Member of a UK Astronomy Society?

Are you a member of a UK astronomical society? Are you interested in helping promote it a little more? If so, this post on the SPA BB might be of interest to you:

As part of IYA 2009, I have volunteered to put together a Google map of astro societies in the UK (I hope it hasn't already been done but I don't think so)

Quite a few societies are members of Fedastro, but I assume there are some that are not.

The sort of info I need is where they meet (venue with postcode is possible), dates of regular meetings, website, contact name and email address etc.
Sounds like an excellent idea to me.


Interactive Constellation

Recognise this constellation?

Probably not. Or perhaps it reminds you of one, but looks wrong? Chances are, if it does remind you of one, you might be thinking of Leo.

That's a screenshot of the rather nifty interactive map of Leo by Krystian Majewski. Using that application you can drag your point of view around and see how Leo would look from other points in space. Neat.

If you like that you might also like his interactive map of the nearest 32 stars.


Astroblast 2008 - Photographs

Despite some pretty awful weather my son and myself managed to make it down to Astroblast yesterday. The new venue (Bedford School) was tricky to find — we managed to end up at what appeared to be the back gate, all locked up with a view of some of the fun in the grounds, d'oh! — but overall it was a pretty straight run down.

Thankfully the rain didn't put too much of a downer on events and we had a fun time visiting the planetarium and especially the rocket building workshop put on by Out of this World Learning (if you ever get the chance to see them in action, do it, they made the whole thing loads of fun and my son really enjoyed himself — so did I come to think of it <g>).

Like with last year I took my camera and I have a small selection of photographs on my main website.


Death from the Skies

Finally! After some delay with Amazon.co.uk, it's here!

Death from the Skies


Finally! Some Solar Action! (Redux)

Back in May this year I noted that the Sun appeared to have gone quiet again, as of 2008-05-08 I'd not observed a sunspot since 2008-03-31. At that time the quiet period hadn't been quite as long as the one I'd observed towards the end of last year but it turned out to be a very long run of a blank Sun (as seen on the days I observed and with my equipment).

Finally, today, I had my first view of a sunspot since the end of March this year. New active area 1005 had two small spots visible.

It's quite nice to see a little blip on my sunspot graphs. They were starting to look a little boring. ;-)


Astroblast 2008

Yesterday I was reminded that next month is Astroblast 2008. This year, rather than being held at the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, it is being held at Bedford School.

Having attended in 2006 and 2007 I'm hoping I can make it along again. The past two years have been very enjoyable events.


Large Hadron Collider Up and Running

Well, that's it, the Large Hadron Collider is up and running. They've had two beams go all the way round (one clockwise, one anticlockwise). Thanks to the webcast I've been able to follow it pretty much all day (twittering as I went).

It's been absolutely fascinating. Like I said over here, I wasn't old enough to remember it (or, indeed, at the exact time, wasn't even anywhere that had a TV) but I imagine this is what watching the Moon landings must have felt like.

Although, of course, no actual collisions have happened today (and won't happen today) so I guess the "main event" hasn't really happened yet. As such, perhaps today was what watching Apollo 10 felt like?

No matter, I think this is one of those "I remember where I was/what I was doing" days.


AVM Microformat Generator for GNU emacs

Now that Stuart has blogged about the AVM microformat generator I thought it time to upload a little hack I did for GNU emacs when he first pointed me at the generation tool he'd written.

The tool is called avmmf.el (download it here) and it adds a command to GNU emacs (avmmf-insert) which prompts you for an object, talks to the AVMMF generator, gets the resulting code and pastes it into the current buffer. I'm thinking it might be handy if you're writing some (X)HTML by hand.


Partial Lunar Eclipse Live Webcast

Via this post on the SPA BB:

Webcast live from Peter Grego at St Dennis, Cornwall

I will be producing a live webcast of the partial lunar eclipse on the evening of 16 August on my website www.lunarobservers.com. The webcast takes place from 19:30 to 22:45 UT (8:30 to 11:45 pm BST). Images are updated every 20 seconds when live (640x480 resolution). The umbral phase of the eclipse lasts from 8:36 until 11:44 pm BST. If the event is clouded out a real-time computer simulation of the eclipse will be broadcast.
More details over here.


Comet Perseid

No, really, that's not a typo. Keep an eye out for Comet Perseid.


Seen via a post on the SPA BB.


Building a Portal to the Universe

Do you have one or more RSS feeds whose content is related to astronomy? If so Dr Pamela Gay would like to hear from you.

