Archive for astronomy

The Lunar Eclipse

Posted in Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on July 27, 2018 by telescoper

Just a reminder that there will be lunar eclipse tonight. The so-called `blood Moon’ will be visible across Ireland and the United Kingdom (as well as much of the rest of world tonight) although there is rain forecast, and its very overcast as I write this, so it’s possible that all I from Maynooth will see is clouds. That’s a shame as this will be the longest total lunar eclipse of the 21st century, lasting one hour, 42 minutes and 57 seconds.

Observers in Ireland will not be able to see the start of the eclipse as the moon will still be below the horizon when the Earth passes between the Sun and the Moon. However, in the Dublin area it will be seen (clouds permitting) from 9.30pm to 10.15pm low in the sky to the South East. Then from 10.15pm to 11.20pm, the moon will be seen coming out of Earth’s shadow. The partial eclipse will last around four hours. Oh, and you should be able to see Mars which will be very bright tonight, down a bit and to the left from the Moon.

The photograph above is of a lunar eclipse taken earlier this year, on 31st January. Lunar eclipses tend to be seen in pairs, like low comedians.

Update:

P.S. It’s worth also giving advanced notice that next year, on March 29th 2019, there will be a total eclipse of the United Kingdom visible from Ireland and all the rest of the world…

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A source of high-energy neutrinos!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on July 12, 2018 by telescoper

Before I go for a lie down here is a video that goes with the discovery of the first astrophysical source of high-energy neutrinos!

You can find the two Science papers relating to the discovery here and here. The first abstract reads:

Previous detections of individual astrophysical sources of neutrinos are limited to the Sun and the supernova 1987A, whereas the origins of the diffuse flux of high-energy cosmic neutrinos remain unidentified. On 22 September 2017, we detected a high-energy neutrino, IceCube-170922A, with an energy of ~290 TeV. Its arrival direction was consistent with the location of a known γ-ray blazar, TXS 0506+056, observed to be in a flaring state. An extensive multi-wavelength campaign followed, ranging from radio frequencies to γ-rays. These observations characterize the variability and energetics of the blazar and include the detection of TXS 0506+056 in very-high-energy γ-rays. This observation of a neutrino in spatial coincidence with a γ-ray–emitting blazar during an active phase suggests that blazars may be a source of high-energy neutrino.

The other abstract is:

A high-energy neutrino event detected by IceCube on 22 September 2017 was coincident in direction and time with a gamma-ray flare from the blazar TXS 0506+056. Prompted by this association, we investigated 9.5 years of IceCube neutrino observations to search for excess emission at the position of the blazar. We found an excess of high-energy neutrino events, with respect to atmospheric backgrounds, at that position between September 2014 and March 2015. Allowing for time-variable flux, this constitutes 3.5σ evidence for neutrino emission from the direction of TXS 0506+056, independent of and prior to the 2017 flaring episode. This suggests that blazars are identifiable sources of the high-energy astrophysical neutrino flux.

It’s all very cool!

Why the Universe is extremely overrated.

Posted in Television, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on June 19, 2018 by telescoper

A few weeks I read an article in Physics Today which prompted me to revise and resubmit an old post I cobbled together in response to the BBC television series Wonders of the Universe in which I argued that the title of that programme suggests that the Universe is wonder-ful, or even, in a word which has cropped up in the series a few times, `awesome’.  When you think about it the Universe is not really `awesome at all’. In fact it’s extremely overrated.

Take this thing, for example:

 

This is an example of a galaxy (the Andromeda Nebula, M31, to be precise). We live in a similar object. Of course it looks quite pretty on the surface but, when you look at it with a physicist’s eye, such a galaxy is really not as great as it’s cracked up to be, as I shall now explain.

We live in a relatively crowded part of our galaxy on a small planet orbiting a fairly insignificant star called the Sun. Now you’ve got me started on the Sun. I know it supplies the Earth with all its energy, but it does the job pretty badly, all things considered because the Sun only radiates a fraction of a milliwatt per kilogram. By comparison a human being radiates more than one watt per kilogram. Pound for pound, that’s more than a thousand times as much energy as a star.

So,  in reality, stars are bloated, wasteful, inefficient and not even slightly awesome. They’re only noticeable because they’re big. And we all know that size shouldn’t really matter. In short, stars are extremely overrated.

