Lovejoy’s fiery farewell

Comet Lovejoy, seen here by the SOHO satellite, is on a final plunge towards the Sun. Later today it will get too close (perhaps as little as 140,000 km from the solar surface) and be destroyed by the extreme temperatures. The poor thing never had a chance of reaching its destination before it disintegrated; a ball of dirty ice couldn’t even cope with the heat of my kitchen! Oh, and before you complain that there’s no way I’d find a comet in my house, all I’d have to do is invite sometime-poster-on-this-blog Stuart round and provide him with some liquid nitrogen.

UPDATE: IT SURVIVED!! The Solar Dynamics Observatory saw it fly away:

A Christmas burst

Last Christmas something exploded in the constellation of Andromeda. Well, that’s not quite true. This gamma-ray burst (named GRB 101225A) went off a long, long time ago, but the resulting flash finally arrived last year and were picked up by the SWIFT satellite (which then probably interrupted several festive lunches with its Burst Alert alarm).

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.

Artist's impression (with festive enhancement) of a supernova explosion and resulting gamma-ray burst. Photo credit: NASA with apologies

The majority of gamma ray bursts are thought to be massive stellar explosions in distant galaxies, but the Christmas event didn’t fit this picture; the initial burst of gamma rays lasted for an unusually long time and, despite the efforts of powerful optical telescopes, no convincing candidate for the host galaxy could be found.

Nearly a year on from the initial observation two groups of astronomers have come up with two different, but equally plausible, explanations for the odd GRB 101225A. The first team suggest that it was caused by something small, like a comet, breaking apart and then falling into a neutron star within our own Milky Way. The alternative theory, put forward by the second team, also involves a neutron star, but in this case it’s merging with a young red giant star in another galaxy.

Unless the host of this gamma ray burst is found, and its distance measured, there’s no easy way to choose between these two options. Hopefully deeper optical data with, for example, a telescope like Hubble will provide the answers and settle this debate.

ResearchBlogging.orgThöne CC, de Ugarte Postigo A, Fryer CL, Page KL, Gorosabel J, Aloy MA, Perley DA, Kouveliotou C, Janka HT, Mimica P, Racusin JL, Krimm H, Cummings J, Oates SR, Holland ST, Siegel MH, De Pasquale M, Sonbas E, Im M, Park WK, Kann DA, Guziy S, García LH, Llorente A, Bundy K, Choi C, Jeong H, Korhonen H, Kubànek P, Lim J, Moskvitin A, Muñoz-Darias T, Pak S, & Parrish I (2011). The unusual γ-ray burst GRB 101225A from a helium star/neutron star merger at redshift 0.33. Nature, 480 (7375), 72-4 PMID: 22129726 (alternative link for the paper here)

ResearchBlogging.orgCampana S, Lodato G, D’Avanzo P, Panagia N, Rossi EM, Della Valle M, Tagliaferri G, Antonelli LA, Covino S, Ghirlanda G, Ghisellini G, Melandri A, Pian E, Salvaterra R, Cusumano G, D’Elia V, Fugazza D, Palazzi E, Sbarufatti B, & Vergani SD (2011). The unusual gamma-ray burst GRB 101225A explained as a minor body falling onto a neutron star. Nature, 480 (7375), 69-71 PMID: 22129725 (alternative link for the paper here)

In other astro-news: hello SCUBA-2, Hubble’s milestone, an anniversary & astroweather on the news?

One story is dominating the astronomy news this week – the announcement of exoplanet and, in the words of some sections of the media, potential ‘Earth twin’ Kepler-22b. I don’t want to talk about that though; I want to give some attention to a few other interesting bits of astro-news that are in danger of being eclipsed. If you do want to discuss the much hyped new planet however, it’s the topic for this week’s astronomy twitter journal club.

Firstly, a new era of submillimetre astronomy began at the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii with the unveiling of the SCUBA-2 camera. This large instrument is the successor to SCUBA, which I’ve written about here before. Indeed it’s its faster, more sensitivity son, and should hopefully prove an invaluable tool in understanding the dusty Universe. To do this it has to be cooled to within 0.1 degree of absolute zero which the press release confidently states makes it “…colder than anything in the Universe that we know of”. Except, as was quickly pointed out on twitter, the Planck satellite which also has to operate at these chilly temperature.

The 4.5 tonne SCUBA-2 instrument mounted on the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope. Photo credit: Joint Astronomy Centre

The next story on my list is an intriguing e-petition calling for astronomy weather reports to be included in the normal weather forecast:

We the undersigned request that The Met Office produces regular Stargazing / Astronomy focused weather information, to be shown as part of the BBC Weather reports. Not only would this be a boon to amateur astronomers, it will also help keep the study of Astronomy prevalent in the public consciousness, which in turn helps encourage the study of science, which should be a boon to the economy.

Onto the Hubble Space Telescope and the publication of the 10,000th refereed scientific paper using its observations. Reaching this milestone really reflects how Hubble has managed to remain a cutting-edge instrument throughout its long life. The paper in question reports the finding of the faintest supernova ever associated with a long duration gamma ray burst – you can read it here. I wonder if the Space Telescope Science Institute will send the authors a prize for their achievement?

I was going to end with this story reporting the discovery of the most massive black holes ever seen. However, I really want to devote a separate post to this (coming soon, hopefully). Instead, here’s one of the most iconic images of our own planet – the blue marble hanging in space – which was taken nearly 40 years ago today. Thanks to Galileo’s Pendulum for the tip.

Our Earth as seen by Apollo 17. Photo credit: NASA

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 explaining the whole process. Fingers crossed everything goes to plan!


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: