January’s Night Sky.


The night sky at 01h30 on the 20th.

(Map generated on Heavens-Above.com)

Full Moon 12th. January. New Moon 27th. January.

Only three planets are visible this month; we start off with Venus. As soon as the Sun sets it is an easy to find shining at magnitude -4.4 in the south-west. By mid month it sets just before 9pm. Venus is almost a half crescent at the moment and it is easily noticed through binoculars.

Mars is a lot feinter than Venus at magnitude +0.9 and shines like a red star a little to the left of Venus. Not much detail is visible even through a telescope as it is such a small object.

Jupiter rises before 01:30 and shines at magnitude -1.8, brightening to -2.0 by the end of the month, in the constellation Virgo. It lies just above Spica, the brightest star in the constellation, which is outshone by the brightness of the king of the planets.

This month sees the Quadrantids meteor shower. It peaks on the 3rd but continues on until the 12th. The radiant, the point from which they appear lies close to he constellation Boötes.

Published in: on January 24, 2017 at 14:01  Leave a Comment  
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“The Stars are Painted with Unnumber’d Sparks…”

Little did William Shakespeare know how true were those words he made Caesar utter. Our eyes can see only ‘visible light’ which is a small amount of the electromagnetic spectrum, there is so much more we can’t see without the help of technology.

The Electromagnetic spectrum is a term which scientists use to describe the entire range of light that exists: everything from radio waves to gamma rays, including x-rays and microwaves are all forms of light.


Electromagnetic spectrum. (NASA)

As can be seen from the chart visible light covers just a fraction of what there is to see. It turns out that different objects in the universe radiate at different wavelengths, some we can see – like light – some we can’t. Some can be observed from Earth – for example radio waves – and some can’t, because the Earth’s atmosphere blocks them, like gamma rays.

For wavelengths absorbed by the atmosphere we have to build satellites and send them into space – often a good distance from Earth to allow them to be cool enough to do their work; the Herschel Space Observatory which observed the infrared orbits 1,500,000 kilometres (930,000 miles) from Earth (by comparison the International Space Station orbits just 400 kilometres from Earth.)

Objects can emit radiation at different wavelengths and that can give us additional insights into their nature. The hotter the object, the shorter the wavelength (the distance between two peaks or crests) and the more energetic it is.


The shape of an electromagnetic wave (radio, visible etc.)

The following images of the Sun were taken in ultraviolet and visible light on the same day. The difference in what you can see is remarkable;



UV light.


Visible light.

Astronomers at the Murchison Wide Field Array (MWA) radio telescope in Australia decided to observe the universe at radio wavelengths. The survey known as the GaLactic and Extragalactic All-sky MWA (GLEAM) shows what the Milky Way and 300,000 galaxies look like if we could see radio waves.

The human eye can only see three primary colours (red, blue and green), the Mantis shrimp can see in twelve primary colours, GLEAM ‘saw’ in twenty primary colours, beating every living thing and revealed the remnants of explosions from the most ancient stars in our galaxy, and the first and last gasps of supermassive black holes;

galaxy-visibleIn visible light.


galaxy-radioIn radio light.

And if you want to see what it all looks like in a variety of wavelengths try this;


The MWA is soon to become part of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) of radio telescopes working with radio observatories in South Africa and Jodrell Bank. Together they will be able to make even better maps of those unnumber’d sparks.










Looney Tunes character Marvin


We really are obsessed with finding life in space. If it’s not Martian invaders á la Orson Welles it’s Marvin the Martian hunting down poor old Bugs Bunny. Tales of visitations from and abductions by aliens abound on the internet. And we have telescopes dedicated to listening for signals or spotting unusual variations in the light from Sun like stars.

There have been two in particular that have fuelled the imagination, especially of copywriters. The first is KIC 8462852 also known as Tabby’s star after one its discoverer Tabetha Boyajian. This star is 1,480 light-years away in Cygnus and is an f-type star, slightly younger than the Sun but otherwise pretty similar. In October 2015 Astronomers at Yale found it displayed some unusual light variations.








The position of Tabby’s star.


A lot of stars vary in brightness and output (even the Sun albeit very little) and are well understood; they may have companion stars crossing in front of them blocking off some light, think Algol (beta Persei) or there may be a dense cloud that passes by doing the same thing as it orbits a star (as is the case with epsilon Aurigae, which has a noticeable 27 year period.)


(Notice how much more regular are the dips for Algol in brightness than for Tabby’s star below.)

