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Carnival of Space #100!

Do a quick Google search for blogs about space and astronomy and you’ll find that there are literally thousands of them. How are you supposed to keep up? Turns out it’s pretty easy – you go to the “Carnival of Space”!

Every week a different astronomy- or space-related blog gathers together the best of the previous week’s blogging about space, and this collection is known as the “Carnival of Space”. It offers readers the chance to read the best articles, features and even videos and podcasts from the previous week, and is a great way of staying up to date with what’s going on in the so-called “blogosphere”.

The Carnival is celebrating its 100th edition this week, and is being hosted by the “One Minute Astronomer”.

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Go and have a read – but make yourself a mug of tea or coffee first, you’ll be there a while…!

How to make a solar system…

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Eddington AS is planning an exciting and fun family-friendly event for the International Year of Astronomy 2009..!

All the details are here…

http://ksssm.wordpress.com

Let me know what you think!

Mercury and Moon seen – briefly…

Well, Stella and I managed to catch a brief – a VERY brief! – glimpse of Mercury and the Moon shining together in the sky above Kendal last night. The clouds were basically taking the p, coming and going exactly where the Moon and Mercury were, while the rest of the sky was wonderfully clear… finally the scythe-thin crescent Moon popped into view, and Mercury was right there beneath it, as predicted. I managed to centre Mercury in my 4.5″ ‘scope for a couple of minutes, but to be honest it wasn’t that impressive, just a slightly brighter star than it looked in the binoculars, but by then it was a triumph to actually just get it in the eyepiece…!

Soon after the clouds rolled over the pair, so we packed up and went home. But halfway back the clouds thought it woule be reeeeally funny to part fora  few moments and let the Moon shine through. It looked stunning, with the “earthshine” clearly visible, and with the sky a bit darker the pinprick stars of the Pleiades cluster were visible nearby, too. No Mercury tho, that was still behind the cloud.

We didn’t manage to get any photos, but the Eddington Astronomical Society’s Treasurer, David Allan, managed to take this fine shot…

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Mercury and Moon shining together tonight…

If the sky’s clear this evening, take a look to the west and you might – if your horizon in that direction is uncluttered and low – see something very pretty…

Tonight a very, very thin crescent Moon will be shining just above the elusive planet Mercury at dusk. Not only that, but the Pleiades star cluster will be just above the Moon too, so we have a chance to see three attractive celestial objects in the same small field of view!

This is what we’ll see after sunset – from here in Kendal, anyway; your own view will depend on your location, of course… please click on the images to bring up full size versions, as usual… Mercury is the bright “star” just beneath the Moon…

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Tomorrow evening the Moon will be a little bigger and higher in the sky, and although it will be farther away from Mercury it will still be very useful for finding it…

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Look through a “Portal to the Universe”…

Wouldn’t it be useful if there was one site you could go to for a snapshot view of the best space-related webcams, blogs and sites?

There is! 🙂

Portal to The Universe

Another HiRISE volcanic treat!

I learned a valuable lesson yesterday – don’t take newly released HiRISE images at face value when they appear on the HiRISE site. Images that appear to be a bit, well, “ho hum” can actually be just tiny parts of a much more wow-some view that’s worth some serious exploring.

This is one of the latest batch of images to come from HiRISE…

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Doesn’t look that impressive, does it? And I have to be honest, the image there by itself didn’t grab my attention very much… but the title caught my eye. “Landslide alcove…” What landslide? What alcove? There’s nothing like that on that picture… hmmm, must be somewhere on the main image tho… let’s have a look…

OMG!!!

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Look at that! A great chunk of the ground just ker-ferrUMPed down into the canyon below! Imagine standing there and seeing that happen, watching as literally thousands of tons of rock and dirt fell away and slumped down into the end of the canyon in an enormous avalanche… It must have happened aeons ago tho, because if you zoom in on the debris apron you can see it’s pocked with many, many craters…

Of course, I couldn’t resist adding a little “Stucolour” to the scene… as ever, click on the image for a full size view…

 

 

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HiRISE…. what a camera… Mars… what a planet! 🙂

HiRISE zooms in on Pavonis…

The HiRISE camera onboard NASA’s Mars Reconaissance Orbiter has done it again – sent back a stunningly detailed image of a fascinating part of Mars, that is…