But even in what purports to be an interesting neighbourhood of our Galaxy, the nearest star is 4.5 light years from the Sun. To get that in perspective, imagine the Sun is the size of a golfball. On the same scale, where is the nearest star?

The answer to that will probably surprise you, as it does my students when I give this example in lectures. The answer is, in fact, on the order of a thousand kilometres away. That’s the distance from Cardiff to, say, Munich. What a dull landscape our Galaxy possesses. In between one little golf ball in Wales and another one in Germany there’s nothing of any interest at all, just a featureless incomprehensible void not worthy of the most perfunctory second thought.

So galaxies aren’t dazzlingly beautiful jewels of the heavens. They’re flimsy, insubstantial things more like the cheap tat you can find on QVC. What’s worse is that they’re also full of a grubby mixture of soot and dust. Indeed, some are so filthy that you can hardly see any stars at all. Somebody needs to give the Universe a good clean. I suppose you just can’t get the help these days.

And then to the Physics Today piece I mentioned at the start of this article. I quote:

Star formation is stupendously inefficient. Take the Milky Way. Our galaxy contains about a billion solar masses of fresh gas available to form stars—and yet it produces only one solar mass of new stars a year.

Hopeless! What a waste of space a galaxy is! As well as being oversized, vacuous and rather dirty, one is also pretty useless at making the very things it is supposed to be good at! What galaxies clearly need is some sort of a productivity drive or perhaps a complete redesign using more efficient technology.

So stars are overrated and galaxies are overrated, but surely the Universe as a whole is impressive?

No. Think about the Big Bang. Well, I don’t need to go on about that because I’ve already posted about it. Suffice to say that the Big Bang wasn’t anywhere near as Big as you’ve been led to believe: the volume was between about 115 and 120 decibels. Quite loud, to be sure, but many rock concerts are louder. To be honest it’s a bit of an anti-climax. If I’d been in charge (and given sufficient funding) I would have put on something much more spectacular.

In any case the Big Bang happened a very long time ago. Since then the Universe has been expanding, the space between galaxies getting emptier and emptier so there’s now less than one atom per cubic metre, and cooling down to the point where its temperature is lower than three degrees above absolute zero.

The Universe is a cold, desolate and very empty place, lit by a few feeble stars and warmed only by the fading glow of the heat left over from when it was all so much younger and more exciting. Here and there amid the cosmic void a few galaxies are dotted about, like cheap and rather tatty ornaments. It’s as if we inhabit a shabby downmarket retirement home, warmed only by the feeble radiation given off by a puny electric fire as we occupy ourselves as best we can until Armageddon comes.

In my opinion the Universe would have worked out better had it been entirely empty, instead of being contaminated with such detritus. I agree with Tennessee Williams:

BRICK: “Well, they say nature hates a vacuum, Big Daddy.
BIG DADDY: “That’s what they say, but sometimes I think that a vacuum is a hell of a lot better than some of the stuff that nature replaces it with.”

So no, the Universe isn’t wonderful. Not at all. In fact, it’s basically a bit rubbish. Again, it’s only superficially impressive because it’s quite large, and it doesn’t do to be impressed by things just because they are large. That would be vulgar.

Digression: I just remembered a story about a loudmouthed Texan who owned a big ranch and who was visiting the English countryside on holiday. Chatting to locals in the village pub he boasted that it took him several days to drive around his ranch. A farmer replied “Yes. I used to have a car like that.”

Ultimately, however, the fact is that whatever we think about the Universe and how badly constructed it it, we’re stuck with it. Just like the trains, the government and the weather. There’s nothing we can do about it, so we might as grin and bear it.

It’s being so cheerful that helps keep me going.

 

Celebrating the Sloan Telescope

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2018 by telescoper

A little bird tweeted at me this morning that today is the 20th anniversary of first light through the Sloan Telescope (funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation) which has, for the past two decades, been surveying as much of the sky as it can from its location in New Mexico (about 25% altogether): the Sloan Digital Sky Survey is now on its 14th data release.

Here’s a picture of the telescope:

For those of you who want the optical details, the Sloan Telescope is a 2.5-m f/5 modified Ritchey-Chrétien altitude-azimuth telescope located at Apache Point Observatory, in south east New Mexico (Latitude 32° 46′ 49.30″ N, Longitude 105° 49′ 13.50″ W, Elevation 2788m). A 1.08 m secondary mirror and two corrector lenses result in a 3° distortion-free field of view. The telescope is described in detail in a paper by Gunn et al. (2006).

A 2.5m telescope of modest size by the standards of modern astronomical research, but the real assets of the Sloan telescope is a giant mosaic camera, highly efficient instruments and a big investment in the software required to generate and curate the huge data sets it creates. A key feature of SDSS is that its data sets are publicly available and, as such, they have been used in countless studies by a huge fraction of the astronomical community.

The Sloan Digital Sky Survey’s original `legacy’ survey was basically a huge spectroscopic redshift survey, mapping the positions of galaxies and quasars in three dimensions to reveal the `cosmic web’ in unprecedented detail:

As it has been updated and modernised, the Sloan Telescope has been involved in a range of other surveys aimed at uncovering different aspects of the universe around us, including several programmes still ongoing.

Gaia’s Second Data Release!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on April 26, 2018 by telescoper

It seems like only yesterday that I was blogging excitedly about the first release of data (DR1) from the European Space Agency’s Gaia Mission. In fact it was way back in 2016! Anyway, yesterday came another glut of Gaia goodness in the form of the second release of data, known to its friends as DR2.

In case you weren’t aware, Gaia is an ambitious space mission to chart a three-dimensional map of our Galaxy, the Milky Way, in the process revealing the composition, formation and evolution of the Galaxy. Gaia will provide unprecedented positional and radial velocity measurements with the accuracy needed to produce a stereoscopic and kinematic census of about one billion stars in our Galaxy and throughout the Local Group. This amounts to about 1 per cent of the Galactic stellar population.

You can find links to all the DR2 science papers here, a guide to how to use the data here, and of course a link to the full Gaia Archive here.

Here’s a (brief!) list of the contents of DR2:

  • The five-parameter astrometric solution – positions on the sky (α, δ), parallaxes, and proper motions – for more than 1.3 billion (109) sources, with a limiting magnitude of G = 21 and a bright limit of G ≈ 3. Parallax uncertainties are in the range of up to 0.04 milliarcsecond for sources at G < 15, around 0.1 mas for sources with G=17 and at the faint end, the uncertainty is of the order of 0.7 mas at G = 20. The corresponding uncertainties in the respective proper motion components are up to 0.06 mas yr-1 (for G < 15 mag), 0.2 mas yr-1 (for G = 17 mag) and 1.2 mas yr-1 (for G = 20 mag). The Gaia DR2 parallaxes and proper motions are based only on Gaia data; they do no longer depend on the Tycho-2 Catalogue.
  • Median radial velocities (i.e. the median value over the epochs) for more than 7.2 million stars with a mean G magnitude between about 4 and 13 and an effective temperature (Teff) in the range of about 3550 to 6900 K. This leads to a full six-parameter solution: positions and motions on the sky with parallaxes and radial velocities, all combined with mean G magnitudes. The overall precision of the radial velocities at the bright end is in the order of 200-300 m s-1 while at the faint end the overall precision is approximately 1.2 km s-1 for a Teff of 4750 K and about 2.5 km s-1 for a Teff of 6500 K.
  • An additional set of more than 361 million sources for which a two-parameter solution is available: the positions on the sky (α, δ) combined with the mean G magnitude. These sources have a positional uncertainty at G=20 of about 2 mas, at J2015.5.
    G magnitudes for more than 1.69 billion sources, with precisions varying from around 1 milli-mag at the bright (G<13) end to around 20 milli-mag at G=20. Please be aware that the photometric system for the G band in Gaia DR2 is different from the photometric system as used in Gaia DR1.
  • GBP and GRP magnitudes for more than 1.38 billion sources, with precisions varying from a few milli-mag at the bright (G<13) end to around 200 milli-mag at G=20.
  • Full passband definitions for G, BP and RP. These passbands are now available for download.
  • Epoch astrometry for 14,099 known solar system objects based on more than 1.5 million CCD observations. 96% of the along-scan (AL) residuals are in the range -5 to 5 mas, and 52% of the AL residuals are in the range of -1 to 1 mas. The transit observations are part of Gaia DR2 and have also been delivered to the Minor Planet Center (MPC).
  • Subject to limitations (see below) the effective temperatures Teff for more than 161 million sources brighter than 17th magnitude with effective temperatures in the range 3000 to 10,000 K. For a subset of about 87 million sources also the line-of-sight extinction AG and reddening E(BP-RP) are given and for a part of this subset (around 76 million sources) the luminosity and radius are available as well.
  • Classifications for more than 550,000 variable sources consisting of Cepheids, RR Lyrae, Mira and Semi-Regular Candidates as well as High-Amplitude Delta Scuti, BY Draconis candidates, SX Phoenicis Candidates and short time scale phenomena.
  • Planned cross-matches between Gaia DR2 sources on the one hand and Hipparcos-2, Tycho-2, 2MASS PSC, SDSS DR9, Pan-STARRS1, GSC2.3, PPM-XL, AllWISE, and URAT-1 data on the other hand.