The way the light changes for these types of objects is pretty straightforward and smooth. Not so for Tabby’s star; astronomers noticed that it faded at first by about 0.34% over a few years but it then in just 200 days it faded by 2.5%. It then carried on fading in its previous way. No star near-by showed similar patterns.

The Kepler space telescope had been monitoring Tabby’s star for a number of years and showed that in 2011 and 2013 the star dimmed a very dramatic way. It had faded by a whopping 22%. This dimming could last between five and eighty days at a time. Something very big had to be passing in front of it. (Flux refers here to the brightness of the object.)


This led some to suggest a Dyson Sphere. In 1960 theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson suggested that an advanced civilisation might be able to build and sphere or shell to encase a star to harness its power, or that a swarm of satellites or solar panels could surround a star, known as a Dyson swarm, could do the same thing. A Dyson swarm would be easier than an all encompassing sphere to build but still is beyond our ability. Other fanciful suggestions have been gigantic space habitation platforms or even artificially built occulting masks that deliberately dim the star to alert other species that there is life there.

As a result a lot of radio telescopes were turned towards the star to listen for any signal that might suggest life. Sadly nothing has, so far, been heard.

As with the ‘Little Green Men’ signal that ushered in the discovery of the super regular emissions of pulsars people are quick to imagine the fanciful; the reality is likely to be slightly more prosaic but none the less interesting. Current theories suggest the unusual diming may be caused by the break-up of a lot of really large comets orbiting the star (although how this would happen is debatable) or it could even be errors with the data…we still don’t yet know.

But, if you’re hoping for aliens another 234 stars have piqued interest. A paper released on arXiv.org claims that after looking at 2.5 million stars surveyed by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey 234 have a very unusual and puzzling light signature. One of the lead astronomers for this paper EF Borra (who works in Canada) claims these light patterns are similar to those he proposed in an earlier paper that might come from an alien civilisation signalling their existence to others. (Here is the link to the paper; https://arxiv.org/abs/1610.03031 )

Could they be from aliens? This is what the scientists themselves say in their pre-amble to the article; “We find that the detected signals have exactly the shape of an ETI signal predicted in the previous publication and are therefore in agreement with this hypothesis. The fact that they are only found in a very small fraction of stars within a narrow spectral range centred near the spectral type of the sun is also in agreement with the ETI hypothesis. However, at this stage, this hypothesis needs to be confirmed with further work.” They do go on to add a note of caution; “Although unlikely, there is also a possibility that the signals are due to highly peculiar chemical compositions in a small fraction of galactic halo stars.”

(ETI stands for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.)

Well a lot more studying of these signals from a lot more institutes with a lot more equipment will be needed before any definite answer can be given. Perhaps the brand new Chinese radio telescope FAST may look at these signals…


FAST stands for Five hundred metre Aperture Spherical Telescope and is one of the largest radio telescopes in the world. In area it is roughly the equivalent to thirty football pitches or 200,000 square meters. Work began on building it in 2011 and it is already built and after undergoing tests before beginning its working life on the 25th September 2016. The web page for FAST is; http://fast.bao.ac.cn/en/

There is a larger radio telescope in Russia called RATAN 600 which is 576m in diameter, but, unlike FAST, is composed of segments that make up the whole dish (895 of them of size 2×7.4 m.) It was involved in the detection of an unusual and regular signal which could have been alien in origin, however after other observatories failed to repeat the observation, and because of the frequency it was observed it was decided that RATAN had picked up signals from a secret military reconnaissance satellite.

                                   1987_cpa_58931RATAN commemorated in a 1987 stamp.

So, you do need to be careful when making assumptions about unusual observations, as it could be alien in origin or more likely something else all together!





A Tardigrade.

We believe that water is an essential ingredient for life; all living things we know of need water to some extent; we are somewhere between 50% and 65% water (depending on age and fitness) whilst the Tardigrade (or Water Bear) the most resilient creature known can survive with only 3% of its body mass as water. (The Tardigrade is an amazing almost unbelievable creature; it is 0.5mm long and can withstand temperature ranges from −272 °C (which is almost absolute zero, the coldest temperature possible) to 150 °C and pressures about six times greater than those found in the deepest parts of the ocean trenches. It can also survive doses of radiation that would quickly kill a human as well as the vacuum of outer space.)

So discovering water is believed to be a key to finding life; the recent announcement by NASA that the Hubble Space Telescope has seen water jets on Jupiter’s moon Europa is exciting.

