The ISS from Manchester

Tonight I decided to test out the video camera on my new phone by trying to catch the International Space Station as it passed over when I was leaving the office. I only managed to get a few seconds (linked below) – I was too busy waving to the ISS when I first saw it and then it passed behind a building.

Tested out the camera on my new phone and took this video of ... on Twitpic

I think it came out OK. There are some very bright passes over the next few nights so I’ll certainly try to get a better video (providing the clouds play nice and stay away). If you want to find out when the next visible ISS pass is for your location, check out Heavens Above or sign up for twitter notifications via Twisst.


The Astronomers who cried Earth!

Since the first discoveries of planets outside of our own Solar System in the early 1990s, the quest has been on to find a “second Earth”. The number of candidate extrasolar planets detected has rocketed in recent years, thanks to dedicated missions and telescopes, such as WASP on the ground and Kepler in space. Today the number of exoplanet candidate detections stands at over 700, all found within my (25 year) lifetime.

This is obviously an exciting field in astronomy, both for the scientists actively working to discover and understand these exoplanets and for the public who, in a way, are seeing science fiction become reality (for some reason the quest for Earth in new Battlestar Galactica always comes to mind!). However, I do feel that some of the press releases (and subsequent news stories) that accompany these discoveries are clutching at straws slightly.

There seem to be two categories of extrasolar planets that the media love. One is the “Earth-like” planets. These are planets that astronomers believe to some characteristic that is similar to the Earth. It usually means that they are similar in size (i.e. radius) or mass. However, this can be deceiving. For example, the planet could be orbiting a pulsar or it could have a surface temperature of -200 degrees celsius! Earth-like doesn’t necessarily mean that we could live there. The second category of planets that get the media excited is the habitable, or Goldilocks, zone planets. A planet in the habitable zone is basically orbiting its star at the right distance for liquid water to exist on the surface. However, there’s nothing to say that these planets have to be rocky like the Earth, and gas planets have been found in habitable zones around stars. Of course, this is still interesting, especially if they have rocky moons (like Saturn’s moon Titan), but again, it’s something to bear in mind.

The first press release I could find claiming the discovery of an Earth-like planet was from ESO in April 2007. This press release announced the discovery of Gliese 581c and was titled “Astronomers Find First Earth-like Planet in Habitable Zone”.Gliese 581c is (unsurprisingly) orbiting around the star Gliese 581, a red dwarf star about 20 lightyears away from us. Because its host star doesn’t output as much energy as the Sun, Gliese 581c is much closer to its star than Earth is to the Sun and only takes about 13 days to complete an orbit. In case you were confused how this might affect the view on Gliese 581c, the Daily Mail helpfully included a cartoon in their report!

The planetary system around Gliese 581 has actually made headlines 3 times for claims of habitable zone planets. Following the discovery of Gliese 581c, in 2010 the discovery of the planet Gliese 581g was reported as “NASA and NSF-Funded Research Finds First Potentially Habitable Exoplanet”. Note the use of language, it’s the first “potentially habitable” planet because by this time, doubts had been cast on the ability of Gliese 581c to support life. However, interestingly, one of the astronomers involved with the study was quoted as saying that it was the first planet in the system to be found in the habitable zone. Since then, further analysis of the data indicates that this planet might not actually exist. Then, earlier this year, there were claims that Gliese 581d could be the “first definitively habitable planet outside our Solar System”. Three planets around the same star, all of which have been claimed to be the first habitable exoplanet. Is anyone else confused?

Then this month there have been two more announcements of Earth-like/habitable planets, both from the Kepler mission. Kepler-22b was annouced as a “Super-Earth in the habitable zone of a Sun-like Star”. This led to the planet being dubbed Earth 2.0, Matt Burleigh has already covered what’s wrong with this. Yesterday there was a press release from NASA stating that “NASA Discovers First Earth-size Planets Beyond Our Solar System”. Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f are similar in size to the Earth but are way too close to their star to host life. So not really like Earth at all.

There have been so many “Earth-like” and habitable zone planets claimed recently that, as my officemate put it this morning, some of us are getting Earth-fatigue. I’m not sure who to blame for this. I would imagine that it’s the respective press offices of the universities or organisations trying to put a spin on the discoveries, and not the astronomers themselves. I guess it is important for us as scientists to let the public know what we are doing, after all they do fund (a lot of) us. Unfortunately this often requires a hook so you’d better hope that what you’ve found/are studying looks like food or is a giant gemstone in space. I just hope that when we do find a planet that is similar to Earth in size, mass, composition, atmosphere and is in the habitable zone, i.e. a true Earth 2.0 that we could live on (provided we could get there!), the public isn’t so sick of us crying wolf that they just don’t care.

And don’t even get me started on the “Tatooine-like” planet…

Lego + astronomy = awesome!