And, just as important:

If you are a content provider, can you please put out a request on your feeds, your Facebook, and your twitter, to help me find the hidden content providers – the grad students telling their stories of the stars and the research scientists silently slaving over their blogs – so that I can help get their voices heard in the Portal to the Universe.
So, if you're reading this, and you've got a way of shouting about this.... do so. Go do it now.

50th Anniversary of NASA

Via this tweet by Will Gater: 50th Anniversary of NASA.

The music is good enough (I'm finding that I'm tending towards the 1970s, which is kind of funny given that I turned 12 in 1979 — Pink Floyd and Neil Young just work <g>) but the thing really worth watching is the Ares I animation you get when you click on the Ares rocket in the 2000s.

Go play with it. It's fun.


Today's Eclipse: A Short Photo Diary

Just to add a little to my log of today's eclipse, a short photo diary of the session:

The session didn't start out too well, the Solarscope went flying in the wind so I had to come up with a method of making it heavier. I knew all those old power supplies would come in handy one day:

A Quick Fix

With the flying 'scope problem pretty much solved, the main event got under way:
Partial Solar Eclipse #1
Partial Solar Eclipse #2
Partial Solar Eclipse #3

However, the wind picked up, so more weight was needed. This is why you should never throw away that old laptop battery:
A Further Quick Fix

Soon, it got cloudy. Time to photograph my amazing solar observatory then:
My Solar Observatory

Of course, because we were getting close to mid-eclipse, it wasn't a case of the whole sky being cloudy. Oh no. Towards the Sun it looked like this:
Towards the Sun

Whereas behind me:
Away from the Sun

However, around mid-eclipse, things did clear up:
Partial Solar Eclipse #4
Partial Solar Eclipse #5

So it wasn't a total loss. :-)

Eclipse Observing Log

I've now uploaded my observing log from today's eclipse. There's a handful of photographs in there too. Nothing too special, just captures of the view as seen via the Solarscope.

I'll probably get around to uploading some more elsewhere at some point. I'll post here when I do.

The eclipse is over for me

Well, that's it for me. The earlier fair weather turned increasingly cloudy and, at around 10:50 BST, I was pretty much clouded out.

I had a reasonable run though. Managed to see the very start of the eclipse and got a good, albeit short, view around mid-eclipse. You can see the updates I made over on Twitter and Plurk (the latter being a new one to me but I thought I'd give it a go to see what it's like).

I'll try and type up my log later on. I've also got a bunch of photographs which I took on my Canon PowerShot G9. Once I've downloaded them and processed them they'll appear in the photography section of my main site and also over on my Flickr stream.

Looking good so far...

With about ½ hour to go to the start of the partial solar eclipse I've got mostly clear skies with just a few little fluffy clouds floating about.

Fingers crossed things go better than back in March 2006.

I'll try and make frequent updates over on Twitter.


If You're in London on Friday 1st August...

If you're in London tomorrow, and have some free time in the morning, this might interest you:

The society have got permission to take a few telescopes along to Hyde Park in London, near Speakers' Corner, to view the partial eclipse on Friday morning, which is between 9.32 and 11.03 am BST, with mid eclipse at 10.16. The Sun will be about 20% covered (see separate thread for what this means).

Any members who care to join us will be very welcome, though we only have permission for a few small telescopes so we don't need any more. It is possible that the media will be there as well as we are sending out a press release.


Any Canon EOS 400D/Digital Rebel XTi Owners Out There?

Anyone out there own a Canon EOS 400D (AKA Digital Rebel XTi, AKA EOS Kiss Digital X) and have access to any of the following cities: Abu Dhabi, Athens, Baghdad, Beijing, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Cairo, Copenhagen, London, Moscow, New Delhi, New York, Paris, Rome, Singapore, Sydney, Tokyo. Washington D.C., Wellington (NZ)?

If so, this thread on the SPA BB might be of interest to you.


X-Files Plot

Happy X-Files plot day everyone. ;-)


Nodding Prof

Via this tweet

Now I want a Prof Brian Cox nodding doll for the back window of my car. :-D

FAS Convention 2008

This post has just turned up on the SPA BB.

The UK's Federation of Astronomical Societies will be holding its 2008 convention on September 20th 2008 at the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge.


Mars Pheonix on Twitter

Via Stuart (of Astronomy Blog) who got it via Will Gater and Orbiting Frog: the Phoenix Mars Lander is on Twitter.

That's pretty cool.