Europa has been considered a potential candidate for life with its great subsurface ocean. Therein lies the problem. To get to the ocean would require drilling through a layer of extremely cold and hard ice of unknown thickness. Whilst we are used to drilling through the Earth getting the necessary machinery, making sure it is totally germ and microbe free and then operating it on a hostile world would be incredibly challenging.

The plumes provide a tantalizing opportunity to gather samples originating from under the surface without having to land or drill through the ice.


Hubble Image of plumes with a photo of Europa superimposed.

Amazingly this was not what the scientists were looking for! They wanted to find out if Europa had an atmosphere. It seems strange to think that they would try to find an atmosphere on such a small object (it is 3,100 km or 1,900 miles in diameter) so far away (some 628.3 million kilometres away) with a telescope.

There is a technique used for finding planets around distant stars which looks for an object passing in front (transiting) a star. As an object transits a star it blocks a fraction of the light from the star making it fade slightly which can be measured. If this happens more than once then there is a chance that it is a planet. Astronomers can then observe the light from the star (using an instrument known as a Spectrograph) to see it’s chemical make-up and then look again at the star as the object passes in front. Any difference in the reading of the star’s chemical make up allows astronomers to work out what makes up the atmosphere of the planet. The first technique was the one used was on Europa.


The astronomers spent 15 months observing ten transits by Europa and saw these plumes three times. Another team had detected something similar in 2012 using the same piece of equipment on Hubble (the Imaging Spectrograph.) however neither team has been able to observe the same event at the same time. That is the next challenge, once that has been done then there will be a very strong case for the plumes existence.

The findings of the two teams are very similar though; suggesting that the water vapour is erupting from the frozen southern polar region of Europa and reaching more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) into space. Maybe as much as a few million tonnes of water are expelled this way. It is believed there is more water under Europa’s surface than on the Earth!! Observations thus far have suggested the plumes could be highly variable, meaning that they may sporadically erupt for some time and then die down. This makes them very difficult to be seen by more than one group of astronomers at a time.

If confirmed, Europa would be the second moon in the solar system known to have water vapor plumes. In 2005, NASA’s Cassini orbiter detected jets of water vapour and dust coming from the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.


NASA hope to launch a mission to Europa called, for now, the Europa Multiple flyby Mission. It is in the planning stages now and one of the ideas is to send a lander to the moon to sample the surface if not try to drill into it.

Here is a NASA clip about the mission:

Exciting times ahead!

Published in: on September 27, 2016 at 16:30  Leave a Comment  
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Enceladus is one of Saturn’s most interesting moons. It had long been suspected that there may have been a small ocean lying under the icy crust of the satellites south pole: images of geysers shooting jets ice and dust have often been imaged by the Cassini probe orbiting Saturn.

NASA have now discovered (15th. September 2016) that there is a global ocean hidden beneath the ice covering the whole moon. The finding implies the fine spray of water vapor, icy particles and simple organic molecules Cassini has observed coming from fractures near the moon’s south pole is being fed by this vast liquid water reservoir.

Cassini scientists analysed more than seven years’ worth of images of Enceladus taken by the spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004. They carefully mapped the positions of features on Enceladus — mostly craters — across hundreds of images, in order to measure changes in the moon’s rotation with extreme precision.


The icy surface of Enceladus.

As a result, they found Enceladus has a tiny, but measurable wobble as it orbits Saturn. Because the icy moon is not perfectly spherical — and because it goes slightly faster and slower during different portions of its orbit around Saturn — the giant planet subtly rocks Enceladus back and forth as it rotates.

Using computers to measure this wobble, or libration, scientists have worked out that there the ocean must be moon-wide as anything smaller would result in a much smaller libration.


How Enceladus’ may look.

Saturn lies 1.4 billion kilometres from the Sun (that’s eight times further away than Earth is from the Sun) a year on Saturn is 29.5 earth years long. Because it is so far away the Sun is not as powerful as it is on Earth and so temperatures are much lower, so much lower that liquid water shouldn’t exist on any body that far away and yet it does.

How is that possible? Well that is a mystery although some astronomers think possibility that tidal forces due to Saturn’s gravity could be generating much more heat within Enceladus than previously thought. Saturn is much bigger than Enceladus and as the moon orbits the planet its surface is gently pulled in and out of shape by Saturn’s gravitational force possibly generating heat that allows water to flow. This pulling on a smaller a body is what is meant by a tidal force.


