weather Browser but I've yet to find an ID for the area.

I think this is the first time I've caught a sunspot before an ID has been published on the popular solar weather sites.

File Under: Sun, Solar Observing, Sunspots, Active Area 904.


More 904

This afternoon I had another chance to observe active area 904. While I still had to do battle with cloud I did have the time to take a naked-eye look (via eclipse shades — yes, I could see the main spot) and I also had the chance to do a couple of rough sketches (an attempt at a general view of the Sun and also an attempt at some detail of 904).

File Under: Sun, Solar Observing, Sunspots, Active Area 904.

First sign of confusion already?

We're not that far into the first day of the general availability of the IAU's draft resolution for the definition of a planet and, already, there seems to be signs of confusion.

Alok Jha, writing for The Guardian, says:

If the ideas are approved at the general meeting of the IAU in Prague next week, schoolchildren will, in future, have to learn that the solar system has 12 planets: eight classical ones that dominate the system - Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus - and four in a new category called plutons.

These are Pluto, its moon Charon, a spherical asteroid that sits between Mars and Jupiter called Ceres, and an object called 2003 UB313 but nicknamed Xena by American astronomers who found it.
That's not quite right, Ceres won't be a "pluton", the idea is that it will be known as a "dwarf planet". As well as the draft resolution saying this:
We recognize that Ceres is a planet by the above scientific definition. For historical reasons, one may choose to distinguish Ceres from the classical planets by referring to it as a "dwarf planet."
the question and answer sheet that goes with it is also quite explicit about it:
Q: Is Ceres a "pluton"?
A: No.
If a science correspondent is getting this wrong you've got to wonder how the public at large will comprehend it.

File Under: IAU, Pluto, Plutons, Definition of a Planet.

IAU's proposed definition of a planet revealed

The IAU has published a press release giving details of the proposed definition of what is and isn't a planet. The outline is:

1. A planet is a celestial body that (a) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (b) is in orbit around a star, and is neither a star nor a satellite of a planet.

2. We distinguish between the eight classical planets discovered before 1900, which move in nearly circular orbits close to the ecliptic plane, and other planetary objects in orbit around the Sun. All of these other objects are smaller than Mercury. We recognize that Ceres is a planet by the above scientific definition. For historical reasons, one may choose to distinguish Ceres from the classical planets by referring to it as a "dwarf planet."

3. We recognize Pluto to be a planet by the above scientific definition, as are one or more recently discovered large Trans-Neptunian Objects. In contrast to the classical planets, these objects typically have highly inclined orbits with large eccentricities and orbital periods in excess of 200 years. We designate this category of planetary objects, of which Pluto is the prototype, as a new class that we call "plutons".

4. All non-planet objects orbiting the Sun shall be referred to collectively as "Small Solar System Bodies".
At first glance it looks like a reasonable attempt at solving the (non-?)problem but I can't help but think it's got some problems of its own.

Rather than go into details I'd suggest a read of the Bad Astronomer's take on it as he seems to cover all of the concerns I had when I first read it.

The other thing I'm thinking is: isn't it just a little overly concerned with the solar system? Yes, yes, I know, it's the only system we've got to hand that we can study in any real detail but wouldn't it make sense, if you're going to come up with a definition, to have one that we can use everywhere?

File Under: IAU, Pluto, Definition of a Planet.


Blogging Pluto

Yet another cloudy night, yet another night of not getting out and observing. So, while messing about on my computer, I happen to wander over to Google's blog search facility and see what's been said about Pluto at the moment. It's actually kind of fascinating to see what random people, often not involved in astronomy, have to say.

Some people seem to be annoyed that the discussion is even taking place at all, Shining City Atop a Hill has this to say:

Another question... why are we wasting resources on this discussion? In the end who really cares right?
It makes me wonder if the author thinks pretty much all of astronomy, hell, all forms of classification, are a waste of resources. And, of course, the final question is slightly ironic given that you've probably got to care a little to even write about it.

Over on this blog the author seems to ask a similar question, but in a slightly more forceful way:
F**k You. We're paying all these brilliant scientists gobs and gobs of cash to f**k around and decide whether something is important enough to be called "a planet"?
I'm guessing that's an example of someone who does care — with a passion.