Anyone and everyone “into space” has heard of Olympus Mons, the largest volcano on Mars and, probably, in the solar system. But fewer people know the names Ascraeus, Arsia and Pavonis, a trio of smaller volcanoes – sometimes referred to as the “Three Princes” -that lie to the SE of the mighty Olympus…

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Pavonis Mons is probably the most famous of the three, because it was featured heavily in Kim Stanley Robinson’s beyond-superb Mars Trilogy sci-fi novels (“Red Mars”, “Green Mars” and “Blue Mars”). In Red Mars, the martian colonists used the summit caldera of Pavonis Mons as the base – literally – of Mars’ first space elevator, which is why I’ve loved it ever since –

Anyway, the latest batch of HiRISE releases features a close-up of an area near the summit of Pavonis Mons, and it features some gorgeous detail. But it’s also a little puzzling, because at first glance the image looks rather blurry and fuzzy, like it’s out of focus. To show you what I mean, here’s a colourisation I did from the RGB slice… click on the image to bring up a full size version…

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See? Doesn’t it look blurry? It isn’t of course, because… well, I’ll let the HiRISE site explain…

Pavonis Mons is one of the three giant Tharsis Montes shield volcanoes. Its summit rises so far above the surface that the atmosphere is extremely thin, even for Mars.

Dust that reaches these heights (for example, during major dust storms) is hard to remove, so the upper parts of these volcanoes are covered by vast deposits of dust. The dust is moved a little by the thin winds, producing ripples and other textures near the limit of HiRISE’s resolution. The fluffy, ripply surface looks “smudged” or out of focus, but by looking at some of the small impact craters you can see that the HiRISE camera is, indeed, properly focused. It’s the surface of Mars that is blurry!

The impact craters also show that the dust is not a thin veneer. Instead, it is a thick coat, at least several meters (yards) deep. This mantling of dust hides the details of the lava flows and vents, frustrating volcanologists but delighting those who study dust!

Ah, that explains it! Here are another couple of my totally unscientific colourisations, to bring out some more of that fascinating surface detail…

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I love that last one, you can see individual ripples of dust on the surface there… 🙂

But the wider angle view turned out to be even more intriguing than the colour strip, because away from the area imaged in colour are some truly fascinating and bewildering features. I’m no expert, I’m just a fan, so I’m going to just show what I found here and let you all just marvel at the power of HiRISE… and maybe someone on the HiRISE team will drop me a line to tell me what we’re actually looking at! (hint hint!)

Ok, here goes… don’t forget to click on the images to bring up full size versions…

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What the frak is going on there?!?! It looks like a small crater, with several strange gullies in the slope on the left, trailing down to the crater floor, and some very disturbed… odd… weird looking terrain on the right. And what’s that thing sticking up into the air, down at the bottom there (about the 7 o’clock position), casting such a long shadow?  

Of course, I couldn’t resist making a colourised version…

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In another part of the image, there’s another similar feature – a crater with a distinctly bizarre right hand side (that’s my orientation, the L-R thing, it doesn’t relate to the actual HiRISE pic, ok?)…

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And look, down at the bottom there – another protrubrance!

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And then I saw this…

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That small cluster of craters must have been made when either a single meteoroid broke up above the surface and hit the ground in a hail of stones, or a swarm of meteorites came in and shotgun-blasted the volcano’s side. Just amazing.

THAT’s why I love HiRISE! It just shows us one wonder after another, and it rewards people who take the time to, well, just look a little closer, with yet MORE wonders… 🙂

If Altair fails, the Eagle might land..?

Im sure you’re well aware of NASA’s plans to Return to The Moon around 2020, using the shuttle replacement “Orion” Crew Exploration Vehicle, and the next generation lunar lander, “Altair”.

