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Michael Banks: August 2009 Archives

One of Galileo’s first telescopes

By Michael Banks

Today marks an important date in the calendar of the International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009).

400 years ago, on 25 August 1609, the astronomer Galileo Galilei presented his first telescope to policy makers from the Venetian Republic.

Galileo ushered the lawmakers into St Mark’s Campanile - a bell tower in St Mark’s Square — in the heart of Venice to present his latest invention.

Impressed with seeing objects such as ships from a great distance, the telescope obviously left its mark as Galileo’s salary was doubled and he was also awarded life tenure at the University of Padua.

Galileo probably made a lot of cash from selling the telescope to merchants who found them useful at sea and as items of trade.

However, Galileo is, of course, best known for the mark he has left on the history of astronomy. (As always Google have their own tribute to the anniversary)

To mark the IYA2009, earlier this year we published an interesting article about how one of Galileo’s early telescopes was being rebuilt by researchers in Italy to study what Galileo may have been able to see.

Staff at the Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence, Italy, together with the Arcetri Observatory, also in Florence built an exact replica of the device that Galileo gave to his patron the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo II, in about 1610 that could magnify distant objects by up to a factor of about 20.

The Galileo anniversary is, however, not the only one in astronomy on this day.

Today also marks the 20th anniversary of NASA’s Voyager 2 craft coming closest to Neptune on its grand tour of the outer planets. (click here for the article we will be publishing in the September issue of Physics World about the anniversary)

The two Voyager craft — named Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 — launched on 5 September and 20 August 1977, respectively, (yes, the dates are the right way round) and completed their grand tour of the solar system 20 years ago.

Possibly one of the most successful space missions, the two craft are now on their way to the boundaries of the heliosphere - the ‘bubble’ of space blown by the solar wind into the interstellar medium.

So if you are feeling inspired by the Galileo anniversary and want to see for yourself what he could have observed 400 years ago, then you can always get your hands on your very own Galileoscope.

Usain Bolt may have crossed the line in 9.55 s at last year’s Beijing Olympics if he had kept his speed

By Michael Banks

Few would doubt that Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is now the fastest man on the planet and will probably hold that title for a long time to come.

Yesterday, he won the 100 m sprint in the record-breaking time of 9.58 s at the World Championships held in Berlin.

But, of course, we all knew that he could run that fast.

After his previous record-setting time of 9.69 s at the Beijing Olympics last year, astrophysicists at the University of Oslo in Norway worked out that Bolt could have run even faster if he had gone flat out rather than slowing down in the last 20 m of the race to celebrate his win.

And they got it pretty much spot on.

The physicists calculated that Bolt could have covered the 100 m in 9.55 s (plus or minus 0.04 s) if he had maintained his pre-celebration acceleration.

So maybe there is still some room for improvement for Bolt to beat his newest record.

Drifting away (credit: NASA)

By Michael Banks

The term “space junk” usually means spent rocket stages or disused satellites floating in orbit around the Earth.

But while on a routine servicing mission to the International Space Station (ISS) late last year to fix a solar panel, US astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper watched helplessly as her toolkit, containing grease guns and scrapers, floated off into space.

Fortunately, the $100 000 tool bag was moving away from the ISS, so there was no chance of it making a big dent in the station, which would have needed more than a tool bag to fix.

Instead, however, the 14 kg space satchel was circling earth getting ever closer with each orbit.

According to the website the toolbag has now burnt up in the Earth’s atmosphere - eight months after it first drifted away in orbit. Some reports say the toolkit’s demise happened at 1.16pm GMT over the Pacific Ocean.

Does my breath smell bad in this? (credit: NASA)

By Michael Banks

Astronauts are used to undergoing rigorous training for the physical and mental challenges that travelling to space brings.

Yet Chinese astronauts hoping to be part of China’s next space crew will now have to comply with an arduous 100 item health checklist that will act to quickly whittle down the number of people capable of being a “taikonaut”.

Along with having no family history of serious illnesses, aspiring Chinese taikonauts must also not suffer from drug allergies or have any tooth cavities.

Would-be taikonauts must also not have a runny nose, body odour, bad breath or have any scars that could burst open in space.

Shi Bing Bing, an official at one of the six astronaut health screening hospitals, told Reuters that the reason for the checklist is that the bad smells from the astronauts “would affect their fellow colleagues in a narrow space”.

And, finally, if a 100 item health checklist is not demanding enough, taikonauts will get nowhere unless they have permission from their spouse.