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

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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


Tweeting about astronomy

This is something I wrote for the blog of the Astronomy Twitter Journal Club. I’m cross-posting it here as I thought it might be of interest to readers of this blog too. Oh, and in case you were wondering, a journal club “is a group of individuals who meet regularly to critically evaluate recent articles in scientific literature” (according to Wikipedia anyway).

It’s been nearly two weeks since I first heard about the twitter journal club concept, recently set up to discuss medical research. I thought it was something that could work for astronomy too and, when I mentioned it on twitter, it seemed that lots of people agreed. However, I still wasn’t sure whether that would translate into a good or useful discussion. Would anyone say anything? Would the 140 character limit be too short to get a point across? Would anyone even turn up?

Well, the first meeting took place last Thursday (you can catch up with the discussion here) and I think it went well. It even felt like the departmental journal clubs that I’ve been to in the past thanks to tweets like this:

Typical – like a normal journal club I’m late and have only skimmed the paper. #astrojc @chrislintott

Hi, I’m Stephen. I’m an extragalactic astronomer, speed-reading the paper 😉 #astrojc @StephenSerjeant

About 15 people actively took part, and the discussion propelled itself along admirably. One of my many worries was that it would be hard to follow if everyone tweeted at once but I found it easy to keep track. I was using TweetChat which definitely helped – it allows you to follow all tweets from one hashtag and, if you sign in, it ensures that you don’t forget to add the #astroJC tag to any of your contributions.

The lack of a specific dark matter expert was noticeable; at one point it seemed that everyone was asking questions that no-one present knew the answers to. However, by the end of the hour I felt that I understood the paper better, even if my acceptance of the result had lessened! When it comes down to it, that’s exactly what a journal club should do.

If the idea of a journal club on twitter interests you why not join in with the second meeting on Thursday (8pm UK time, 7pm UT; all the details for taking part can be found here). Next week’s paper for discussion will be Planet Occurrence within 0.25 AU of Solar-type Stars from Kepler, which presents some interesting new results from the Kepler mission.