Cassini’s image of jets.

Scientists first detected signs of the moon’s icy plume in early 2005, further discoveries have been made: in 2015 they shared results that suggest hydrothermal activity is taking place on the ocean floor. On Earth hydrothermal vents are found on the floors of oceans, raising the temperature of the water nearby by many degrees, this in turn allows for all kinds of unusual and unexpected creatures to be found in regions where it had been thought there could be no life.

The material ejected from Enceladus may also help keep Saturn’s magnificent rings topped up with material. How the rings have survived for so long under the tidal forces of the gas giant’s gravity has long been a mystery but this may go some way to solving that puzzle.

All these findings raise the inevitable but intriguing question; could there be some form of life lurking in the Ocean of Enceladus? Cassini will continue to examine the plumes of material ejected from the moon to try and detect signs that something even more amazing may be waiting to be found.

In fact Cassini is scheduled to make a close flyby of Enceladus on the 28th. October, in the mission’s deepest ever dive through the moon’s active plume of icy material. The spacecraft will pass just 30 miles (49 kilometers) above the moon’s surface. there is a lot more to learn about this and the other amazing moon of Saturn.

Published in: on September 27, 2016 at 09:53  Leave a Comment  
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On Relics.

Here is a link to a fascinating look at St. Teresa of Calcutta and astronomy. It’s written by an American priest, Fr. James Kurzynski. Well worth a read.

Astronomy and Mother Teresa’s Shoes: Relics of the Sacred.

Published in: on September 8, 2016 at 16:52  Leave a Comment  
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A Living Fossil.

It seems the more we know the more we find out. In the natural world there are creatures nick-named ‘living fossils.’ The phrase was first used by Charles Darwin and relates to living things that have remained largely unchanged for millions of years. Two very different examples are Ctenophores and Gingko Biloba.

Ctenophores are also known as comb jellyfish. They propel themselves through the sea using lots of tiny hairs known as cilia. They are believed to have first appeared on Earth 700 million years ago which could mean that humans descended from them!


A Ctenophore.

Gingko Biloba, or the maidenhair Tree, is the only one of its kind. It has neither ancestors nor evolved descendants. It is a truly ancient plant with fossil records of it dating back to the Permian era some 270 million years ago. It is much used today for its healing and soothing properties.


A fossilised Gingko leaf.

So what has this to do with Astronomy? Well Astronomers have been looking at one of the globular clusters that are attached to the Milky Way, and have concluded that it is a living fossil from the earliest times of the galaxy: Terzan 5 is 19 000 light-years away and orbits the central bulge of the galaxy. It appears at the moment to be coming towards us at about 90Km/s.

The Milky Way is a spiral galaxy, with most of its stars to be found at the centre where they form a bulge. If you imagine our galaxy as two fried eggs put back to back the yolks represent the bulge.milky-wayHow our galaxy might look from afar.

It was only discovered in 1968 by French astronomer Agop Terzan. It lies in the constellation Sagittarius and is obscured by the number of stars in the area making it hard to find. Astronomers noticed in 2005 to have two distinct populations of stars with an age gap of 7 billion years. It was thought that Terzan 5 might have been the remnant of a dwarf galaxy that got too close to ours and was disrupted (broken up) by the gravity of the Milky Way.

Peering through the thick dust clouds of the galactic bulge an international team of astronomers has revealed the unusual mix of stars in the stellar cluster known as Terzan 5. The new results indicate that Terzan 5 is in fact one of the bulge's primordial building blocks, most likely the relic of the very early days of the Milky Way. This picture is from the Multi-Conjugate Adaptive Optics Demonstrator (MAD), a prototype adaptive optics system used to demonstrate the feasibility of different techniques in the framework of the E-ELT and the second generation VLT Instruments. The star colours are from the Hubble image of the same star field.

This picture is from the Multi-Conjugate Adaptive Optics Demonstrator (MAD), a prototype adaptive optics system used to demonstrate the feasibility of different techniques in the framework of the E-ELT and the second generation VLT Instruments. The star colours are from the Hubble image of the same star field.

It has now been discovered that this is not the case. Using instruments on the Hubble Space telescope, the WM Keck telescope and the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile Astronomers have been taking another look at these two lots of stars. They found that as well as the age gap they are made up of very different elements. This age gap indicates that the star formation process in Terzan 5 was not continuous, but was dominated by two distinct bursts of star formation.