Of course, if there's one thing worse than scientists wasting the vast sums of money they get paid, it's having mad scientists wasting vast sums of money:
For the next two weeks a group of mad scientists will be meeting in Prague. Their goal: to define just exactly what constitutes the legal definition of a planet. Like a denizen of congressional staffers, cloistered away deep within the bowels of the capitol building, these mad scientists may well legislate poor Pluto out of existence!
I can see it now, all those astronomers sat around, each stroking a long-haired cat, plotting the slow and overly-complex demise of poor Pluto. Does anyone have the phone number for Mike Myers? Imagine him playing the part of almost 3,000 evil astronomers!

An Astronomer — Earlier Today

That said, in the same blog, we then find the suggestion that the whole Pluto debate is actually an anti-US political stunt:
The spectre of international politics has raised its ugly head at the IAU convention. Pluto was originally discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh, an American. (Pluto is the only planet to be discovered by an American.) Current anti-American feelings among these snooty Euro scientists (because of the Iraq war, among other things), may play a role in Pluto's chances to remain a planet. I suppose if Pluto is demoted from planet to a mere Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) or "ice dwarf" -- it will George W. Bush's fault (of course!)
I have to admit that that's a new one on me.

Some people seem to be concerned about the idea of history being erased:
do we erase the past 75 years of Astronomy teaching for the purpose of a technicality?
The same author goes on to wonder:
And if so, can we apply this to other sciences?
almost as if this sort of thing has never happened before in any science.

One thing that I did turn up was probably the most damning evidence against Pluto yet:
Apparently scientists have discovered a meteor that's even further from the sun than Pluto, and there's debate as to whether or not it can be considered to be the 10th planet of the solar system.
There's a meteor furhter from the Sun than Pluto? Well, there we go, what more needs to be said?

However, there is a very compelling argument in favour of Pluto retaining its current status and I found it on Sara Reinke's blog:
What makes me the most depressed about the Pluto debate, I guess, is that as things like that change, I feel really old. I can roll with the punches, learn new things, keep up with all the latest and greatest in science and technology, but that doesn't make it easy. I still watch "I Love the 80s" on VH-1 with a forlorn sort of fondness, yearning for those simpler times, the salad days when Miami Vice was a TV show, not a movie, and a Flock of Seagulls wasn't just something you'd find on the beach.
Put like that, and as a child of the 80s myself, I'm starting to wonder if my not really caring either way makes sense — might it be that it makes me a traitor to my generation?

But, thankfully, I've got the words of anneneil to drag my back to reality:
And I apologize to the nytimes and pluto for the above image.... it is actaully a solar eclipse but so much cooler than any picture I could find of pluto
I mean, really, who really wants non-photogenic planets?

But, wait a moment, then I see worrying news via Propaganda Pipeline:
Today the President for Life of Pluto and all its outlying provinces condemned recent Earthling scientific claims that Pluto is not truly a planet.

"For too long, you arrogant Earthlings have tried to dictate what constitutes a planet. No Earthman can tell we Plutonians whether our rock is a planet or not," President Glik stated in his speech. "Do we tell you how to run things on Earth? No. But perhaps it is time we should."
And just when I thought I'd finally made up my mind...

Finally taking my tongue out of my cheek, I think the last quote really should go to Dr Jim:
Science is about revision and correction, irrespective of people’s beliefs and historical relevance. Yes Pluto was a great discovery, with a great story. Yes it captured the public imagination with its tightly held secrets and unimaginable distance from the sun; but unless we intend on turning planetary science into a new religion, it needs to be treated according to the science, and a few old, stubborn scientists need a slap in the face and told to wake up.
No matter how you feel about the debate I'm guessing that those are words that anyone interested in astronomy, at any level, can agree with. Except... is the "retain the status" crowd really mostly populated with "a few old, stubborn scientists"?

File Under: Pluto, IAU.

I should complain more often

Having a moan obviously works — just a little earlier I managed to get out and view AA904 using the Solarscope.