I love Lego. As a child my most prized possession was an electric Lego train set. These days I have a Lego Space Shuttle complete with mini Hubble Space Telescope sitting on my desk. However yesterday I was put to shame when the NRAO tweeted a link to the video below. This video shows a working Lego model of a VLA dish and transporter and is quite possibly the coolest Lego I have seen ever.

I thought Lego couldn’t get any better. I was wrong. A guy called Alan Rifkin has made a working telescope (almost entirely) out of Lego. It’s made of over 1000 Lego pieces, only 5 of which were modified and the only non-Lego bits are the lens and the tripod. When I finish my PhD I think I might have to dig out my Lego and attempt some creative model building. A Lego Lovell telescope has already been suggested

Stars are out tonight…

Just over a week ago I took part in Bright Club: Stars at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London. The audio of my set was recorded but it wouldn’t really work without my slides so I’ve thrown a quick video together, using a photo taken by my friend Paul Woods for the bits where there were no slides. You can see it below, screw ups and all.

I have to say thank you to Steve Cross and everyone at Bright Club London for letting me pretend I was one of the UCL cool cats for the night. You should all check out my partners in crime (Lucie Green, Jason Dittmer, Sarah Dhanjal, Sheila Kanani, Nick Canty, Martin Austwick and James Kneale) who were all fantastic and didn’t make me feel like an imposter! The professional comedians were of course all brilliant, especially the marvelous Helen Keen of Spacetacular fame. Finally, I have to thank Amanda Bauer aka @astropixie
for first drawing my attention to the wonderful M87 radio image through her dirty space news blog post.

Road signs and rock songs

In August 2010 some of the Jodcast team embarked on a some-what crazy adventure to visit all seven telescopes in the e-MERLIN array in a day. Setting off from Manchester in the early hours of the morning, we drove down to Cambridge, along to Defford, up to Knockin, Darnhall, Pickmere and finished at Jodrell Bank way too late in the night! The journey took a lot longer than expected, mainly because we got extremely lost trying to find Defford (partly because the co-ordinates on wikipedia were wrong) and had to be rescued by an engineer who was visiting the site.

Two members of the University of Salford’s SEE TV joined us on the road trip and filmed the journey. The resulting video has finally been released on the Jodcast website or you can watch it on youtube below. I personally think that the video needs an extra chart documenting my highs and lows as I consume an unhealthy amount of red bull!

Astronomers on the Big Screen

When I did my first Bright Club talk at BCM4 in December 2010, I introduced myself as an astronomer and then showed a few examples of astronomers in movies to get a feel for what people might expect from me. This is a quick post that I’ve put together mainly so that I can easily find this information again! I should probably warn that this post may contains spoilers if you haven’t seen these films.

Paul Bradley (Meteor)

I watched the 1970s masterpiece that is Meteor following a “recommendation” by a Jodcast listener who said that Jodrell Bank fail to save the day and described Sean Connery’s character as a “brooding anti-war astrophysicist hero” or words to that effect. From what I remember, Dr Paul Bradley is brought in by the US government to save the day when they discover a huge meteor heading our way! I won’t go into all the things the film got wrong but basically Dr Bradley single-handedly unites the Americans and Russians so they can all aim their nukes at the meteor and blast it into oblivion! Oh, and he has an awesome moustache.

Ellie Arroway (Contact)

I have to confess that I am yet to watch Contact. However, I think I am entitled to judge! We do NOT sit around listening out for aliens on headphones when we use radio telescopes! Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense, nonsense, nonsense!

Update (10 October 2011) – I finally watched Contact. I just can’t get over the headphones!

Robert Capa (Sunshine)

I actually quite enjoyed Sunshine in the moments when I managed to forget that I knew any physics! Cillian Murphy plays Robert Capa, an (astro)physicist turned astronaut (apparently modelled on Professor Brian Cox) who is part of a team sent to chuck a massive bomb into the Sun to restart it. Now I’m not sure how many physicists get to become astronauts (I count one out of the 14 ESA astronauts) but I do like the idea that the physicist saves the day.

Jane Foster (Thor)

This is a new one since my Bright Club talk. In Thor, Natalie Portman plays Jane Foster who has morphed into an astrophysicist (in the comics Jane was a nurse). I’m sure she was meant to be a positive role model for girls and all that but all I remember is that she got into strops and fell in love with a Norse God. Not quite my life plan…

My Research #1: Galaxies and Black Holes

Galaxies come in all shapes and sizes. Some just look like blobs of stars; we call these elliptical galaxies. Others, including our own Milky Way, have a bright centre with arms of stars spiralling out; we call these spiral galaxies. There are also galaxies that don’t fit into either of these categories and these are known as irregular galaxies. Examples of galaxies are shown below in Hubble Space Telescope pictures (credit: ESA/Hubble).