This means its ancestor must have had large amounts of gas for a second generation of stars, something along the size of at least 100 million times the mass of the Sun! It had to be massive for it to have survived the 12 billion years since the galaxy formed without being disrupted They have also found that he stars in Terzan 5 have very similar properties to those found in the galactic bulge.

These unusual properties, which are uncommon amongst globular clusters, are why Astronomers are calling it a living fossil. The current theory of how galaxies form requires vast clumps of gas and stars to interact and then merge and dissolve to form the primordial bulge of the Milky Way in the process. Some of Terzan 5s characteristics “…resemble those detected in the giant clumps we see in star-forming galaxies at high-redshift, [that is galaxies far away from us] suggesting that similar assembling processes occurred in the local and in the distant Universe at the epoch of galaxy formation.” according to lead Astronomer Francesco Ferrari.

The research presents a possible route for astronomers to unravel the mysteries of galaxy formation, and offers an unrivalled view into the complicated history of the Milky Way.

If you want to know where Terzan 5 is, here is a map; the region (Sagittarius) is visible form the UK but the cluster itself, well that is a different matter!

This chart shows the rich constellation of Sagittarius. Among the many star clusters in this part of the Milky Way lies Terzan 5, a stellar cluster which resembles a globular cluster. This picture plots most of the the stars visible on a dark clear night with the naked eye.

This chart shows the rich constellation of Sagittarius. Among the many star clusters in this part of the Milky Way lies Terzan 5, a stellar cluster which resembles a globular cluster. This picture plots most of the the stars visible on a dark clear night with the naked eye.


Published in: on September 8, 2016 at 16:17  Leave a Comment  
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It is a remarkable thing to think about. Just twenty four years ago we knew of only nine planets (Pluto had yet to be demoted) and they were all in our solar system. The first planets to be detected were found in 1992 orbiting a very unusual object, a pulsar called PSR1257+12. Three planets were discovered orbiting this rapidly rotating neutron star. (The name references its position in the sky.)

A neutron star is the remains of a large star that has become a supernova, but was too small to form a black hole. Instead it leaves behind a dense core. Pulsars are a form of neutron star which has a very powerful magnetic field which can be detected from earth if the beam of radiation passes in our line of sight. They are nick-named ‘cosmic lighthouses’ as the beam of radiation spins past very regularly, as does the light from a lighthouse. When they were first discovered in 1967 by British astronomer Jocelyn Bell the regularity lead to them being thought of as artificial as it was too regular for a natural event.


The paper trace of the discovery of the first pulsar, spinning at a rate of once every 1 1/3 seconds. (www.jb.man.ac.uk)

Then, on the 6th. October 1995 two Astronomers in Geneva announced the discovery of a planet orbiting 51 Pegasi, a main sequence star similar to our own.

From then on the discoveries of new worlds gathered pace, initially large planets, some bigger than Jupiter were the ones being found. The techniques in the ‘early days’ of discovery meant that they were found only because of their size and proximity to their host stars. This led to their being called ‘Hot Jupiters.’


If you want to find the star 51 Peg it lies very close to the Square of Pegasus and is visible easily in the northern hemisphere.

Very quickly, though, smaller and smaller planets were discovered. Today (28th. August 2016) 3,518 exoplanets are known (for details visit exoplanet catalogue at www.exoplanet.eu ). Sizes vary for these planets as can be seen by this NASA graphic:


Of course as soon as planets were found the hunt then began for planets that might support life. As far as we understand, life needs amongst other things a planet between one and 10 times the mass of the Earth. It needs to be big enough to hold onto an atmosphere but not so big that here is too much hydrogen and there needs to be water. So we need to find planets where water was likely; that means they would have to lie in a region which was not too close to its star (where it would be too hot for water and possibly life) and not too far (where it would be too cold for liquid water) but in a region that was just right. This region is the Habitable or Goldilocks zone.

Now, depending on the size and age of a star the Goldilocks zone will vary; around a cool, red dwarf a planet would need to be much closer than around a star like the Sun. A number of good candidates have been found; (although there is some doubt about Gliese 581g as there have been no successful follow-up observations of planets. This is a criterion that needs t be met to ensure that the discovery is not a ‘false positive.’)

How do Astronomers look for an exoplanet? Well there are a number of techniques; they can be detected directly and be imaged (this is the most difficult method) or they can be detected indirectly, discovering the existence by the effect on the host star.


