I was delighted to hear that two groups from Glasgow were winners in last night’s UK Space Conference‘s Arthur Clarke Awards 2011.
Clyde Space, a “leading supplier of small and micro spacecraft systems”, was given the Arthur Clarke Award 2011 for Achievement in Space Commerce, while the University of Strathclyde’s Advanced Space Concepts Laboratory, which “undertakes frontier research on visionary space systems”, was given the Arthur Clarke Award 2011 for Achievement in Space Research.
Congratulations to both, and it’s exciting to me as a Scot and a resident of Glasgow that these two groups, located within 5 miles of one another, are leading the UK in space research and commerce.
This is an auspicious time of the year.
The Sun, on its yearly circuit of the sky*, moves gradually along the ecliptic, a line which is the projection of our solar system’s disk onto our night sky. This line, the ecliptic, is also known as the zodiac, a term originating from the late 14th Century, and deriving from the Greek literally translating as “circle of little animals”. (Incidentally our word for zoo derives from the same origin).
To the ancient Greeks this was indeed a circle of little animals, featuring: a ram, Ares; a bull, Taurus; Pisces the Fish; and many other well known (for all the wrong reasons) constellations. It also features three humans: Aquarius the Water Carrier, said to represent Ganymede, beloved of Zeus; and Gemini the Twins, Castor and Pollux.
The only zodiac constellation which is inanimate is Libra the Scales, taken from Babylonian astrology. The Greeks however didn’t recognise Libra; instead they thought that the stars here marked out Scorpius’ claws, which they considered to be a separate sign.
So the twelve constellations that lie along the ecliptic are most well-known due to astrology, a pseudo-science that suggests there is some significance to which constellation the Sun was in when you were born. This is, of course, bullshit.
There are so many reasons why astrology should be laughed off as pre-scientific magical thinking (no evidence, no mechanism by which it might work, inconsistent etc) but next time you meet an astrologer ask them what star sign you would be if you were born between 30 November and 18 December. If they tell you Sagittarius (if they’re a Hindu astrologer they might also say Scorpius) then tell them they are plain wrong.
On these 18.4 days of the year the Sun is wonderfully absent from the usual twelve zodiac signs, It is still there, however, gracefully moving along the ecliptic, but between 30 November and 18 December it is in the constellation of Ophiuchus the Serpent-bearer.
Ophiuchus does not appear in any astrologer’s zodiac. Back in the early days of astrology, when it was first dreamed up several thousand years ago, there were indeed only twelve constellations lying along the zodiac. Over the past few millennia however the Earth’s axis has wobbled slightly (an effect called precession) with the result that the line of the ecliptic has moved with respect to the constellations, and so an interloper, Ophiuchus, has crept in.
So celebrate all those of you born between 30 November and 18 December (one person in twenty share this star sign); you’re not a Sagittarian at all; you’re an Ophiuchan.
It’s still all bullshit though.
* the Sun, of course, does not orbit the Earth, it’s the other way around. It just looks like it does from down here…
This year I was fortunate enough to be the recipient if two fantastic astronomy awards, and a nominee for another.
In April 2010 I was nominated for the UK Space Conference’s Arthur Clarke Award for Public Promotion of Space (it was won by EADS Astrium).
Then last month, while speaking at the Federation of Astronomical Societies’ 2010 Convention, I was presented with two awards:
The 2010 Eric Zucker Award for Outstanding Contribution to Astronomy, awarded by the Federation of Astronomical Societies
The 2010 Joy Grifiths Award for Meritorious Efforts in the Cause of Darker Skies, awarded by the British Astronomical Association’s Campaign for Dark Skies
Needless to say I was chuffed to win these awards, and they have pride of place on my workdesk:
It’s been exactly five months since my last post, due to a combination of factors: Sam went back to work after maternity leave, and I dropped my workload to 2.5 days a week to help with childcare; I went freelance on top of the end of my last contract; and the lack of dark skies over the Summer meant a drop in my astronomy output!
Normal blogging will hopefully resume as of now!