Elliptical galaxy NGC 1132
Spiral galaxy M101
Irregular galaxy NGC 1427A

It is believed that all galaxies have a “supermassive black hole” (SMBH) at their centres. Supermassive means that these black holes have masses millions or billions of times that of the Sun. In most galaxies, like the Milky Way, this SMBH is pretty boring. The Milky Way’s SMBH is called Sagittarius A* and we can tell that it is there by looking at how stars move around in the very centre of the galaxy (there’s a cool animation of this on the Max-Planck-Institut für extraterrestrische Physik website) but apart from this, the SMBH doesn’t do much to announce that it exists. However, there are some galaxies that have centres that are really bright, too bright to be explained by adding up the light from all of the stars in the galaxy. These objects are called Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN) and it is thought that they are this way because the central SMBH is in a “active” stage, pulling surrounding material into it through gravity and spewing out loads of energy, not just as visible light that we can see, but all across the electromagnetic spectrum.

Hubble Space Telescope image of elliptical galaxy AGN M87 showing bright centre and jet of material extending to the left (credit: ESA/Hubble).

In my next blog post, I will go into the details of AGN – the different types, what we actually see and what we think they look like.

Confessions of an Astronomy Grad Student

It seems to be the done thing to blog about how you got into astronomy. A lot of astronomers/astrophysicists that I talk to have a wonderful and touching story about looking through a telescope when they were young and their world changing forever. Lecturers may have been inspired by watching the Moon landings as a child. My story is not quite as moving and I have some confessions to share with you…

Confession #1

This is the big one: I didn’t look at the night sky through a telescope until I was 23. Those of you reading this who know me will realise that this means I was in my second year of my PhD at this point. By this time I had used radio telescopes to take data and looked at hundreds of optical images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey but I didn’t put my eye to the eyepiece and look up until October 2009. I have memories of owning a really bad children’s toy telescope when I was young but all I can remember is that it was completely out of focus and I couldn’t see anything!

Confession #2

I didn’t really know about Jodrell Bank until I applied for University. In fact, I’m pretty sure I didn’t know about the observatory until I came to Manchester for my interview. The only reason I even applied for The University of Manchester in the first place was because I could put 6 choices down on my UCAS application and it seemed silly not to. Manchester was then the first good university on the UCAS list that did Astrophysics so it became my 6th choice. The fact that I knew some cool people who were in bands and lived in Manchester, of course, had nothing to do with it! Once I visited Manchester and found out about Jodrell Bank, it then became my first choice of university and the rest (as they apparently say) is history.

Confession #3

I didn’t decided that I actually wanted to study Physics (let alone Astrophysics) until I had to apply for university. When I was in school, I wanted to do everything (except Art and Biology). I definitely wanted to study volcanos at one point in my life. Then I decided that I wanted to go to Imperial so I could do either Chemistry or Physics but also apply for a scholarship to have flute lessons at the Royal College of Music. The flute dream died when I was too slack at practising to go for Grade 8 but the choice between Chemistry and Physics remained. I eventually chose Physics when I realised that organic Chemistry sucks and then picked Physics with Astrophysics because it sounds cool!

Of course, there are moments in my life that, looking back, placed me on the path that brought me here today. A visit to the Kennedy Space Centre aged 14 made me want to become an astronaut (I kind of still do). As NASA astronauts tend to either be military or postdoc researchers, I figured it would be easier to become a researcher than enter into a career where I would potentially have to kill someone. When we did work experience in school, I wanted to apply to the Royal Observatory Greenwich but was beaten to it by a friend (I ended up working at the local vets for 2 weeks and watched them neuter my dog). In college I gave a presentation on star formation and wrote an essay on evidence for and against the Big Bang. But it wasn’t until university that I realised that I wanted to spend my life working in astronomy.

My final confession is that I’m a bit nervous about posting this entry. I’m more than a little scared that people will realise that I’m a fraud and that I’ll be kicked out of astronomy! Seriously though, I think that it’s important for people to realise that not every professional astronomer/astrophysicist has always known they wanted to do this. It’s just that those people tend to be vocal about it and people like me hide away and hope they’re never found out. Also, I wrote this a couple of weeks ago but waited until I was out of the country to post it so that I could avoid any backlash!

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition

The Jodcast is a big part of my life right now. It’s a bimonthly audio astronomy podcast that we do here at the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics and I am currently in charge of it (insofar as anyone can be in charge of a collaborative project). I became involved in mid-April 2009 and one of the highlights for me was the April Fool episode last year (2010) where we recorded the episode pretending that it was 1990. At that point Stuart was still in charge and we had a lot of fun (and put in a lot of effort!) trying to figure out what the astronomical world was like 20 years in the past. The episode was, I think it’s safe to say, extremely well received but left me wondering how on Earth we would beat it this year.

Enter Liz Guzman and her team of Spanish-speaking Jodrell astronomers! Liz is a PhD student from Mexico who translates the Jodcast news into Spanish as and when she has time to do so. We’d been throwing around the idea of a full episode in Spanish for a while so the April Fool episode seemed to be the ideal opportunity to finally do it. Liz was fantastic and organised the entire thing, sending an email round Jodrell Bank in Spanish basically saying “if you understand this, we need you!” and then recording and editing nearly everything. The Spanish episode follows the same format as the normal on-the-month show with the latest news (by Liz), interviews with researchers (3 Jodrell post-docs and 1 PhD student), a night sky guide (by Dave Jones, now a post-doc at ESO in Chile) and some lovely presenting by Liz, Dave, Adam Avison and Paul Woods (now at UCL). The episode was released at 11pm BST (midnight in Spain) complete with a Spanish front page and Spanish tweets. We spent the day pretending that we had no idea what was going on (Stuart blamed the new Google Translate module) and, apart from a few concerned emails, I think the majority of listeners got the joke. The English version of the show was released yesterday and now we can relax for the next 11 months until we have to think of a way to better this year’s April Fool!

By a happy coincidence, April is also Global Astronomy Month. There seem to be a lot of events going on across the world as part of this but I was rather surprised to see that their website only seems to be in English. At least we are unintentionally doing our bit with the Jodcast! The episode may have been conceived and released as an April Fool but everything within the show is correct/factual/real and I hope that the show is passed on and found by Spanish-speaking astronomy fans, so if you know any, please spread the word. It would be a shame if all of the hard work of the “El Jodcast team” was just for one (albeit awesome) prank.

The Invisible Universe in Shillong

10 days ago I was at my Aunt’s house in Shillong trying to get some sleep before my first ever astronomy talk at a school. Shillong is the state capital of Meghalaya in north-east India, located some 5000 feet above sea level. The city itself is chaotic and overcrowded, with houses springing up anywhere they can be squeezed in and traffic jams like you’ve never seen. Leave the city though, and you can see some spectacular sights. My highlights include bridges made from living tree roots (as seen recently on the BBC’s Human Planet rivers episode), rhinos and tigers in the Kaziranga National Park and breathtaking waterfalls in the wettest place on Earth. However this is a blog about astronomy, and therefore is not the place for me to be sharing my holiday snaps!

This holiday was planned and booked around the time that I signed up to be a STEMNET School’s Ambassador and, full of new-found confidence, I mentioned to my Mum in passing that it might be nice to go into one of the schools while we were in Shillong to talk a bit about astronomy. I soon realised that this was probably a foolish idea, given that I was yet to even give a talk at a school in the UK. However by then it was too late – my Aunt had enlisted the help of a teacher friend and organised for me to go into their old school, St Mary’s, to talk to a group of 14 – 16 year olds. As is usually the case with me when faced with a daunting task, I then proceeded to pretend it wasn’t happening, somehow assuming that my talk would write itself! And so I found myself, in the last hour before we left for the airport, frantically saving any and all pictures I thought I might need from the internet, and trying to get Chromoscope to work on my laptop, with the intention to write the talk on the flight.

Needless to say, that plan failed and, to cut a long story short, I only finished the slides the night before the talk. The next day, armed with my laptop and a cheerleading team consisting of Mum, Aunt and sister, I found myself in the auditorium in front of 160 schoolgirls, being introduced by the school’s Vice-Principal. A little different from my assumption that I would be in a classroom with maybe 50 students! I then spent the next half an hour telling them as much as I could about the Invisible (multiwavelength) Universe, finishing with a bit about the Square Kilometre Array, trying to inspire them by explaining how they could be be the PhD students and post-docs working on the project by the time it’s (hopefully) completed in 2024.

Apparently I gesture a lot when giving talks. Photo by K. Gupta

After the talk, as to be expected, there were a lot of questions. I got the usuals about 2012 and the demotion of Pluto, but there were some other great ones such as why do galaxies have supermassive black holes in their centres and what would happen to life on planets when their star dies. The questions kept coming until the girls had to go to their next class but I could have stayed there all day. My feelings were echoed by one of the science teachers who fed my ego by saying she could have listened to me all day! The obligatory cup of tea followed (I really should learn to like the stuff!) and I left the school with the biggest grin on my face.

Overall I think it went pretty well. Yes I could have been more prepared. Yes I could have spent more time making my slides looking pretty (and getting Chromoscope to work instead of having to show screen shots). I probably could have spoken slower and refined some of my explanations (I’m not sure that spinning round with my arms out to illustrate a pulsar was the best idea) but I hope that my enthusiasm and love for astrophysics shone through and at least one of the girls looked up at the sky that night and understood a little bit more about our Universe.

Oh, and did I mention we saw a tiger?

A tiger in the Kaziranga National Park. I’m in the jeep at the back. Photo by A. J. Gupta