The direct detection method of imaging an exoplanet is difficult because a planet (even a super sized ‘Jupiter’) is very dim when compared to a star. The star literally outshines its planets. To try and see planets this way it is necessary to block out the star’s light. To do this an instrument called a Chronograph is used. It covers the disk of the star but leaves the outer regions of its atmosphere visible allowing any planets to shine through. Think of a total solar eclipse and how, when the Moon covers the Sun completely we can see the outer layers of our star’s atmosphere, this is a natural chronograph.


Total Solar eclipse showing the Corona, the Sun’s outermost layer.

Observing a planet this way is vital though if we are to try and examine its atmosphere to determine how much water it has and if there are any chemical signs of life. (In 2010 the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) captured the first direct spectrum of an exoplanet!)

There are a number of indirect ways of detecting exo-planets including watching for planets transiting the host star. A transit occurs when an object passes in front of another object; from Earth we see this when Venus or Mercury pass in front of the Sun. When an exo-planet transits its host it dims the star ever so slightly. By measuring how much the star is dimmed (using an instrument known as a photometer) and how long the transit lasts Astronomers can work out the size of the planet, its orbit and the composition of the planet’s atmosphere.

Spacecraft like the Kepler telescope and COROT use this method and have had much success in finding new bodies. Future missions like ESA’s Darwin and NASA’s Terrestrial Planet Finder will search for oxygen, carbon dioxide and chlorophyll. These missions are planned for launch in the next decade.

The big news though is that an Earth like planet has been found very close our Solar system; on the 24th. August 2016 ESO announced the discovery around the star Proxima Centauri.

The location of Proxima Centauri in the southern skies

This picture combines a view of the southern skies over the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile with images of the stars Proxima Centauri (lower-right) and the double star Alpha Centauri AB (lower-left) from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Proxima Centauri is the closest star to the Solar System and is orbited by the planet Proxima b, which was discovered using the HARPS instrument on the ESO 3.6-metre telescope.

Credit: Y. Beletsky (LCO)/ESO/ESA/NASA/M. Zamani.

This discovery is special because the planet has been found around the closest star to us. Proxima Centauri lies 4.35 light-years away. It is to be found in the constellation Centaurus, but is sadly too far south for us in Britain to see. It is very faint as it is cool red star, it lies close to the brighter pair of stars known as Alpha Centauri AB. The planet has been designated Proxima b, and orbits its parent star every 11 days. It has a temperature suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface. This rocky world is a little more massive than the Earth and is the closest exoplanet to us — and it may also be the closest possible abode for life outside the Solar System.

Proxima was monitored as part of the Pale Red Dot campaign (https://palereddot.org/) during the first half of 2016. Proxima Centauri was regularly observed with the HARPS spectrograph on the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at La Silla in Chile and simultaneously monitored by other telescopes around the world.

The Pale Red Dot Campaign

Pale Red Dot was an international search for an Earth-like exoplanet around the closest star to us, Proxima Centauri. It used HARPS, attached to ESO’s 3.6-metre telescope at La Silla Observatory, as well as other telescopes around the world. It was one of the few outreach campaigns allowing the general public to witness the scientific process of data acquisition in modern observatories. The public could see how teams of astronomers with different specialities work together to collect, analyse and interpret data, which ultimately confirmed the presence of an Earth-like planet orbiting our nearest neighbour. The outreach campaign consisted of blog posts and social media updates on the Pale Red Dot Twitter account and using the hashtag #PaleRedDot. For more information visit the Pale Red Dot website: http://www.palereddot.org

Observations have revealed that Proxima Centauri is approaching Earth at about 5 kilometres per hour — normal human walking pace — and at times receding at the same speed. This regular pattern of changing radial velocities repeats with a period of 11.2 days. Careful analysis of the resulting tiny Doppler shifts showed that they indicated the presence of a planet with a mass at least 1.3 times that of the Earth, orbiting about 7 million kilometres from Proxima Centauri — only 5% of the Earth-Sun distance.

Proxima is a very different star to the Sun, not just in size and colour but also in activity; the conditions on the surface may be strongly affected by the ultraviolet and X-ray flares from the star — Proxima b receives 60 times more high-energy radiation than the Earth far more intense than the Earth experiences from the Sun. This made detecting a planet around it even harder! So far the rotation of the planet is unknown; it may be that one side always faces the star, whilst the other is in perpetual night. The border between these areas might be subject to intense winds – winds which may howl across the planet. This tidal locking of a body so that it faces the same direction is called synchronous rotation – the same reason we only see one side of the moon.