Very impressive. So impressive that I dashed back into the office to get a pencil and some paper so I could sketch it and..... yes, of course, the brief gap in the clouds moved on and I've not seen the Sun since. Shame really, it's been quite a while since I last did a close-up sketch of a sunspot and 904 is a good candidate for working on those skills.

File Under: Sun, Solar Observing, Sunspot 904, Active Area 904.

No chance to observe active area 904 today

Despite yesterday's optimism I've not had a chance to observe active area 904 today. The sunny spells that were forecast yesterday haven't happened — it's been overcast all day.

It's sort of frustrating given that July was a great month for clear days but had pretty low activity and this month has got off to a pretty bad start in terms of weather but we've got one of the best displays for a while.

File Under: Sun, Solar Observing, Sunspot 904, Active Area 904.

Okay, perhaps not that topic after all

Yesterday, while posting a link to the IAU blog, I said that it would be:

Worth reading to keep an eye out for that popular topic, but also worth reading anyway.
In a post on the blog today I see:
Seed magazine links here, but predicts that you will be able to find out if Pluto is a planet here. No, you won't! I think this is an incredibly unimportant topic, it's not what this meeting is about and I will not mention it at all. Well, not any more, that is.
While I can appreciate that it's a relatively unimportant topic I am left wondering what the actual motivation behind that decision is.

Am I, for example, really so wrong for being interested in that subject as well as the other posts that are being made?

Is it really so terrible that one particular subject has caught popular attention?

I'm finding it hard not to view that sort of attitude as a bit of a swipe at those of us who try and popularise an interest in astronomy at the vaguely-interested and amateur level. Can anyone out there explain to me why I shouldn't view it that way?

File Under: IAU, Pluto, Popular Astronomy.


The IAU General Assembly 2006 Blog

In case you've not seen it yet, there's a weblog from the IAU 2006 General Assembly. Worth reading to keep an eye out for that popular topic, but also worth reading anyway.

File Under: IAU.

Active area 904

Despite having a moan this morning I actually managed a very brief look at active area 904 late on this afternoon. Sadly conditions were such that there was no point in getting the Solarscope out to have a look but I did manage to see one of the spots associated with the area with the naked eye (via eclipse shades, obviously).

The forecast for tomorrow is now suggesting that we might have some sunny spells here so there's a chance I might actually get a better look. After that the outlook doesn't appear to be too good for the rest of the week.

File Under: Sun, Solar Observing, Sunspots, Active Area 904.

Some people have all the fun

Typical! We get the first really large sunspot for quite some time and what happens here? Cloud, rain, cloud, rain, more cloud, some more cloud and even more cloud.

The forecast for today seems to be wall-to-wall cloud.

At least Ian and Peter seem to be having some fun.

File Under: Solar Observing, Sun, Sunspots.


Apollo tapes missing?

According to the Sydney Morning Herald the original tapes of many of the Apollo missions have gone missing:

THE heart-stopping moments when Neil Armstrong took his first tentative steps onto another world are defining images of the 20th century: grainy, fuzzy, unforgettable.

But just 37 years after Apollo 11, it is feared the magnetic tapes that recorded the first moon walk - beamed to the world via three tracking stations, including Parkes's famous "Dish" - have gone missing at NASA's Goddard Space Centre in Maryland.

A desperate search has begun amid concerns the tapes will disintegrate to dust before they can be found.
I can imagine that the "Moon hoax" kooks will make quite a bit of this.

File Under: Apollo, NASA, Moon, Moon Hoax.


Yet another timeline

Yes, yet another timeline. The idea for this one was prompted by a conversation I was having with Tim and I realised that, in my own logs, I've got all the sunspot/active area observing data that's needed to get a nice overview using a timeline display.

Without too much effort I had an active area timeline up and running.

File Under: Sun, Sunspots, Active Areas, Timeline, Simile.


Another timeline

After my first play with Timeline I started thinking that it could be a useful tool for displaying upcoming events in astronomy — especially events that can be observed. As a member of the Society for Popular Astronomy I thought it might be just the sort of thing they'd find useful for their website.

A couple of weeks back I had a chat with Jeff (the SPA's webmaster) and then approached the heads of the observing sections to see who had data that could be used (and which made sense on a timeline). Everyone seemed to think it was a good idea and I received plenty of data. So, after a bit of coding, I finally got a working SPA observing calendar up and running.