There’s much more to Gaia than pictures, but here’s a map of the stars in our galaxy to give you an idea:

I remember first hearing about Gaia about 17 years ago when I was on a PPARC advisory panel and was immediately amazed  by the ambition of its objectives. As I mentioned above, Gaia is a global space astrometry mission, which will make the largest, most precise three-dimensional map of our Galaxy by surveying more than a billion stars. In some sense Gaia is the descendant of the Hipparcos mission launched in 1989, but it’s very much more than that. Gaia monitors each of its target stars about 70 times over a five-year period. It is expected to discover hundreds of thousands of new celestial objects, such as extra-solar planets and brown dwarfs, and observe hundreds of thousands of asteroids within our own Solar System. The mission is also expected to yield a wide variety of other benefits, including new tests of the  General Theory of Relativity.

For the brighter objects, i.e. those brighter than magnitude 15, Gaia  measures their positions to an accuracy of 24 microarcseconds, comparable to measuring the diameter of a human hair at a distance of 1000 km. Distances of relatively nearby stars are measured to an accuracy of 0.001%. Even stars near the Galactic Centre, some 30,000 light-years away, have their distances measured to within an accuracy of 20%.

It’s an astonishing mission that will leave an unbelievably rich legacy not only for the astronomers working on the front-line operations of Gaia but for generations to come.

EWASS in Liverpool

Posted in Football, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on April 4, 2018 by telescoper

I’m back in Maynooth with teaching to do after the Easter recess. The Flybe schedule having just changed for the summer, I took a 7am flight from Cardiff to Dublin this morning, which meant getting up at stupid o’clock, but I got here safely enough to Maynooth at about 9.40am.

Anyway, had I not known that I would be here in Ireland I would probably have planned to visit the English Midlands in order to attend EWASS (European Week of Astronomy and Space Science) which takes place this week in Liverpool. This meeting, which is in a different country each year, this time incorporates the Royal Astronomical Society’s annual National Astronomy Meeting making it one of the biggest astronomy conferences ever held in the UK.

Sadly my teaching commitments meant I couldn’t attend EWASS2018, but I thought I’d take this opportunity to wish everyone there all the best for an enjoyable and productive week.

I’ll also mention that various short videos of press briefings etc are coming out on Youtube with little snippets from the conference, including this one about Ariel (which I blogged about recently):

You can find other videos by searching for EWASS on Youtube. I’m sure more will emerge over the next couple of days!

P.S. The event in Liverpool has clearly been planned with football fans in mind: Liverpool play Manchester City tonight, in Liverpool, in the UEFA Champions League..(UPDATE: the match finished 3-0 to Liverpool, which presumably pleased the locals).

Equinoctial Molehills

Posted in Biographical, Bute Park, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on March 20, 2018 by telescoper

Very busy today, what with a return to lecturing in Cardiff and so on, so I’ve just got time for a quick post to mark the fact that the Vernal Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere took place today, Tuesday 20th March 2018, at 16.15 UTC (which is 16.15 GMT). This means that the Sun has just crossed the celestial equator on its journey Northward. Some people regard this as the first day of spring, which is fair enough as it does correspond fairly well to the end of the Six Nations rugby.

It wasn’t exactly spring weather when I walked into work this morning, as there are still bits of snow around in Bute Park.

More significantly, a huge number of molehills have appeared. Not quite a mole of molehills, but still quite a few. I’m not sure of the reason for all this molar activity. Perhaps moles have special rituals for marking the Vernal Equinox?

Incidentally I was dismayed to see that my Royal Astronomical Society diary gives the time of the 2018 Vernal Equinox as 16.16 GMT while the wikipedia page I linked to above gives 16.15 GMT. I find a discrepancy of this magnitude extremely unnerving. Or am I making a mountain out of a molehill?