Reading Douglas

So following Rita and Emmas cue here is my reading Douglas post. In honour of the great man and towel day I bring you a passage that I think should be the opening passage in every country in the worlds constitution.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, it exemplifies Douglas Adams ability to make a huge amount of sense with passages that snake around back and fourth, something I will always love him and his writing for

(un)Happy Valentines day in space

Its the 14th of February, or at least thats what the calendar on the wall says, you have been out in deep space heading towards that new colony for so long each day pretty much blurs in to the next. Despite how cold it is outside (and believe me its cold), today is a day to get out the candles, throw a fresh table cloth over the zero g dinning table, open a fresh bottle of onboard engine fermented merlot and splash out on some really rare food cubes (the macaroni and cheese all but ran out several years ago appart from one pack you have been hoarding for a special occasion). Its valentines day and time for romance!

After your romantic meal and your partner retire for a little zero g love making with the hope of producing a little zero g baby to continue the mission (and the human race) onwards towards Earth 2.0 (Earth 1.0 being sadly decimated by giant zombie mutant howler monkeys… dont ask). However according to a new report by NASA scientists making your little bundle of joy is a bit of a longshot. The problem is that space is full of high energy protons which have respect for neither the hulls of spaceships nor human DNA. A study conducted by Dr Straume of the NASA Ames center and his team, seems to conclude that chances are that any fetus conceived in space would be irrevocably damaged by this radiation. Men dont get off any better with decreased sperm counts and generally decreased fertility.

In fact the team conclude that with todays ships, they wouldn’t rate a pregnancies chance of coming to term on a trip to Mars never mind a multi generation journey to the nearest habitable planet. The problem is that radiation like that given off by the sun and found in space can damage out DNA causing defects which in adults can lead to conditions such as cancer. In an unborn baby which is still growing and developing, where DNA is even more important, this effect can be even more catastrophic. Studies in non-human primates have found that about half of all pregnancies failed with a dose of only 0.07 Sieverts (a unit which measures radiation exposure). To put that in perspective, the dose of radiation you would receive on the surface of Mars without shielding is between 0.33 Sieverts and 0.08 Sieverts, much higher than the dangerous level. The report suggest that you might use the soil on Mars to effectively shield against this radiation but notes this level of shielding would be difficult in space.

So where does this leave our budding astro babies ? Well the report also discusses some ways in which the danger from radiation might be mitigated. These range from identifying biomarkers that would identify which astronauts would be the least susceptible to radiation damage, to using electromagnetic fields on ships (big magnets basically) to deflect the charged radiation in much the same way as Earth’s magnetic field protects us here. The problem with this last approach would be the generating the amount of energy required to produce such fields may be prohibitive.

For the new residents of Mars however the team suggest another idea: using Phobos one of Mars moons as a maternity ward. Phobos is closer to its planet than any other moon in our solar system, so much so that Mars covers 25% of the sky. The Mars side of the Phobos also happens play host to a large crater called Stickney crater. Inside this crater our mothers to be could be shielded from as much as 90% of harmful radiation. So perhaps all future Martians will in reality be Phobosians!


Its early days for this kind of research and more study has to be done. Until then space babies are strictly a bad idea and space condoms (possibly lead lined) are a must. Dont say science doenst know how to kill the mood on valentines day!

Tore Straume, Steve Blattnig, & Cary Zeitlin (210). Radiation Hazards and the Colonization of Mars:
Brain, Body, Pregnancy, In-Utero Development, Cardio, Cancer, Degeneration Journal of Cosmology, 12, 3992-4033

Guest post: Dr Chris Evans – behind an unexpected discovery

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The internet has been abuzz this week with news of a recently discovered massive star being booted from its home cluster. I have the good fortune to know one of the scientists involved in this discovery and have asked him to give us an insight in what went in to this find.

So without further delay I introduce our first guest post from Dr Chris Evans, a researcher at the UK Astronomy Technology Center.

Pick a clear night in the southern hemisphere, get out of town, and let your eyes get night adjusted – not only are you assailed by the depth and scale of the Milky Way, but you also see the faint fuzzy patches of the Magellanic Clouds.  Here’s a pretty spectacular shot from ESO, when Comet McNaught was visible.

These are two irregular galaxies outside of our own, only visible from the south, with distances of 160,000 light years to the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), and 195,000 to the Small Magellanic Cloud.  These are great laboratories for learning about how stars live their lives, from birth in beautiful nebulae, to their deaths, sometimes as spectacular supernovae explosions.

The fruits of some of our work in the Clouds came together early this year with some very cool new observations from the Hubble Space Telescope, leading to a journal paper and a press release on a so-called “runaway” star, that we think has been ejected from the centre of the largest stellar nursery in the local universe, 30 Doradus.