Hopefully this will be of some use to amateur astronomers, especially those in the UK (apologies to non-UK readers).

Thanks go to Jeff, the heads of the observing sections at the SPA and also to SIMILE for making timeline generally available.

File Under: Calendar, Society for Popular Astronomy, Timeline, Simile.


Mars as big as the Moon, redux, redux.

According to an article on SpaceWeather today:

Just when you thought it was safe to read your email, a new Mars Hoax is spreading. The widely circulated message claims "the Red Planet is about to be spectacular. On August 27th, Mars will look as large as the full Moon." Fact: On August 27, 2006, Mars will be on the other side of the solar system, 385 million km from Earth and very dim.
Please, no, not again!

Although, that said, I do wish people would stop calling it a "hoax". It's not really a hoax, it's out-of-date, it over-hypes (and in some versions misrepresents) an event that did actually happen, it's stupid and it misinforms people — but I can't help but think that it doesn't make sense to call it a hoax.

Unless, that is, someone has evidence that whoever sent it out first this time actually intended to deceive people?

Thanks to Tim for the heads-up about the story on SpaceWeather.

File Under: Mars, SpaceWeather.


The Hedgehog

A little earlier this evening I headed out with the 905 to have a quick session observing Jupiter. Towards the end of the session I kept hearing something wandering about on the lawn. This isn't unusual, my cat often joins me and, when he's not rubbing up against the legs of the tripod, he's bouncing around the garden making all sorts of noises.

But this noise was different.

I had a look around and, finally, saw an odd shape that didn't look quite right — some sort of bump on the lawn. Finally, I turned on a light and this is what I found:

Apologies for the quality of the image but it was taken with my mobile phone.

Cute eh?

File Under: Hedgehog.


One for Stuart

If Stuart found We Like The Moon a little weird I wonder what he'll make of this:


File Under: Moon, Video, Weird, Bizarre.


Log timeline

Kaustav recently introduced me to Timeline — a facility that does for timelines what Google Maps does for geographical data.

At first I thought it was a neat curiosity but I soon realised that it could be used to give another view into my observing logs. After some playing around with the timeline API (some of the documentation is lacking so a bit of code-reading was required), and after writing an XSL file for use with Sablotron that took my log source files and produced a timeline XML data file, I finally had a working timeline view of my logs.

I probably still need to do some work — I think the look and layout could be improved a little — but so far I'm pleased with the result and I'm impressed with how simple it was to get up and running.

I'm also thinking about adding some extra bits to the page: having controls that let you easily jump to the first or last observation might be handy, also having some sort of "bookmark" system for significant observations might be useful too.

File Under: Timeline, Astronomy, Observing Logs, JavaScript, Sablotron.


Lunar mystery

Do you like a mystery? Do you like the Moon? If so, you might appreciate this thread on the SPA BB.

And how nice is that sketch?

File Under: Copernicus, Lunar Crater, Society for Popular Astronomy.


It was 98 years ago today...

Happy Tunguska event day.

File Under: Tunguska.


And then there were three...

It seems that accidental observations of Jovian events is something I'm prone to at the moment. Just a couple of weeks ago I "accidentally" observed a shadow transit and then, last night, I managed to "accidentally" observe the start of a transit by Europa.

Makes me wonder what I could get done if I was organised and prepared... ;-)

File Under: Jupiter, Transit, Europa.


Solar Checking

A couple of days back I got round to acting on my search for data that can be used to see how well I'm doing with my sunspot counts.

The Solar Influences Data Analysis Center (part of the Royal Observatory of Belgium) have a sunspot data download page with all sorts of handy things available. I've now set up a system that lets me grab daily sunspot data for any given month, as it becomes available. I've also modified the code that displays my counts on my site so that the SIDC data is displayed side-by-side with my counts so I can compare the numbers.

You can see an example of this in the figures for May. There are differences, in some cases rather large differences (I expected this), but I was also heartened to see that the general trend in my counts seems to follow the "official" numbers.

File Under: Sun, Sunspots, Solar Observing, Solar Influences Data Analysis Center, Royal Observatory of Belgium.