Mars Curiosity & a curious landing strategy

This weekend NASA launches its new mission to the red planet: the Mars Science Laboratory. On-board will be a new rover – Mars Curiosity – the larger and heavier successor to the massively successful Spirit and Opportunity which have been roaming around since up there 2004 (though Spirit stopped working earlier this year).

Curiosity will get to the martian surface in a new, untested, way. Instead of parachuting all the way down, it will complete its descent in a more controlled manner via a ‘sky crane’. I was looking for more details on this interesting maneuver and came across this great infographic from space.com explaining the whole process. Fingers crossed everything goes to plan!


Moonlighting

When I’m not doing astronomy I love to read. I recently revisited Little Women, a book I remembered fondly from childhood, and was disappointed to find it to be nothing like my memory of it. My friend Mel saw my complaining on facebook and asked if I wanted to write about it for her book blog Mel’s Random Reviews. So, if you fancy a break from astronomy (and you don’t mind me ranting) check out Little (occasionally annoying, sometimes infuriating) Women‏.


How to (hopefully) not drown in data

More is better, right? Bigger telescopes and bigger surveys are both undoubtedly good things, but to make the best use of these advances we need to be able to handle the corresponding increase in data flow, and subsequent pressure on the astronomical archives which are going to have to cope with it.

This is a cross posting with the Astronomy Twitter Journal Club who are going to be discussing this topic on twitter (search for the #astrojc hashtag) this Thursday at 20:10 GMT. If you’re interested please come and join in.

This ‘data tsunami’ is almost upon us, according to a new paper by G. Bruce Berriman and Steven Groom. The recent addition of large datasets from the Spitzer and WISE telescopes has massively increased queries to the online Infrared Science Archive (IRSA), and, unsurprisingly, slowed down the response time of the database. This is only going to get worse as the archive’s growth is expected to accelerate over the next few years.

The paper also points out that how astronomers use archives is going to change. At the moment, raw datasets are typically downloaded and then reduced on a user’s own computer. However, once data reach peta-byte scales it’s likely that they’ll have to be handled in situ, if only to avoid breaking the internet.

So what can be done? And, more importantly, can we do whatever we’re going to do in as cheap a way as possible? Firstly, we need better ways to search multiple online datasets efficiently – the excellent Virtual Observatory is already developing techniques to help here.

Next, we need to explore new technologies like cloud computing. The Square Kilometre Array (which will generate 10 gigabytes per second) will have theSkyNet, the (worryingly named) community based cloud which will harness the power of volunteers’ computers to process its data.

Finally we need to talk more, especially to IT experts in computer infrastructure, and then share what we’ve learned in the authors’ proposed new journal dedicated to information technology in astronomy. We then need to properly reward the effort people put into this area, as well as giving young astronomers a grounding in software engineering to better prepare them for this data-heavy future.

If we do all that then, the authors’ suggest, we’ll be able to survive the coming data flood. Fingers crossed.

ResearchBlogging.orgG. Bruce Berriman, & Steven L. Groom (2011). How Will Astronomy Archives Survive The Data Tsunami? ACM Queue arXiv: 1111.0075v1


Backstage science – the telescope with 24 eyes

KMOS, the K-band Multi-Object Spectrometer, is a huge instrument for a Very Large Telescope in Chile. It’s currently being built and tested at the Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinbugh by, amongst others, my friend Michele. I’ll let him tell you all about it:


Dipping into the Royal Society’s archive

I’m not supposed to be blogging tonight but I’ve allowed myself half an hour to advertise the announcement from the Royal Society today that they’re making their entire journal archive permanently available online for free. The society was founded in 1660 with the aim of bringing together eminent scientists to discuss their research and promote their ideas about how the world works. The society’s journal – “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society” was (and is) a key part of this, and contains around 60,000 papers from, amongst others, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Benjamin Franklin.