Astronomers often have unpublished data from projects that were incomplete due to bad weather, people leaving the subject, the onslaught of more immediate deadlines and so on.  In our case, we had two observations of a bright blue star on the western edge of 30 Doradus; the much bigger project we had planned was thwarted by bad weather. Months later at a conference, Nolan Walborn, based at STScI in Baltimore, was looking through the observations and recognised the tell-tale signs of one of the most massive, rare types of stars called O2 stars. Even with all of our work over the past decades we still only know of a handful of these.  A journalist once asked me if they lived fast and died young?  It’s a cheesy but accurate description. After just a few million years they effectively run out of fuel in their cores, causing a fatal collapse of their atmospheres leading to a supernova explosion. Intriguingly, the speed of this O2 star (relative to the Sun) looked peculiar when compared to the rest of the LMC, but at the time we dimissed this as perhaps being a binary system.

Cut to 2009… NASA launched the fifth servicing mission to the HST which installed some new instruments, as well as giving Hubble some much needed TLC (new batteries and gyroscopes) to keep it going for a few more years.  One of these new instruments was the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, which takes spectra at ultraviolet wavelengths.

Our O2 star was used as one of the calibration targets immediately after the servicing mission, using some of the spectral lines to help focus COS. Nolan contacted me the moment he saw the data as the COS observation tells us that this star has a stellar wind that accelerates up to a velocity of 3450km/s – that’s 1% of the speed of light just from the processes in the atmosphere of the star, some acceleration!

By chance, the star was also observed as part of a new survey that over thirty of us across Europe (and beyond) are working on, the VLT-FLAMES Tarantula Survey, in which we’ve observed 1000 stars in that part of the LMC. It’s rare you have a real “eureka” moment of discovery, but this was one of them.

The new data, taken over the course of a year, show no changes in the velocity of the star, ruling out a massive binary companion. This tells us that its velocity is very different to the local gas, suggesting it was not formed locally and that it has been ejected from the dense core of 30 Dor, thought to be home of some of the most massive stars known. Theoreticians think that runaway stars like ours can either be ejected via interactions with other stars or via the kick of a supernova explosion. The key to this story is that the cluster at the centre of 30 Dor is thought to be too young to have hosted any supernovae, suggesting this as the first compelling evidence for a star booted-out by more massive stars.
C. J. Evans, N. R. Walborn, P. A. Crowther, V. Henault-Brunet, D. Massa, W. D. Taylor, I. D. Howarth, H. Sana, D. J. Lennon, & J. Th. van Loon (2010). A massive runaway star from 30 Doradus The Astrophysical Journal Letters, 715 (2) arXiv: 1004.5402v1

Hunt for missing spacecraft

This morning sees the launch of the newest project from the zooniverse team, moonzoo ! Using high resolution images from the LCROSS mission, we want people to help us map craters, find unusual structures and help find lost spacecraft. Turns out we dont know where a bunch of stuff we sent to the moon is, LCROSS is the first mission with a high enough resolution to be able to see manmade objects on the surface of the moon. We covered this mission before but now its your turn to pour over the stunning images of the moons surface.

so head over to and happy hunting.

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Astronomy photographer of the year guest gallery

Hey all

Just a quick heads up to advertise a great project run by Greenwich Royal Observatory. The astronomy photographer of the year competition invites members of the public to submit their images of the night sky.

This year they are asking guest astronomers to curate flicker galleries of their favourite entries and have asked me to take part this month. You can find my gallery and links to the flicker pool at here. I cant heap enough praise on the entries, pretty much all of the images are simply stunning and it was a hard job to pick just 18!



oops forgot to include the link


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Building a telescope (live tweeting)

Hey everyone

So this morning I head out to a field in Chilbolton to help build the UK node of the LOFAR radio telescope. Today we will be helping lay cabling for the scope and you can, if my iphone battery holds out and signal at the site is good, follow the effort on twitter @allinthegutter. I will have a blog post in the next few days about it as well.

Wish me luck

happy birthday Hubble from stuart

Happy birthday Hubble !  Thank you for many years of stunning views of the Universe.

I have to say Emma pretty much took the best image Hubble has ever taken as her favorite. Its a hard act to beat ! I am however very partial to this series of images taken by Hubble over the years.

As the glorious Hitchhikers Guide to the galaxy tells us “Space… is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space…”. A lot of things in space are big as well and that normally means that the time scales over which they change are very long. So long in fact that its often very hard to see things changing at all, the universe appears timeless. What I love about these images of the variable star V838 Monocerotis is that over only a few years we can see the image of the star changing.

The star at the center of this image underwent a catastrophic outburst. In a short period of time it became roughly 1 million times brighter than our sun, giving out a huge amount of light in the process. The light which came directly towards us arrived first but then gradually over the years, light heading away from the star in a shell, reflected off of surrounding gas and dust eventually heading towards the earth. As we let time go on the light illuminates different regions around the star.

Despite the fact that the images look like they are showing a concave bubble around the star its actually convex with the material which appears to the the side of the bubble closer to us actually being behind the star.

I just love seeing something in the sky evolve in this way! Thanks again Hubble !