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Michael Banks: May 2010 Archives

Next stop: Seattle

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By Michael Banks in Miami, Florida

So that was this summer’s American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting. We had some nice talks about NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), the CoRoT exoplanet hunter and the Herschel satellite as well as how to destroy asteroids and unexpected results from research into supermassive black holes.

I would say it was SDO that stirred the most interest, and talks about the mission were usually given to a packed auditorium. Indeed, SDO’s booth in the exhibition centre was always busy with people staring in awe at the new images of the Sun the satellite has recently produced.

One thing you always probably take away with you when attending talks on astronomy is the sheer scale of the universe. For example, in a talk on Herschel today (see previous entry) even when zooming into an average image taken by the satellite three or four times there are still more than 6000 galaxies in the picture possibly containing millions of stars and thousands of planets.

And that brings in another aspect of astronomy – handling the huge amounts of data that missions are now producing second by second. The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), for example, is taking an image every few seconds transmitting terabytes of data every day. Astronomers think it will take at least 20 years before they have analysed all of WISE’s data.

Hopefully astronomers working on missions such as SDO, WISE and Herschel will be able to tell us even more about our Sun and the universe when the next AAS meeting is held in Seattle starting on 9 January. See you there!

Mapping the cosmos

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Inspecting the 3.5 wide mirror of the Herschel telescope

By Michael Banks in Miami, Florida

It seems I have something (rather tenuously, I admit) in common with the European Space Agency’s Herschel mission: we were both “born” in 1982. (Although I am not sure what else I could have in common with a space satellite.)

Goran Pilbratt from the European Space Agency (ESA) told delegates today at the 216th American Astronomical Society meeting in Miami, Florida, all about the Herschel mission that was first proposed way back in May 1982 at an ESA workshop.

Herschel features two cameras (named PACS and SPIRE) and a spectrometer (HIFI) to study star formation in our galaxy and galaxy formation across the universe.

Herschel also has a dewar of liquid helium that cools its detectors down to 2 K so that it can better measure objects in the sky in infrared via its 3.5 m wide mirror.

With 30 years invested in the instrument, you could perhaps forgive astronomers for being nervous when Herschel launched on 14 May 2009. “Herschel has no moving parts, so if there is something wrong after it launches we can’t do anything about it,” says Pilbratt.

Herschel in the end made a “perfect launch” and it even started taking data only 30 hours after launching.

But not everything has been plain sailing since then. In August 2009 HIFI stopped working and its software had to be rebooted taking around five months in total to fix.

Once back online in January, astronomers are now really reaping the rewards of HIFI. Pilbratt showed some spectroscopy data taken from the Orion constellation that contained more than 100,000 spectral lines originating from signatures of specific elements or compounds. That’s likely to take some time to trawl through.

Indeed, although the Herschel mission has only been going for around a year, astronomers have already written more than 120 research papers, which will be published in an upcoming special issue of Astronomy and Astrophysics. With another three years to run, that is likely to only be the start.

Impact zone That’s a lot of dots

By Michael Banks in Miami, Florida

We all know the plot for the film Armageddon starring Bruce Willis. An asteroid the size of Texas is on a collision course with Earth, and the US government sends a bunch of astronauts to plant a nuclear device underneath the asteroid to blow it to pieces, thus saving humanity.

Well that is how it goes in Hollywood. But what would we do if we suddenly found a large asteroid that would hit the Earth within the next 50 years?

Last night David Dearborn, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, gave a talk here at the 216th American Astronomical Society meeting in Miami, Florida, about the best technologies to avoid an asteroid extinction event.

In 1998 NASA started a project named Spaceguard with the aim of cataloguing 90% of all asteroids in the solar system larger than a kilometre before 1998. Currently the project has detected around 80%, mainly because, rather unsettlingly, astronomers are finding more and more of them.

Then, in 2005, Congress asked astronomers to catalogue 90% of asteroids greater than 140 m by 2020 using a number of telescopes including the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which is currently being built in Chile and is expected to come online in 2015.

If an asteroid is on a collision course, Dearborn says that it is important to know its composition, whether it is made up of rubble, has a solid core, or even if it is a collection of solid rocks held together by rubble.

One point Dearborn reiterated is to deflect an asteroid only when we are 100% confident that it will hit the Earth. “You have to leave it alone until you know if it is going to be a problem,” says Dearborn.

So how do you blow up an asteroid or at the very least deflect it out of harms way? One option is painting the asteroid white, which would change its albedo and slowly start to change its orbit. Given that Dearborn says it would take decades to carry out this paintball exercise on a celestial scale it is perhaps not the best option.

Another is firing a high-powered laser pulse at the asteroid, but this again would take around 6000 years to change its speed by around 1 metre per second. “The National Ignition Facility is not really designed for shooting asteroids,” says Dearborn.

So the best technique for deflecting them is via a nuclear explosion. Two options are to activate a nuclear device just before impact or attempting to strike the object with a nuclear weapon. Dearborn presented a variety of models showing how an impact would break up an asteroid depending on its composition. “Current nuclear technology could handle most possible threats,” concludes Dearborn.

I guess Bruce Willis had it right all along.

It’s out there

By Michael Banks in Miami, Florida

We need to better understand how other stars behave before we start looking for planets orbiting around them. That was the message from astronomers speaking in a session on searching for exoplanets at the 216th American Astronomical Society meeting in Miami, Florida.

Annie Baglin from the Observatoire de Paris, France, spoke about the $160m Convection Rotation and Planetary Transits (CoRoT) mission, built by the French Space Agency, which launched in 2006.

CoRoT has two objectives: to study the solar variation in other stars as well as searching for exoplanets via a technique known as “transiting”, where a planet passing in front of the star causes its solar output as seen by the satellite to dim slightly.

Indeed, CoRoT has already had breakthroughs in studying solar variations in other stars including hot stars and red giants. Yet the science that gets the most attention is CoRoT’s search for exoplanets.

Although CoRoT lost the use of two of its detectors last year, the craft is still going strong and has managed to detect a range of exoplanets.

Most of the exoplanets spotted by CoRoT are big, hot planets such as CoRoT-3b, which has a mass 21 times that of Jupiter.

On 17 March CoRoT discovered CoRoT-9b, which has a radius similar to Jupiter and a temperature of 350 K. “If it has moons, then they would be habitable,” says Baglin. But getting to the planet is another matter as it is lies 1500 light-years away.

The biggest find to date is possibly CoRoT-7b, discovered in February 2009, which has a similar diameter and mass to Earth.

Baglin outlined in her talk how difficult it is to spot such small planets saying that constant changes in the star’s activity makes it very difficult to detect planets orbiting them. “Once we have a better understanding of a star’s cycle then we will be better placed to start to look for exoplanets,” says Baglin.

CoRoT still has another three years to run, but it has already been superseded somewhat by NASA’s Kepler mission, which launched in March 2009 to look for Earth-like planets. “Kepler will do more than what we have,” says Baglin.

By Michael Banks in Miami, Florida

The common view of black holes residing at the centre of their host galaxies might not be completely true, according to astronomer Daniel Bacheldof, from the Florida Institute of Technology.

Speaking today at the 216th American Astronomical Meeting in Miami, Florida, Bacheldof and colleagues used old data taken from the Hubble Space Telescope to show that the supermassive black hole at the centre of the M87 galaxy is slightly displaced from its centre.

The fact that a supermassive black hole – black holes that are millions or billions time the mass of the Sun – can be displaced from the centre of a galaxy is not new, but the fact that astronomers have spotted such a small displacement means that small off-sets could be more common than previously thought.

The explanation for the displacement comes from the fact that the supermassive black hole in M87 was a merger between two smaller black holes. When they merged, the emission of gravitational waves “kicked” the newly created black hole, knocking it slightly off-centre. “What we are seeing in M87 is in effect indirect evidence for gravitational waves,” notes Bacheldof.

The fact that many other supermassive black holes show similar properties to M87 could indicate that such off-sets are common in the universe. “No longer can it be assumed that all supermassive black holes reside at the centres of their host galaxies,” says Bacheldof, who is looking at other such systems to spot similar effects. Time to re-write those astronomy textbooks?

Exhibitors at the 216th American Astronomical Meeting

Out now: the Solar Dynamics Observatory movie

By Michael Banks in Miami, Florida

Walking into the exhibition hall at the 216th American Astronomical Meeting in Miami, Florida, it seems like this year’s must-have is a TV screen.

That is, of course, to show all the awe-inspiring images and movies that their missions are just releasing, be it from the Herschel mission, the Wide-field Infra-red Survey Explorer or the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO).

My favourite is the SDO booth and not just because of the free 3D glasses, but because of the quality of the images that the mission has just started to release (though they did give me a nice coaster).

The SDO booth also has two TV screens, obviously one is not enough.

With the enticement of tortilla chips, I also caught some of the poster session, which did not seem overly subscribed. Maybe people were instead enjoying the Miami sun outside.

Does what it says on the mouse mat

By Michael Banks in Miami, Florida

I was wondering how long it would be before I heard Will Smith’s 1998 hit song “Miami”, but I didn’t expect it while walking into a session at the 216th American Astronomical Society meeting.

This evening I attended a special symposium on the status of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submilliter Array (ALMA), which is currently being constructed in the Atacama desert in Chile.

Built by the European Southern Observatory and the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), when fully complete in 2013, ALMA will contain 66 antennas in total and be 100 times more sensitive than other millimetre telescopes.

ALMA will allow astronomers to study a range of phenomena including planetary and star formation.

There are currently four antennas up and working, with another 12 planned before ALMA begins science operations, which is expected to happen in early 2011.

Al Wootten, from the NRAO, who has been involved with planning ALMA for the last 20 years, says that the sensitivity together with the large bandwidth will make it a unique facility.

Speakers at the symposium were encouraging astronomers to submit ideas for using time on the telescope. “What ALMA will excel at is exploring the unexpected,” says astronomer Kelsey Johnson from the University of Virginia.

Oh, and if you are an engineer or scientist really interested in working at the ALMA telescope then they are currently recruiting and apparently want to hear from you.

wise heart and soul.jpg
The heart and soul of the universe (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA)

By Michael Banks in Miami, Florida

It’s a hard task to walk into a session here at the 216th American Astronomical Society meeting in Miami, Florida, and not see amazing images of the universe.

But probably one of the best was issued today by researchers working on NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE).

Wise is an infrared telescope that was launched in December to probe the coolest stars in the universe and the structure of galaxies at four wavelengths between 3 and 25 µm.

Costing $320m, WISE circles the Earth’s poles at an altitude of 525 km scanning the entire sky one-and-a-half times in nine months.

Ned Wright, WISE’s principal investigator, said that the satellite has already taken over a million images and surveyed about three-quarters of the sky. By the beginning of November its objectives should be complete as the solid-hydrogen coolant is exhausted.

The image shows the so-called heart and soul nebula, which lies 6000 light-years away from Earth. WISE allows us to probe this star-making factory in unprecedented detail, letting us see the gas and dust that are just about to form stars.

Look this way: Dennis Matson telling us all about Titan

By Michael Banks in Miami, Florida

I was up bright and early this morning to attend the opening symposium at the 216th American Astronomical Meeting in Miami, Florida.

The talk was about Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, and was given by Dennis Matson from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a project scientist for the Cassini-Huygens mission that launched in 1997.

Huygens, a European Space Agency mission, was launched together with NASA’s Cassini satellite for a seven-year trip to Saturn. While Cassini travelled off to orbit Saturn, Huygens separated to head to Titan where it landed in 2004.

You might think Titan is a lifeless body orbiting Saturn, but Matson showed it to be anything but. With lakes of Methane on the north pole of the moon – some as large as Lake Superior – as well as evidence for plate tectonics, volcanoes and sand dunes forming on the surface, the moon is very much alive.

That is not all, as Matson flashed images of methane clouds and possible deposits of lava. There is even a claim that an ocean of liquid water exists underneath the rocky surface.

Even with our knowledge of Titan, there is still a lot to find out, including whether the moon has a magnetic field.

After five years on Titan, Huygens has now delivered most of its objectives so astronomers are planning what the next mission could be to Saturn’s sixth moon.

Matson outlined two possible missions astronomers are looking into. One is using a probe attached to a balloon that would circumnavigate the moon at an altitude of 10 km. This would allow scientists to get a global picture of the moon closer to its surface.

The other possible mission is an 85 kg probe that would float on one of Titan’s lakes, which could, for example, probe its depth.

Astronomers probably have other ideas up their sleeves, but in the end they may be constrained by technology. “We even had some people who thought about sending some sort of submarine to Titan to explore the lake,” says Matson.

Yacht a lot of people: the opening reception at the American Astronomical Society’s meeting in Miami

By Michael Banks in Miami, Florida

“Did I just hear him say Stephen Hawking?”; said a fellow passenger queuing behind me at Heathrow airport.

I was checking into my flight to Miami as a call for Hawking was made over the loudspeaker. Of course, it could have been someone else, but I wondered if it was indeed the Cambridge-based physicist.

Could Hawking be attending the 216th American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting in Miami I thought? Or maybe the 68-year-old theoretical physicist was instead going to Canada to take up his position as Distinguished Research Chair at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo.

Hawking was not on my flight, where after a 22 hour door-to-door trip I finally arrived in Miami. The AAS meeting kicked off tonight with the opening reception, so feeling a little jet-lagged, I walked over the Miami Regency Hotel where 1000 physicists will tomorrow convene for four days discussing all things astronomy.

At the reception we were reminded that we were in Miami as, every few minutes, a yacht would go past the hotel blaring loud music with people dancing on board cheering towards unsuspecting astronomers. “We don’t usually get this at the AAS,” noted one participant.

Oh, and Hawking was not in attendance at the reception tonight, so I guess he may have been on that flight to Canada after all.

Welcome to Miami

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By Michael Banks

I will be leaving for Florida tomorrow morning for the 216th American Astronomical Meeting (AAS) in Miami, which begins next week.

After promising my colleagues that I will be attending the talks and not spending most of my time blogging from Miami beach, I have just put the finishing touches on the schedule for what promises to be an intensive week of astronomy.

Top of the agenda are early results from the European Space Agency’s Herschel satellite and NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer as well as the status of the European Southern Observatory’s Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, which is currently being built in northern Chile.

But that’s not all; there will also be a whole host of talks on NASA’s Solar Dynamics Laboratory as well as the continuing search for exoplanets.

So keep tabs on for all the latest news from the AAS meeting.

By Michael Banks

Physicists have come out on top in Princeton University’s fourth “art of science” competition.

The annual exhibition features images created during scientific research and this year’s event was held on 7 May with the theme of “energy”.

Xenon Plasma Accelerator (credit: Princeton University Art of Science Competition )

Jerry Ross, a postdoc at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory won first place for his “xenon plasma accelerator” image. The picture (right) is of a so-called “Hall effect thruster” – a type of ion thruster where electrons, held in a magnetic field, are used to ionize a propellant, which is then used to produce a thrust.

Third place also went to a physicist. Tim Koby, a physics undergraduate at Princeton, produced a picture of the interaction of a neutron star with a black hole in the centre of a galaxy.

Koby was beaten into second place by David Nagib, a chemistry graduate at Princeton who produced an image called “therapeutic illumination”.

Ross bagged $250 for winning best exhibit, with $154.51 awarded to Nagib in second place and $95.49 to Koby in third.

And if you are wondering why those last two figures are not rounded to $150 or $100, it is apparently because they are derived according to the golden ratio – equal to 1.6180339887 – that represents, in this case, the ratio of the higher to the lower number.

You can also watch a video of the exhibits here.

By Michael Banks

After a few days of political horse-trading, a resignation speech from former UK prime minister Gordon Brown and the emergence of the first coalition government since the Second World War, the UK has a new science minister.

Last Thursday’s general election resulted in a hung parliament, meaning no party had an overall majority. After days of coalition talks between the three main parties, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats joined in a government, with David Cameron as prime minister.


Cameron spent most of yesterday announcing the members of his new cabinet and late last night it emerged that David Willetts, Conservative Member of Parliament for Havant, will be the minister of state for universities and science in the department for business, innovation and skills.

Nicknamed “two brains”, Willetts was shadow secretary of state for innovation, universities and skills from July 2007 and before that was shadow secretary of state for education from December 2005 to July 2007.

Like his predecessor Paul Drayson, who was science minister in the Labour government under Gordon Brown, Willetts will not be a cabinet minister, but will be attending cabinet meetings.

Willetts, however, takes over the role as science minister at a testing time for science funding in the UK. Following the deficit in the budget of the Science and Technology Facilities Council that resulted in the UK pulling out of 25 international projects in December, Drayson won plaudits for making structural changes to the STFC that will better protect the funding council from foreign currency fluctuations that affect its international subscriptions.

Willetts will now have to deal with the ramifications of the STFC’s changes and its continuing budget deficit as well as any budget cuts that could happen when the new coalition government announces its spending review, which is expected to happen in the autumn.

Previous statements by Willetts when he was shadow secretary of state for innovation, universities and skills indicate that he will fight to maintain the science budget from swingeing cuts. “It is important that science is funded properly. It should not be about the government picking winners; it should be about supporting academically excellent research centres,” Willetts said when the STFC’s budget problems first emerged in December 2007. “We will scrutinize these proposals to make sure they improve things after last year’s scandal when the government took £75 million from science by stealth.”

Willetts has also apparently said that he would like to delay the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which is used to allocate funding to individual universities. The REF replaces the Research Assessment Exercise and will include quantitative information like bibliometric data in addition to the existing peer-review evaluation.

The University and College Union (UCU) released a statement today welcoming the appointment of Willetts as science minister. “Mr Willets proved his ability to listen to staff concerns when committing to delay unpopular plans to make university research funding dependent on economic impact,”; says Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU. “The academic community made clear its view that assessing and funding research according to its impact is unworkable and we urge him to put an end to this sorry chapter once and for all.”

Hunt also warned that Willetts will need to “listen to the ever-widening consensus of opinion which opposes cuts in college and university budgets, caps on student numbers, the privatization of academic institutions and increases in the cost of a university education for hard-working families”.

The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) also welcomed Willetts appointment. “In his former roles as shadow secretary for education and then innovation, universities and skills, David Willetts always engaged with science issues,” says Hilary Leevers, acting director of CaSE. “It is vital that the minister for science works closely with the department for education. As former shadow of this department, Willetts will be well positioned to do this.”

By Michael Banks

Tomorrow the UK will have a general election and while does not endorse a particular party, we have put together some of the science-based pledges from the three main parties – Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat.

UK map.jpg

In March, the campaign for science and engineering in the UK (CASE) wrote to the main parties to ask them to set out their policies for science and engineering in advance of the election. Here are some of the responses as well as what the parties’ manifestos and their science representatives have to say.

So if you are still undecided about who to vote for then maybe the parties’ science policies will help you to decide where to put that cross on the ballot paper tomorrow.

Conservatives led by David Cameron

Response to CASE: “To provide real incentives to get more good science teachers into out school, we will pay off the student loan obligations of top STEM graduates for every year they spend in the classroom.

“We will postpone the Research Excellence Framework by up to two years, while we review the evidence behind the new system.

“I want the next Conservative government to act early, sensitively and intelligently so that scientific research can move forwards within the boundaries set by Parliament.”

What Adam Afriyie, shadow minister for innovation, universities and skills, says: “Our science base is a valuable national asset. Economically, politically and socially, it underpins the prosperity and wellbeing of our nation.”

What the Conservative manifesto says: “Initiating a multi-year science and research budget to provide a stable investment climate for research councils.”

Labour led by Gordon Brown

Response to CASE: “We will continue to support curiosity driven research, which has underpinned the breadth and excellence of UK science over the last ten years. In setting research priorities, we respect the Haldane principle.

“The success of UK science has also been underpinned by a ring-fenced science budget and a ten-year framework.

“Scientific advice should be at the heart of government and society. We have chief scientific advisers in almost all government departments. And for the first time the science minister sits at the cabinet table.”

What Paul Drayson, minister for science and innovation, says: “Science isn’t peripheral to the decision facing the country. It is central: to growth, to prosperity and well-being.”

What the Labour manifesto says: “We are committed to a ring-fenced science budget in the next spending review.”

Liberal Democrats led by Nick Clegg

Response to CASE: “Liberal Democrats would abolish tuition fees over a six year period. We see them as unfair and a regressive tax on education.

“We are committed to not cutting science spending in the first year of a new parliament. We are also committed to not allowing the science budget to be raided once it is fixed for the given Comprehensive Spending Review period.

“Liberal Democrats believe that public policy should be evidence-based as far as possible. Advisers must feel able go give their advice without fear of being bullied if it is not what a minister or tabloid newspaper editor wants to hear.”

What Evan Harris, Liberal Democrats spokesperson for science, says: “We recognize that science, technology, and engineering have to be key drivers of our economy as we move out of recession.”

What the Liberal Democrat manifesto says: “In the current economic climate it is not possible to commit to growth in spending, but Liberal Democrats recognize the importance of science investment to the recovery and to the reshaping of the economy.”