And it takes me back almost 11 years. Back on 23rd June 1997 I subscribed to the Majordomo mailing list for Mars Global Surveyor. It was a great service, with emails coming every so often with reports of what was happening and the status of the spacecraft. The last report I received was on 9th April 1999:

Mars Global Surveyor initiated normal mapping operations on Sunday, April 4. The spacecraft is now in the nadir pointed configuration with the High Gain Antenna tracking the Earth. The spacecraft and instruments have been operating nominally, but the combination of a sequence error and DSN tracking problems have caused several small gaps in the returned data. As of Friday, April 9, these problems appear to have been completely resolved and all acquired data is being successfully returned.
I'm not sure if that was the last email ever sent out, or if I unsubscribed after that.

It's kind of interesting to note what's changed in that time. Back then it was done via email, so it was sort of slow and was always "in the past" (for significant values of "in the past"). These days it's happening via twitter so, thanks to my constantly open Psi window that is connected to Twitter, I can see things as they happen (well, as they're written about and sent out).

Add to that the fact that, these days, I can know what the Lovell telescope is up to at any point in time (not forgetting that that's true for all the other Jodrell Bank 'scopes) and it's pretty clear that getting information about what's happening in astronomy and space exploration is easier than ever.

To all those people who work hard to make it happen: thanks.


World Wide Telescope: Reflection?

I've been noticing a few "mystery objects" while browsing around with WorldWide Telescope, most look like they're aircraft trails and similar things. The most unusual (well, the most attention-grabbing, for me) seems to be a bunch of these:

I'm guessing it's some sort of "reflection" within the telescope?

WorldWide Telescope: A Mandelbrot Set?

Look what I just found in WorldWide Telescope's planet browser:

Some sort of easter egg, or an example of how you can extend the application and use it for other things?

WorldWide Telescope: The first 5 mins

I've now got WorldWide Telescope installed. The download and install was fast and painless and I was up and running in no time.

My initial impression? Wow! It's nice. Very nice. Very, very nice. It's easy to navigate, things feel like they're set out in a pretty logical way. Things like the little tray of "bookmarks" along the bottom of the window, which change as you move around the sky, are a very nice touch. I also like that you've got the ability to view different planets in a Google-Earth-a-like way.

The only complaint I have at the moment is that some of the images seem slow to download (on my setup anyway) and, while this is happening, it isn't always obvious that something is going on so you're left wondering if it's working or if it's died.

Back to some more playing... (and perhaps looking into how hackable it is too)

WorldWide Telescope

Oh, hello! It looks like Microsoft's WorldWide Telescope is available for download. I guess I need to go play at some point real soon...


Quiet Sun Again?

This evening I've been catching up with my observing logs. Recently all I've been managing to do in terms of observing is sunspot counts and I've got a nasty habit when I do them. Given that I do the counts during the day (dur!) I tend to pop into the garden with the solarscope, do a quick count (or not so quick if things look interesting — I'll even photograph the sunspots if I think it'll be interesting enough), and then pop back into the office and write the key details on a scrap of paper and place it under my monitor.

The problem with this is I tend to let them pile up. Eventually I crack and write them up in my observing logbook and then type up the XML log file that gets turned into the online log.

This really is one nasty habit I should break.

The thing that I did notice when sorting out these latest logs this evening is that I've not seen a sunspot since 2008-03-31 (the last one seen and recorded being part of active area 988). While this isn't quite so long a time as late last year it does seem rather quiet again, at least in terms of the days I've been able to observe and what I can see with my modest equipment.

It's all making my sunspot graphs look rather bare.


Jodrell Bank: The Song

Via Astronomy Blog, the Jodrell Bank song:

Save Astronomy



Save Astronomy: The Government Responds

I've just had an email to alert me to the fact that the government has responded to the physics funding petition.

And now I'm trying to make sense of it. At the moment I'm struggling.


Two Years of Sunspot Counts

A little earlier I was typing up some recent solar observation reports and I realised that it's now over two years since I started observing the sun as often as possible and keeping a log of sunspot counts.

The weather seems to have been against me lately. Over the past few months I've not managed to log many observations (see March this year for example: only 6 counts recorded) and that's kind of frustrating.

Still, the graphs of solar activity seem to be coming along nicely. Even though there's a fair bit of data missing due to days when I couldn't observe there does seem to be a general hint of the recent solar minimum.




Given that he seems to have appeared in an xkcd strip the other day, and given that he's obviously part of the team who are going to destroy the Earth, this kind of had to be done... ;-)

And, yes, really, that's Professor Brian Cox to you.


Sometime in the very near future...

Dr Brian Cox #3xkcd tells it like it will be. ;-)

And, is it just me, or is the one with the black hair Dr Brian Cox?


Another Lubitel Star Trail

Further to my last attempt at some star trails with my Lomo Lubitel 166B I've now received a scan of the developed film of one I did I did during a session on 2008-02-09.