I haven’t posted anything in the last couple of weeks due to my being “stranded” in the delightful island of Sark by the Eyjafjallajökul volcano eruption in Iceland which grounded most flights into and out of the UK for a week.
There was no real hardship being on Sark for an extra week, especially given that every single night we were there it was clear (and dark). Indeed it seemed clearer on the nights during the air flight ban, and the daytime skies certainly contained fewer, if any, clouds. And no contrails.
These facts are related, as contrails from planes quickly disipate in the atmosphere, spreading out to become indistinguishable from thin cirrus or cirrostratus clouds.
Contrails, short for “condensation trails”, are the visible trails of condensed water vapour in the sky left behind by exhausts of aircraft. They are, essentially, man-made clouds.
This got me thinking; just how much of the “cloud cover” that affects astronomers so badly is down to contrails?
It turns out I’m not the only one worrying about this. In fact it’s been thought a problem for quite some time.
Gerry Gilmore, of Cambridge University (and of Max Alexander‘s excellent Explorers of the Universe portrait exhibition) was saying back in 2006 that the problem of contrails might make ground based telescopes worthless by the year 2050. One small reason, amongst many, to limit our use of planes.
The last time there was such a significant drop in the number of planes in the sky was after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, and back then astronauts on board the International Space Station noticed a decrease in the number of contrails over the US.
The same was true between 16 and 22 April 2010 when, for a few days, flights over Europe stopped, stranding thousands overseas, but giving a brief and welcome respite to astronomers who were able, for once, to enjoy truly clear skies.
For more info than you could ever want on contrails and their impact on ground-based astronomy, see Holger Pederson’s website with links to many articles and reports.
Also worth a look is the apparently now-defunct National Contrail Network, which formed a part of a masters research project at the University of Lancashire. The official homepage link doesn’t work, but there’s plenty of data and info that is accessible.
Here’s a brief overview of the five iPhone apps that I, as an astronomer, find indispensible (in no particular order):
|Weather Pro (£2.39)
Let’s face it, no weather forecast is 100% right, but this app gives you more info than most, allowing you to figure out in advance whether there’ll be clear skies.
|Magic Hour – formerly VelaClock (£2.39)
So, it’s going to be a clear night. Now you need to know: when is sunset? when does astronomical twilight end? Magic hour is your app for that. Also displays moonrise and moonset times, this is the perfect app for figuring out exactly when your skies will be dark.
The very best of all iPhone astronomy apps, Starwalk has an exquisite interface, and is packed full of features. Great for beginners wanting to find their way around the sky, and for experts who want to dig a little deeper.
|Satellite Visibility (£1.79)
Showing iridium flares, ISS & Hubble passes, and many other sats too. Impress your friends by knowing where and when (to the exact second) satellites are due to pass overhead.
OK, so not immediately anything to do with astronomy, but with this RSS aggregator and subscriptions to some astronomy blog feeds (Bad Astronomy, Universe Today…), you’ll be able to keep abreast of all breaking astronomy news.
So only two of these are directly related to astronomy, but I’d be lost without any of these, and for a total cost of just over a tenner these apps are great value for money.
I have just returned to the UK after attending the amazing CAP2010 conference in Cape Town. This five day meeting of science communicators and astronomers from all over the world was an incredible opportunity to swap ideas and discuss what went well during IYA2009, and what we need to build on.
The conference was blogged by many, but nowhere more thoroughly than the psychohistorian’s blog
For me highlights of the conference include:
Dr Chris Engelbrecht discussing his SkyRanger training programme for African park rangers and safari guides
Amelia Ortiz-Gil describing planetarium activities for the blind an partially sighted, “The Sky is in Your Hands”
Sze-leung Cheung covering the Dark Skies Awareness switch-off programme “Dim It!” in Hong Kong
All in all an amazing time.
The true star of the show though was Cape Town itself. It’s a stunning city, towered over by Table Mountain, which I spent a day climbing on the last Saturday of the conference, with Marek Kukula and Carolina Odman.