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Plans are pretty well advanced on these programs, test flights are being scheduled and everything… and yet…

Not everyone in NASA – or the wider space exploration community – is happy with, or about, the whole “Constellation” program that includes Orion and Altair. Some experts are convinced the Ares rocket won’t fly because of vibration problems and other technical issues. And then there’s the cost…

So, behind the scenes, various groups and parties are busy working out alternatives to parts of or even the whole Constellation program. In a very interesting post on NASAWATCH today, one of those alternatives is shown in great detail. Here’s a screengrab of a proposed “reusable lunar lander”, taken from the PDF file you can view on or download from the post…

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That looks interesting… HANG ON!! It looks very familiar too!! Whoever “came up” with this revolutionary design seems to have been “inspired” by the classic Gerry Anderson sci fi series SPACE 1999, which featured what is quite probably the Best Science Fiction Spacecraft Ever…

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The Eagle Transporter! 🙂 Isn’t that a gorgeous ship?! I LOVED that ship when it was flying from Moonbase Alpha in the series. Ok, so the series itself was cheesier than the Cheddar counter in ASDA, with some of the worst acting, poorest storylines and laughable aliens ever seen on TV, but there was a kind of so-bad-it’s-brilliant charm about it, and the technology was convincing, practical, and way ahead of its time, and that made it very appealing for a space mad kid like yours truly…

And it looks like I wasn’t the only one who fell in love with the design, doesn’t it? 🙂

Will this Eagle fly? Probably not; there’s far too much time, money and political power invested in Constellation already, but hey, you never know. But in a perfect world, we’d be seeing this scene at the Kennedy Space Centre already…

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(LOVE that faked photo! Found it via a Google search)

Good old Gerry Anderson, see? Way ahead of his time. Now all we need is for Richard Branson to build a full size version of Fireball XL5 to take crews to the ISS, and we’re away… 🙂

Carnival of Space #99

… is now online and available for your reading pleasure, over at “Alice’s Astro Info“… Alice has done a great job with the Carnival, so go catch up with the best of the week’s space blogging! 🙂

Kepler opens a window on Mankind’s future…

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** Welcome to Carnival of Space #100 readers! **

As you read this, far out in space, way out in the Deep Black, after its dust cover was ejected succesfully, the first glints of starlight have streamed down into the Kepler telescope, been collected by its CCDs and turned into images. Here’s the first image released by the Kepler team… click on it to bring up a full size version, as usual…

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That, dear readers, is a truly historic image, and it’s not embroidering things too much to suggest that it will go on to become an iconic image. Why? Well, before we get on to that, let’s look at some stats first.

That central image ( the one split into rectangles; the squares top left and top right are magnified crops of areas of interest – see later), is a portrait of an area of sky roughly 100 degrees square. It is a 60 second exposure, taken on April 8th by the equivalent of a 95 Megapixel camera. And it shows an estimated 14 MILLION stars.

Like the view? Get used to it, because during Kepler’s 4 year (minimum) mission it’s not going to change. Kepler is going to stare and stare and stare at this area of sky relentlessly, monitoring 100,000 of those 14 million stars for changes in brightness that would indicate they are being orbited by Earth-like planets. The great hope for Kepler is that it will detect Earth-like planets in Earth-like orbits, i.e. in the zones around their stars where conditions would be “Earth-like”, i.e. warm and stable enough for liquid water and, possibly, life.

Which is why that image is so iconic. This image is the first footstep on en epic, heroic, scientific quest, probably the Holy Grail of all astronomy – the search for Other Earths Out There.  There are roughly (who’s gonna argue?!) 14 million stars in Kepler’s field of view, and 100,000 of those 14 million have been selected as candidates for close observation. Kepler is such a high tech piece of kit, is so sensitive, and its team are so dedicated and brilliant, that the lokelyhood of all those 100,000 candidate stars being duds is ridiculously small… which means that there’s a good chance, a very good chance, an excellent chance, that the first Earth-like world to be discovered by Mankind is right there, on that image, a mote of data lost in the glare of one of those tiny, pinprick points of light. One of those peppercorn stars is destined to be imomortalised as the parent star of “New Earth”, “Earth 2”, “Nova Terra,” or “Terra Nova” or whatever it ends up being called.

Doesn’t that just make you shiver?

Look at that image again. While some are clearly brighter than others, every single one of those  14 million pricks of light is a star… a distant sun… a huge, almost unimaginably powerful nuclear furnace that shines with the energy of raging atomic reactions. Many will be orbited by planets, the statistics make that a simple, undeniable fact. Many of those planets will probably be of the ridiculous “hot jupiter” type I am so unexcited by.