This time I was using Ilford HP5+ 400. Conditions were less than ideal, the sky was rather hazy for the whole observing session and everything got rather damp pretty quickly (hence the reason there's only one trail for the whole session). However, despite all of this, it's turned out better than I thought it would.

Thanks once again go to Tim Haynes for processing and scanning the film.


Google Sky Map is Here

Yay! Finally! Google Sky Map is here!

I've had a quick 5min play and so far so good.

I really must pull my finger out and go and have a play with the API and see how I could possibly use it on my own site.

Edit: There's a Google blog entry discussing the history of the project and, of course, a YouTube video:


Jodrell Bank: Future Funding

Save AstronomyThe Jodrell Bank website now has a handy page that outlines the problems that could be caused by any cuts in funding. Head over there and bookmark it, it might be useful to refer back to at some point.


Jodrell Bank: Petitions

Via Stuart's twitter:

[10:40:26] astronomyblog: Just found a Downing Street petition to save @jodrellbank http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/jodrellfunding/
[10:40:57] astronomyblog: There appear to be two petitions http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/RadioAstronomy/


Jodrell Bank: Article on the BBC website

The BBC are now carrying an article about the possible threat to Jodrell Bank.

Jodrell Bank: Article on The Guardian website

More news about worries over Jodrell Bank, this time from The Guardian.

Choice quote:

"If Merlin does not run, Jodrell Bank does not exist"

Jodrell Bank: Official Response

Via this tweet on Jodrell Bank's twitter: an official response the STFC Programmatic Review.

Jodrell Bank is faced with closure?

Even more bad news under the save astronomy banner: The Times is running a story today suggesting that the famous telescope at Jodrell Bank faces closure.

I'd gathered from the list of possible cuts on the Save Astronomy website that Merlin was under threat but I hadn't even considered the idea that this might mean that the Lovell Telescope itself would be under threat.

This whole STFC nonsense was depressing to start with, it's almost impossible for me to find the right word to describe my mood now.

Is this it? Has this country given up on physics and astronomy? Has this government now decided that it's really not worth the time or money? I disagree. I'd try and say why I disagree but there's little point when Nigel Hawkes at The Times has done a far better job:

Do any of these discoveries matter? To most people their significance is as remote as the objects they describe. But astronomy is not meant to be useful. It is not a science designed to give us new products or better devices, but to help us to place ourselves in space and time. The understanding of the cosmos begun by the Greek astronomers and carried on by Kepler and Newton has fallen in this generation to astronomers who use radio and X-rays and satellites to deepen our knowledge.
As a parent I can't help but wonder what the trickle-down effect of all of this is. If this carries on it has to have a negative effect on the understanding and teaching of science in our schools. If we, as a country, fail to encourage and support physicists and astronomers who will be around to do the outreach? Who will be around to inspire parents and children alike? Is my son facing a future where only the mundane is taught, where only those things that help him become a good little worker and consumer matter? Will I be left with more of what I experienced yesterday when the main thing he could tell me about his day at school was that he'd been taught a first century zombie story, complete with all the gory details, as if it were fact and as if it were important?

I worry for people like Stuart and Megan. These two (to pick two examples who are associated with Jodrell Bank) people have, one way or another, been an inspiration and have provided lots of encouragement to me personally, even if they didn't know they were doing it. Just the simple fact of knowing that professionals were reading my silly little blog, and were evening linking to it, gave me more confidence to natter on about my small interest in the subject. That in turn encouraged me to try and get more involved in promoting a popular interest in astronomy (to the point that I help out where and when I can with the Society for Popular Astronomy).

I can only see one positive in this news of possible closure. Us Brits like our icons. You don't mess with our icons. You get rid of a British icon at your peril. Jodrell Bank is one such icon. I can only hope that any suggestion of closing Jodrell Bank is akin to a suggestion that funding should stop for the Red Arrows.

Please, somebody tell me this isn't happening. Please, somebody tell me I don't really live in such a short-sighted country.



The Flash Planetarium Project

Via this thread on the SPA's BB, a new online planetarium written in Flash. To quote the opening page:

The Flash Planetarium Project aims to produce the best online planetarium available, allowing you to view the night sky from anywhere in the world from within your browser (no telescope required!)

If you've a passing interest in Astronomy or you're are an enthusiastic amateur astronomer or science buff, then we're sure that you'll find this site interesting and above all, fun!
Pop over and take a look. It's still in the early days of development and Andy is looking for feedback.


UK Earthquake

Okay, not exactly astronomy, not really astronomy at all to be honest, but.... it was pretty cool anyway.