Artist's impression of the planet orbiting Proxima Centauri

This artist’s impression shows the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. The double star Alpha Centauri AB also appears in the image between the planet and Proxima itself. Proxima b is a little more massive than the Earth and orbits in the habitable zone around Proxima Centauri, where the temperature is suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface.

Credit:ESO/M. Kornmesser

Conditions on Proxima b may be very different to Earth and any life there will have had to adapt to its unique conditions, also the suitability of this kind of planet to support water and Earth-like life is a matter of intense debate. Major concerns that count against the presence of life are related to the closeness of the star. For example gravitational forces probably lock the same side of the planet in perpetual daylight, while the other side is in perpetual night. The planet’s atmosphere might also slowly be evaporating or have more complex chemistry than Earth’s due to stronger ultraviolet and X-ray radiation, especially during the first billion years of the star’s life. However, none of the arguments has been proven conclusively and they are unlikely to be settled without direct observational evidence and characterisation of the planet’s atmosphere.

Of course in the far distant future perhaps they will even become holiday destinations…!


There is much to learn and discover, exciting times lie ahead!



Don’t be so Sure.


There is a meme wandering the internet which says;

“Born too late to explore the World,

Born too early to explore the Universe.”

At first glance it is depressingly true. After the initial despair the truth of it becomes more questionable.

It is true there will not be another Magellan or Cooke – discovering new lands and new peoples. That may not be a bad thing in some ways; think of how badly indigenous peoples were treated as a result of their voyages. It is also true that we are unlikely to have a region or feature named after us; no more Van Diemen’s Land. (Curiously it was discovered by an explorer named Abel Tasman who named it after his sponsor Anthony Van Diemen. Later it was renamed after Tasman and is now Tasmania!)


Abel Tasman commemorated on a 1963 Australian stamp.

It is true also that we are unlikely to tread on untrodden land again but at the same time it means we are unlikely to suffer from unknown illnesses, be attacked by wild locals or bites from venomous beasts with no cure as happened to those early explorers.

On the other side, we can travel to Australia in twenty-four hours as opposed to the months by sea in wooden death traps. We can pop over to Rome or Paris in a matter of hours instead of days. Then we have the benefit of technology to get the most out of our visits: on-line maps, guides and local web-sites. Or instead of using tech we can wander around towns and cities safely discovering sights for ourselves.

Isn’t that the key too? We can go to those places and discover for ourselves new things. Okay, we may be the ten millionth to see the Coliseum but that first view with our own eyes is our own discovery. It will be something we can then talk about and probably bore our friends over too.

Of course you may be lucky enough to be a marine biologist who gets to travel deep under oceans finding new life, or an entomologist thrashing through the Rainforest looking for a new butterfly. However as with the explorers of old not everyone can do that but often we can follow them on-line, on screen or in print from the comfort of a mosquito and scurvy free home. (Hopefully!)

So I would suggest that the first part of the phrase is very wrong. We are alive at a time when exploring has never been easier, safer and more affordable.

What about ‘…Born too early to explore the universe’? This is harder to discount. So far about 600 people have flown into space. (The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) defines spaceflight as any flight over 100 kilometres in altitude.) Which in the fifty-six years of manned spaceflight (2016) is a pretty poor show.

faiFAI logo.

The pangs of envy and despair at not being able to get to space to experience the things astronauts can is so very real. The recent Principia mission of British astronaut Tim Peake is a case in point; he seemed to have so much fun and get so much out of his trip that you can’t help but be jealous.

Many was the time during the 80s when the only way I could find out about an on-going Shuttle mission was by tuning in to the Voice of America (VOA) on shortwave and hoping for a snippet of information in the news programme. Of course the fun part also involved tuning into VOA and through the crackles and fading signal listening to a live broadcast of a launch. Many a cassette was filled with recordings of just that.

We then had to rely on the BBC or ITV to give an update which all too often did not happen.

With the advent of the internet, superfast broadband, high definition cameras and live streaming we do get to see and hear a lot more of the astronauts time in space than we ever did. Today we can watch in real time, even streaming the mission through our TVs to watch in glorious big screen.

So, to that extent things are better than ever. It’s not as good as being here but…and with the advent of VR devices it could become a lot more immersive an experience.

Okay it’s not the same as flying through the fountains of Enceladus or drinking Saurian brandy on Risa. Yet we are still able to see some amazing sights:

enc1The fountains of Enceladus.

