Sunday, October 01, 2006

New website

This site has been (is being) relaunched at, and will be updated at least three times a week from now on. Please update your bookmarks and rss feeds, and have a look at while you're at it.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Better than I could say

No time to write today - although there's so much to say about Saturn, comets and cosmology - but in the meantime this combines the last two rants nicely.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

New WMAP results due on Thursday

In 2001, WMAP was launched to study the cosmic microwave background. This radiation has traveled across space since 300,000 years after the Big Bang, and provides a snapshot of this distant epoch. By studying the fluctuations in this radiation, WMAP was able (among other things, and in combination with other ways of gathering data) to confirm the Universe was flat, tie down the time since the Big Bang and date the first stars to a surprisingly early epoch.

That analysis, released in 2003, was based on the first year's worth of data. Since then there has been a complete silence from the mission team, with the second year's worth of data continually a few months from release. However, I've just heard that the next tranch of data - together with the team's analysis - will be released on Thursday at 12pm EST (5pm UK time), settling several years worth of speculation and gossip.

Watch this space!

Monday, March 13, 2006

All things Martian

It's been a busy solar system week. Thoughts from Saturn coming tomorrow, but we've also had the arrival of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter at the red planet, which means that six spacecraft are now active. MRO will take six months or so to drop down into its science orbit (dipping through the Martian atmosphere on each orbit to gradually change the orbit's shape).

The other spacecraft are :

Mars Global Surveyor, in orbit since 1999, currently looking for changes in the surface and atmosphere and also providing details on potential landing sites for future missions.

Mars Odyssey, which arrived in 2001 and has provided detailed maps of the mineralogy of the Martian surface for the first time.

Mars Express, ESA's first solo interplanetary spacecraft. Although the release of the images has been slow, the trickle of high-resolution views of the Martian surface is slowly growing. Where else can you watch dust flow over the edge of a crater on another planet?

Last but certainly not least, Spirit and Opportunity still roving on the surface after two Earth years. For an excellent overview of their first nine months or so, Steve Sqyre's book is excellent, and you can read sporadic updates at his website.

As you might imagine, these six spacecraft are going to have sent back enough data to keep their scientists busy for many, many years even after their missions end. For the rest of us, today sees the launch of Google Mars which has already consumed large chunks of my day!

Friday, March 10, 2006

Creationism on the quiet?

This article from the Guardian has me a little worried. They quote schools standards minister Jacqui Smith as saying

Creationism is one of many differing beliefs which pupils might discuss and consider, perhaps when they learn about another aspect of science: 'ways in which scientific work may be affected by the contexts in which it takes place... and how these contexts may affect whether or not ideas are accepted

The only source for this is 'a parliamentary answer', but the only relevant discussion I can find in the record is (Hansard, 27 Feb. 06)

Neither creationism nor intelligent design is taught as a subject in schools. The national curriculum programme of study for science at key stage 4 covers evolution. It sets out that pupils should be taught "that the fossil record is evidence for evolution" and also "how variation and selection may lead to evolution or extinction". Pupils should however be taught about "how scientific controversies can arise from different ways of interpreting empirical evidence". Also, the biblical view of creation can be taught in RE lessons, where pupils are taught to consider opposing theories and come to their own, reasoned conclusions. Therefore, although creationism and intelligent design are not part of the national curriculum, they could be covered in these contexts.

That latter statement is, frankly, a lot more reassuring. So until we can unearth the statement for the Guardian's report, it seems that at least the minister is on top of things. Actually, I don't have too much of a problem with the first statement as long as it's made clear that creationism is to be used as an example of a non-scientific approach to explaining the world around us.

More astronomy soon, I promise!

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Patrick in hospital

I don't want to comment too much on this story, but did want to say that we're expecting Patrick back in the saddle (as it were) for the next program. He's being well looked after, and I'm looking forward to seeing him back at home soon.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Jupiter's Red SpotS

NASA report from amateur observations that Jupiter may have a second semi-permenant red spot, formed from the collision of three smaller ovals back in 2000. Whether it hangs around or not, I'm looking forward to seeing the imaging results as it develops, and it's a reminder that Jupiter's now in the morning sky.

I remember a viewing session a few years ago when the (old) Great Red Spot faded to the extend that it appeared almost invisible through my six-inch reflector (although you could still see its effects on the belt, and the spot itself through larger telescopes). One of those moments when the Universe surprises us, which makes it worth watching.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Saturn and Stardust in Maidenhead

Lectured last night to Maidenhead AS, continuing the curse which means that all speaker meetings are on clear nights. We managed to do some real astronomy, looking at Saturn after I'd finished wittering about cosmology.

Someone there (hello Vicky) reminded me about the Stardust@home project which is calling for volunteers to help look for particles returned from a comet. The start has been delayed, but I recommend you all take part.

Sky at Night tonight...

Thursday, March 02, 2006

EXTRA Sky at Night 2

The second of our two BBC4 specials goes out on Monday as part of a slightly esoteric Sun night (to accompany last Monday's moon night).

This means the 'regular' program, which features Saturn news from Cassini together with amateur imaging from Pete Lawrence, Damian Peach, Dave Tyler and Ian Sharp, won't be repeated as normal on Monday night on BBC4.

Instead, it seems those of you with digital can catch the program EARLY on Saturday night at 7pm.

I think digital television might be too complicated for me.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Science Museum circa 1990

Londonist have just picked up on the planetarium story, but make some excellent points about the Science Museum too. I've always wondered about the lack of interest in their astronomy exhibits (as opposed to the Spaceflight section) - a couple of years ago they were still showing the original design for the International Space Station which made the one now under construction seem rather feeble. British scientists have been doing amazing things recently - we've just recorded Sunday's program about Cassini-Huygens and it would be great to see that reflected in our national museum.