I went to the archive and selected the year 1785 at random to see what came up. There were technical papers such as:

A Description of a New System of Wires in the Focus of a Telescope, for Observing the Comparative Right Ascensions and Declinations of Coelestial Objects; Together with a Method of Investigating the Same When Observed by the Rhombus, Though It Happen not to be Truly in an Equatorial Position. By the Rev. Francis Wollaston, LL.B. F.R.S.

which were immediately followed by one which I’d put into the category of “I was out walking and saw something odd”:

An Account of a Stag’s Head and Horns, Found at Alport, in the Parish of Youlgreave, in the County of Derby. In a Letter from the Rev. Robert Barker, B.D. to John Jebb, M.D. F.R.S.

I was also pleased to see two papers from William Herschel, after whom the Herschel Space Observatory (which gets lots of mentions on this blog) was named. In 1782 Herschel was appointed “The King’s Astronomer” which allowed him to devote himself to his astronomical work. His first publication of 1785 was the addition of over 400 objects to his catalogue of double stars. As he writes:

The happy opportunity of giving all my time to the pursuit of astronomy which is has pleased the Royal Patron of this Society to furnish me with, has put it in my power to make this present collection much more perfect than the former.

His second, “On the Construction of the Heavens” was an analysis of his observations and his attempt to understand the Universe. It opens with a statement that I think is still extremely relevant today:

…if we would hope to make any progress in an investigation of this delicate nature, we ought to avoid two opposite extremes, of which I can hardly say which is the most dangerous. If we indulge a fanciful imagination and build worlds of our own, we must not wonder at our going wide from the path of truth and nature…On the other hand, if we add observation to observation, without attempting to draw not only certain conclusions, but also conjectural views from them, we offend against the very end for which only observations ought to be made.

My time’s up so I can’t poke around in the archive anymore tonight. If you come across something interesting over there please come back and leave a note of it in the comments – more distractions from work are always welcome!

ResearchBlogging.orgHerschel, W. (1785). On the Construction of the Heavens. By William Herschel, Esq. F. R. S. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 75, 213-266 DOI: 10.1098/rstl.1785.0012

ResearchBlogging.orgHerschel, W. (1785). Catalogue of Double Stars. By William Herschel, Esq. F. R. S. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 75, 40-126 DOI: 10.1098/rstl.1785.0006


Carnival of Space 220: Shuttles, satellites, comets, tweetups, competitions & more

Hello all and welcome to the round up of what’s been going on in the Universe this week. If you’d like to find out more, or get involved yourself, check out the Carnival’s homepage over at Universe Today.

Before we get started, an important request: Nicole at NoisyAstronomer.com is asking people to help the residents of Louisa County, Virginia, which was the epicenter of the 5.8 magnitude east cost earthquake that happened earlier this year.

Onto the stories, and let’s begin with some space-travel news. NASA Space Flight gives an update on the progress New Orleans engineers are making on the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. The current aim is for this vehicle to blast off into orbit in 2013, with later missions aiming for the moon and perhaps beyond.

In other NASA news, Next Big Future report on news that the Space Agency hid the cheaper cost of in-space fuel depots to get a heavy lift rocket. They also cover Robert Bigelow’s prediction that China will have claimed large parts of the moon as its territory before 2030.

If NASA’s taking too long for you, how about launching your own spacecraft? For a small donation you can, thanks to the Sprite project.

Enterprise, as seen by Riofrio Spacetime

Time for some history now. Riofrio Spacetime has paid a visit to Enterprise, the test vehicle which made the Space Shuttle program possible, whilst I visited SCUBA, a groundbreaking astronomical instrument which opened up the far-infrared – a previously little-explored wavelength range. Finally Vintage Space tells the story of Apollo 10, the dress rehearsal for the moon landing, and Cheap Astro’s podcast reminisces about the STS127 shuttle mission.

There’s more distant thinking over at Universe Today, where Paul Spudis outlines his plan for an affordable lunar base. It includes a type of ‘transcontinental railroad’ which opens up cislunar space – the area between Earth and the Moon – for development.

Moving out into the Solar System, and Astroblog reports that the remnants of Comet C/2010 X1 Elenin, which disintegrated in August, have been found, whilst Dear Astronomer answers the question “Why isn’t Pluto a planet anymore?” On a related note, the Urban Astronomer writes about the swarms of comets which the Spitzer Space Telescope has detected in the solar system around the star Eta Corvi.

SOFIA by CamillaSDO, an attendee at the tweetup

Next up are stories from two tweetups (an informal meeting of people brought together via twitter) that took place recently. Weather Chat and Galileo’s Pendulum share their experiences of meeting astronauts from the final shuttle flight at the STS 135 tweetup in Washington DC. There are some more photos of the event from NASA HQ here. Meanwhile open.NASA and Ian Kluft visited NASA Ames for a tweetup in honour of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA (or the aeroplane with a telescope in the back, that flies even though there’s a giant hole cut in the side, as I like to call it). Again, there’s more photos of the event here (including the one above) and here, as well as two videos from the day.

The re-entry of the ROSAT and UARS satellites recently has highlighted the growing problem of space debris. The Space Review revisits the legal implications of potential damage caused by this junk whilst I’ve been learning how lasers might provide the answer. For lots more information on this subject check out the new edition of The Orbital Debris Newsletter.

Nearly done now (it’s certainly been a busy astro-week!) Alice of Alice’s AstroInfo found a star in 2000 and last week it (may have) exploded. She talks about the thrill of discovery, and what the new X-ray observations might mean. Over at the Chandra Blog Jessica Brodsky has been sleuthing through the Chandra archives on a quest to tag the images.

Finally, if these stories have inspired you, here’s two competitions to get your imaginations going. The 2012 Jim Bean Memorial Writing Contest is looking for “science fiction writers who create positive stories about man’s future in space”. No pulp fiction about large-breasted alien ladies in distant galaxies please! If film’s more your thing enter the American Museum of Natural History’s Beyond Planet Earth contest. They’re looking for original, out-of-this-world ideas on the future of space exploration in 3 minutes or less – watch their introductory video to find out more:


Space cleaner wanted: must have own laser

Since the launch of Sputnik in 1957 we’ve launched tonnes of stuff (literally) into space. We’ve not kept things very tidy up there either, so we now have hundreds of thousands of pieces of junk orbiting around us, threatening to crash into important things like the International Space Station. Or the satellite that handles your TV signal. These range in size from entire defunct satellites, to tiny coin-sized bits (there was even an astronaut’s tool bag for a while). How should we deal with all this mess? Shoot it with a laser of course!

It’s actually a pretty simple idea – laser pulses fired at a piece of debris act as a force which slow it down, thus changing its orbit and eventually making it fall into the atmosphere and safely burn up. It was first proposed 15 years ago but it’s only recently that technology has advanced to a stage that it could be built. I’m imagining that it will look something like this:

(Image from Flash Gordon and borrowed from Thiel-A-Vision)

but the authors of a paper published on the astronomy arXiv today disappointingly have something more like this in mind:

They also note that a project like this would need international co-operation before it could be built. I thought that this was because it would be a complicated thing to construct, but on closer reading it turns out to be a more fundamental issue. It’s to

…avoid concerns that it is really a weapons system.

Probably another good reason not to go with a Flash Gordon inspired design. Still, however it ends up looking, it should be a major help in cleaning up our astronomical mess.

ResearchBlogging.orgClaude R. Phipps, Kevin L. Baker, Brian Bradford, E. Victor George, Stephen B. Libby, Duane A. Liedahl, Bogdan Marcovici, Scot S. Olivier, Lyn D. Pleasance, James P. Reilly, Alexander Rubenchik, David N. Strafford, & Michael T. Valley (2011). Removing Orbital Debris with Lasers Advances in Space Research arXiv: 1110.3835v1


SCUBA’s retirement home

A couple of weeks ago I paid a visit to the newly renovated National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Whilst the new galleries are fantastic (and it’s always great to see dinosaur skeletons) my main focus was on finding the new home of a red cylinder with more than a passing resemblance to a British post box.

This unassuming object is SCUBA – the Sub-mm Common User Bolometer Array – a ground-breaking astronomical instrument which was mounted on the back (or, more accurately, the side) of the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii from 1997 until 2005. It’s job was to trace star formation throughout the Universe by detecting the cold dust surrounding stars, and within galaxies, that’s invisible to optical telescopes. This dust absorbs starlight, heats up (slightly) and re-radiates this stolen energy at longer wavelengths such as the submillimetre (the far-infrared Herschel Space Observatory is also great for this).

SCUBA combined sensitivity with a relatively large field of view, compared to the instruments that proceeded it. This meant that it opened up this hitherto little explored wavelength range, and found unexpected things. One of its most important discoveries were the SCUBA galaxies – extremely dusty, extremely distant, objects undergoing massive amounts of star formation. The image below shows the famous Hubble Deep Field in both optical and submillimetre light. Most of the galaxies seen by Hubble are missing in the SCUBA image, but the ones that are visible are producing around a third of the total optical light present.

The Hubble Deep Field as seen in optical light by Hubble (left), and submm light by SCUBA (right). Image borrowed from http://herschel.cf.ac.uk/science/infrared/astronomy

After its retirement SCUBA returned home to the Astronomy Technology Centre at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, where it was built, before moving to its final resting place in the museum. Its successor, the imaginatively titled SCUBA-2, is just entering routine operations in Hawaii. It’s a shame that everyone in the photo above seems determined to ignore it – if you live nearby maybe you could visit it and give it some of the attention it richly deserves.

ResearchBlogging.orgHolland, W., Robson, E., Gear, W., Cunningham, C., Lightfoot, J., Jenness, T., Ivison, R., Stevens, J., Ade, P., Griffin, M., Duncan, W., Murphy, J., & Naylor, D. (1999). SCUBA: a common-user submillimetre camera operating on the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 303 (4), 659-672 DOI: 10.1046/j.1365-8711.1999.02111.x


Rough Science on Ada Lovelace Day

Today is Ada Lovelace Day when we share stories “…about a woman — whether an engineer, a scientist, a technologist or mathematician — who has inspired you to become who you are today” in honour of Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer (for a ‘computer’ that never existed in her lifetime!)

This is a really good idea but I was having a hard time deciding who to write about. As I explained last year I didn’t really have any inspiring female teachers or role models growing up. I make no apology therefore for turning to the one medium that was showing me women in scientific roles (back in the dark ages before Twitter and blogging): TV, and more specifically, a program from around the turn of the century called Rough Science, which dropped an intrepid group of scientists into an exotic environment (Zanziber, Colorado, New Zealand, Carriacou for example) and challenged them to use their science know-how to solve a variety of problems.

One of the best things about the program was that it included a mix of male and female scientists, and showed them all having ideas, building stuff and generally making science look like a lot of fun. The one I remember most is Kathy Sykes, a physicist (and now Professor of Sciences and Society at Bristol University) whose irrepressible joy in what she was doing really shone through.

Here’s a classic episode from series two. The team are in a tropical paradise, but need a way to cool day and protect themselves from the heat. Problem is, they have to build it all from scratch…


ALMA’s Antennae

Last December I was at an ALMA workshop, predicting that there would be beautiful first images from the new array within a year. Today one arrived, and it didn’t disappoint:

The Antennae galaxies as seen by ALMA (red, pink & yellow) and Hubble (blue)

This is ALMA’s view of the giant clouds of star-forming gas (red, pink and yellow) in the Antennae – a pair of colliding spiral galaxies – combined with the stars seen in the same system by the optical Hubble Space Telescope (blue). For lots more detail on the story check out this nice BBC News article. This image was made with only a small fraction of the dishes that will make up the final array so, all in all, the future’s looking pretty good for ALMA.


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