Just look at these images of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Images that we wouldn’t have even dreamed of twenty years ago can be viewed by anyone at any time. Space probes are travelling all around the solar system and out of it. The pictures from Pluto sent by a speeding New Horizons probe are breath taking, Juno promises even more at Jupiter. Cassini continues its mission around Saturn, the astronauts aboard the International Space Station continue to take amazing photos of Earth, all of which we can enjoy.


Enceladus and Saturn’s rings.

Even for the crew of the Starship Enterprise it took a while to get anywhere from hours to weeks depending on where they were and their destination. Think of all that time away from home, in the humdrum daily job of warp coil engineer or security officer. The glamour and new views were far and few between.

But not for us! Take a telescope outside and point it. Within minutes you could have travelled 2.2 million light years to the Andromeda galaxy, something even Star Trek was unable to do! At our eyepiece is an entire universe. It is possible to see quasars billions of light-years away; true they only look like a star in the eye-piece but you wouldn’t want to get too close anyway. Or if that’s too mind numbingly distant you can always view the moon a mere 3 days or quarter of a million miles away.

If they intrigue you then you can find out all we know about them from on-line resources, observatories and space agencies. All from the comfort of you’re home.

Yes, it’s not the same, but not all is lost.

Published in: on July 9, 2016 at 13:21  Leave a Comment  
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Deum Creatorum venite adoremus.

The Society for the History of Astronomy(http://www.shastro.org.uk/) held their Spring conference in Manchester at Cheetham school of Music’s library.


The outside of the library.




Climbing up the stairs to the library.



One of the two corridors with side rooms full to the ceiling with books.

Amongst all the talks taking place in the 14th. century building the one I most looked forward to was given by Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ. He did not disappoint.   He spoke about the role of Jesuits in Astronomy.

Brother Consmolango.

Brother Consolmagno

One of the most amazing facts was how quickly after St. Ignatius Loyola (or Inigo to his friends) founded the order were their members involved in research and scientific education. The order was founded in 1540 just three years before Nicholas Copernicus published his ‘On The Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres’ which suggested that the Sun rather than the Earth was at the centre of the Solar System.

One of Inigo’s calls was to find God in everything, the church holds that the universe is real (which may seem like stating the obvious but some schools of philosophy disagree), that it follows laws (and is not run on the whim of nature gods doing as they please) and that to study the Universe is an act of worship.

Father Clavius’ work on maths.

The first Jesuit that Br. Consolmagno mentioned was Fr. Christopher Clavius (1538-1612) who under the order of Pope Gregory XIII worked on reforming the calendar giving us the now commonly used Gregorian calendar. As part of his research the ‘Tower of the Winds’ was built in the Vatican to measure the calendar and to help determine the dates of feasts. He was responsible for the rigorous teaching of maths in schools, his textbooks being used for decades after his death.


Another Priest was Giovanni Riccioli (1598-1671) who reformed the way features on the moon were named and discovered that there was a binary system in the Plough (Alcor and Mizar) and that  Alpha Centauri is also a binary. He was responsible for building an observatory in Bologna and for constructing many varied scientific instruments.


Then there was Maximillian Hell, he observed the transit of Venus from Sweden. His reputation and importance were ignored until the 1860’s.



Next to be mentioned was Angelo Secchi (1818-1878) who classified over 5000 stellar spectra helping astronomy to move from simply astrometry to a physical science. In 1865 he started to observe the sun and being in possession of magnetometers was able to show that the sun affected that Earth. He also observed Mars and made mention of ‘canali’ which later became interpreted as canals and artificial ones at that by a non-religious observer!


The Vatican observatory still runs today – now in Arizona – despite the many attempts by civil authorities to close it down especially by the Garibaldi government. Today the observatory works in collaboration with other observatories as well as astronomers who want to test out ideas before submitting them for time on more major and costlier facilities.


At lunch time we were able to visit the library where there were original books written by Jesuits. (More photos to follow when I find the cable to transfer them onto the computer!)DSCN0176


When asked about how science and religion are perceived by each other the good Brother made the point that the seeming antagonism (especially in the USA) is due more to ignorance especially amongst Catholics who have not been catechised well. Who have not learnt about how the church has fostered research instead believing the common polemics because that is all that is readily available and talked about in the general sphere.

So it seems much work needs to be done in reconnecting  believers (of all denominations) with a fairer more balanced understanding.

All in all a very interesting day.