I was woken up by an earthquake last night, quite a strong one by UK standards. I've written more about it over on my general weblog.


Next week's lunar eclipse

I'm not sure if I'll get to observe next week's total lunar eclipse (assuming the weather will be fine) due to the fact that a) it's during the working week and b) all the fun stuff happens at silly hours. Which is sort of annoying given just how enjoyable the last one was (even if I did manage to destroy a pair of glasses).

However, if anyone is thinking of staying up for it, you might find this article by the Society for Popular Astronomy useful as it as all the information you'll need. This includes details of the planned LunarObservers.com live webcast.

The Drake Equation

You've got to love xkcd:



Lubitel Star Trails

Last week I managed to finish off the film in my Lomo Lubitel 166B which contained some star trails I did during an observing session on 2008-01-05. After some developing and scanning by a friend (thanks Tim!) I finally got to see the results.

And they're not too bad either:

Obviously those thumbnails don't do them justice so click on the images or visit the whole set to see the large versions.


Astronomy Blogs Timeline

This is cool (he says, catching up with something a few days old):

Stuart, over at Astronomy Blog, has use SIMILE's timeline code to produce a timeline of astronomy blogs


Shooting the Moon

Just recently I purchased a second lens (a Tamron AF 55-200mm f4.5-5.6 Di II LD) for my Canon EOS 400D. It wasn't until yesterday that I managed to give it a proper test.

Just before bedtime I noticed it was clear and that the Moon was pretty high so I thought it would be interesting to see how large it appears when captured with the new lens attached (previous efforts amply demonstrated that — no surprises here — the Moon doesn't appear very large at 55mm). So I wandered outside, set the lens to 200m and ran off some shots hand-held.

The result isn't actually that bad. If I'm in a position to observe the lunar eclipse next month (during the week, during the early hours of the morning, typical!) it might be worth trying to get a few shots.

Of course, now, I'm wishing for a 300mm lens. ;-)


Floodlighting Petition Response

I just received an email from the UK government's ePetition system to say that there has been a response to the floodlighting petition that I mentioned back in November 2006 (wow, really that long ago?).

You can see the response over here.


Dr Brian Cox

Being a member of The Society for Popular Astronomy, and being interested in photography, it's no surprise that when I attend an SPA event I take a camera with me. I tend to publish many of the images and I've also got an agreement with the editor of Popular Astronomy (the magazine published by the SPA) which lets him use any of the images in the magazine if he thinks they're useful.

The nice thing about this is that I generally don't know which he'll use, if any, so when the magazine turns up it's always a nice surprise to find an image or two in there.

At the last SPA meeting, in October last year, we had Dr Brian Cox giving the main talk (and a cracking talk it was too). I took a handful of photographs, my favourite being this:

Dr Brian Cox #3

So you can imagine how chuffed I was when I sat down last night to read the latest edition of the magazine and found this:

Dr Brian Cox (Published)

Insert smiley face here.

Also, don't forget, the next meeting of the SPA is a week on Saturday.


Comet Holmes Still Naked Eye Object?

Last Saturday I managed to get out for my first "proper" observing session in a while. I had a pretty good night and managed to get views of Mars, M42, Saturn and M81 and M81.

But that wasn't the best part. The best part was the bit when I spotted something odd near Algol:

While stood looking at the Double Cluster with the naked eye I spotted something close by, near Algol, that appeared to be about the same size and of a similar brightness to it. Initially I was confused about what it was. I quickly grabbed my monocular and had a look and could see that it was a faint but noticeable misty patch. Given that I wasn't aware of any object in that location, and given that I couldn't find any such thing on my charts (not that I expected to — I'd have known about such an object if it were a "fixed" item in the sky), I suspected that it was comet Holmes.
Further visual checks at the time and checks with online charts for Holmes suggest that I really was seeing the comet.

This genuinely surprised me. It's been a while since I last observed it and I'd assumed that it wouldn't be visible to the naked eye any more, that it might even have faded beyond a point where I'd be able to observe it with any of my equipment.

Anyone else out there still seeing it this way?

Also, totally aside from the above, I also decided to try something a little different (for me) in terms of astrophotography (not that I do much astrophotography). I took along my Lomo Lubitel 166B, loaded with Ilford FP+ 125, and during the observing session had it pointing at various parts of the sky for around ½ hour at a time. I've no idea what, if anything, I'm going to get out of it, but I needed to use up some frames on the film and the chance to do some astrophotography with a TLR, on black and white medium-format form, was too good to pass up.

Heck, if it turns out reasonably well I might give it a go with colour next time. Might even mount the 166B on the back of the 130M and use its drive to go for some non-trailed shots.