( Actually, there’s one of those on there already: the top left box highlights the position of TrES2, an extra-solar “hot jupiter” planet, discovered in 2006, orbiting the 750 LY distant star GSC 03549-02811. It’s “year” is just 2.5 days long, which I have trouble with, but that’s just me. For the record, the other box, top right, shows the position and a close-up view of a star cluster, NGC 6791, which is 13,000 light years away…)

Ah, but if even just a handful of them are orbited by planets as small as Earth, and if only a few of that handful of worlds are the right distance from their star to have liquid water… rivers, streams and seas… then when we look at that image we are looking at the destinations of the first interstellar probes – and beyond them, the first manned starships, whichever century they are built in. 

And talking of starships, the timing of this picture’s release is very fortuitois – or clever – because it ties in with the release of the new STAR TREK movie, which you’ll know (unless you”ve been living in a cave for the past three years!) is “Lost” producer JJ Abrams’ re-boot of the mega-successful franchise which takes the story right back to its roots, to the days when Kirk and Spock and the rest of the gang were all just wet behind the ears cadets at Starfleet Academy…

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What’s the connection? Well, it might be just a personal thing, my own private take on what Kepler is all about, but, as I’ve suggested here before, Kepler is the USS Enterprise of our generation. If we can’t build an Enterprise or a starship for real… yet… then Kepler is the next best thing, because, like the beautiful, sleek ship of Kirk, Spock and Bones, Kepler’s mission is to “Seek out strange new worlds”. Okay, so Kepler can’t actually fly to these worlds at warp speed, with a migraine-inducing kaleidescope whirl of colour, but it can see – or at least detect – them from a distance.

Actually, we don’t want Kepler to find “strange” new worlds, do we? We want it to find familiar-looking worlds, worlds that remind us of home, worlds that are less like the bizarre, Salvador Dali versions of Jupiter found so far – those great, bloated puffballs of gas that are tortured by the gravity and heat of their ridiculously-close parent stars – and more like our own. We want Kepler to find planets the same size as Earth, in the same orbit around their star as Earth is around the Sun…

But essentially, I suggest, the good ships Enterprise and Kepler are related, in that their primary mission is to search the stars for new worlds, and in so doing expand our horizons and help us to understand and appreciate our place in this epic, beautiful, terrifying, awe-inspiring and humbling universe we live in.

But there’s one big difference, and it’s this: the Enterprise’s bridge has always been pretty much strictly off limits to all but a handful of its crew. Apart from the odd – usually annoying – passenger, and a few lovely, long-legged, mini-skirted, beehive hairdo ensigns who nipped in for a moment to hand Kirk a clipboard to scribble his name on, the Enterprise bridge has always been a high-tech officer’s club with very limited access for plebs like us…

But Kepler’s bridge is different. Its’ bridge – its website, where its pictures and results will be posted during its 4 year mission – is open to all, everyone’s welcome to walk through the hissing doors and gaze at the big screen. There aren’t just a dozen chairs there, there are millions of them – for us, all of us spaceflight enthusiasts, armchair astronomers, space geeks and dreamers…

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We can be a part of this great adventure – in fact, the Kepler team have already shown us that they WANT us to be a part of it, by giving so many interviews and writing for so many blogs, like my good friend Rui’s “Beyond The Cradle”.

So, even though I’m the first to admit that it is perhaps, at first glance, rather less than impressive visually, that Kepler “First Light” image is historic, and iconic. It’s up there, I think – though I know some will disagree! – with the Hubble’s “Pillars of Creation” and “Deep Field” images; it’s up there with the Apollo “Earthrise” photo, the portrait of Aldrin standing on the Moon, and as important as the first surface photos of Mars taken by Viking. That image is important. It is, literally, a window, through which we can see – and almost reach out and touch – the future. The far future, admittedly, but a very real future nonetheless.

And if you don’t find that exciting, and thrilling, and awe-inspiring, then I don’t know what would move you.

So, Kepler has tasted starlight for the first time, and is now gathering its first data. It’s no exaggeration to say that the future literally begins here, because somewhere, on that image, in one of those rectangles, is a star that is destined to go down in the history of Mankind as the sun that shines in the sky of the first Earth-like world ever found. One day people will fly to that sun, and land on that world, and when they do they will carry with them copies of that very image, and marvel at how far they’ve come.