The Burke-Gaffney Observatory – Cosmoboy’s unveiling speech

11 11 2014

Ecogirl suggested that I post my speech from the press conference – so here it is!

speech“Thank you everyone for being here for this celebration!

While our Observatory Director Dave Lane is going to tell you about the Medjuck telescope and our plans for the Burke-Gaffney Observatory in detail, I just want to take a couple of minutes of your time to talk about the impact of astronomy on campus.

Everything you are is a product of your experiences and choices.

And a great education informs both of these; by exposing you to new – sometimes breathtaking – experiences, and providing you with the knowledge and frameworks you need to make good choices.

press_confThose thoughts are really what drove the renovation of the Burke-Gaffney Observatory. Any student that studies astronomy, whether in introductory courses for non-scientists or the more specialized honours program, will have a chance to use the Medjuck telescope for observing projects. Thanks to our enthusiastic telescope operators you don’t even have to know your eyepiece from your elbow to be able to use the telescope!

laneBut even more exciting is the possibility of robotic control. Dave Lane has done a remarkable job in bringing the observatory up-to-date. He can now control it entirely from home, and as you’ll see today, a social media interface is in the works. Need to get a picture of a galaxy for your ASTR1000 project? Try tweeting.

But access alone isn’t the most amazing thing about the renovation. The gorgeous new 24.5 inch Medjuck telescope is the second largest campus telescope in Canada. With a modern optical design it produces stunning images, significantly better than our beloved Ealing telescope. It is a fantastic piece of research grade equipment – indeed a model just like it has been cold tested for deployment in the Arctic. We know it works down to -35 C, so I guarantee we’ll still be running in the middle of winter!

But to give you an idea of its capabilities, just a day before one of the first viewing sessions with the new telescope, a supernova went off in a neighbouring galaxy (and for those of you that don’t know, the first supernova ever discovered in Canada was discovered from the BGO in 1995). But how far away was that supernova? 11.5 million light years. To put that in context, the light from that supernova left before the great-apes had truly started evolving on the savannah of Africa. There were no humans anywhere.

I’ll leave it to the words of seven year old girl to describe what she thought of seeing the supernova and how old it was: “That’s soooo cool!!!

But this isn’t even close to pushing the limits of the Medjuck Telescope. The most distant object it will be able to see, the not very romantically called 3C273, is 2.5 billion light years away. The light that we are now receiving from it left when the only form of life on Earth was single cell bacteria. No plants. No higher forms of life. The fossil cliffs at Joggins were still 2.2 billion years from being formed.

Just think about this for a second:

BGOYou now have a chance to put light in your eye that has travelled across almost 20% of the entire Universe. To be influenced by something that is unimaginably distant, something incredibly old. That’s a breathtaking experience. It may not be full of heart pumping adrenaline, but it makes you realize something quite profound – that even the most distant of things can have an impact on how you see the world and yourself.

And by now you’ve also realized that astronomy isn’t just about charting the skies. It’s about time-travel too. You probably didn’t think of the Medjuck Telescope as a time-machine, but in some sense that’s exactly what it is.

medjuckAbove all this, we should see the chance to have these experiences, and the knowledge that comes with them, as a gift. Thanks to the generosity of Dr Medjuck the support of the University, and hard work by dedicated individuals, we’re incredibly excited and just a little bit proud in Astronomy and Physics to be able to share these experiences both with everyone on campus, and also the community of Halifax. And through social media, perhaps soon the world!

So please, come to the BGO and be amazed.

The Universe is yours to discover.

Thank you.”


The “All New!” Burke-Gaffney Observatory

1 11 2014

bgopreviewOver the past 18 months Cosmoboy has been honoured to be a part of the Burke-Gaffney Observatory renovations at Saint Mary’s University. Built in 1972 to honour Father Burke-Gaffney, it has become an icon of the Saint Mary’s campus. But in all that time it has never had significant renovations – beyond CCD upgrades – and much has changed in astronomy technology. By the time of the 40th anniversary it was clear that revitalization of the BGO was needed!

Plans were hatched by the Observatory Director Dave Lane and Cosmoboy in the fall of 2012. The ambitious renovation proposal included a new 24.5 inch telescope (from Planewave, their CDK24 model), and adding an observing deck so we could show more of the sky at a given time. That would also increase the student and visitor capacity of the observatory – we’ve had days when the queue went down the stairs… Which doesn’t make it much fun anyone.

Medjuck_familyThe University was supportive from the get-go, but budgets were tight and we were asking for significant funds. In the end, our Office of Advancement came to the rescue and through our President’s Office the well known local philanthropist Dr Ralph M. Medjuck was approached. As many people in town are aware, Dr Medjuck and his wife Mrs Shirlee Medjuck (right with their daughter Linda) have donated considerable sums to Halifax universities in support of education. To cut to the chase, Dr Medjuck agreed to support the project, and we named the telescope in his honour.

I’ve said thank you to our benefactors so many times already, but I can’t write this blog post without saying thanks again to Dr and Mrs Medjuck. Without their support, and that of Saint Mary’s University at large, this project would not have been possible.

bgo_titleBut cut to April 2013, things were moving forward. At that point we decided the project was a “sufficiently big deal” for the university and the department that we should make a short documentary on it. Local filmmaker and astronomy fan Martin Hellmich agreed to take the challenge on! The resulting film can be seen here – watch it in HD! There are some really fantastic time-lapses in there – we were pretty gobsmacked when Martin first showed them to us! Go watch it!

BGO_telescopePainting of the dome and mount happened during the summer of 2013 and turned out to be much more of an adventure than we had anticipated. To cut a long story short, you really need to prime well! But we all think the final look is great – the white of the pier matches the black and white of the Medjuck telescope perfectly, while the blue accents the small details on the ‘scope. Kudos to Dave Lane for picking out the colours! Note, the paint has to stand up to some tough conditions – the observatory gets brutally hot in the summer and cold in the winter (snow will often sneak into the dome through the gap between the rotating and stationary parts).

obsdeckFencing off the observatory deck also encountered a few glitches. The initial drilling was done at the end of exam time and understandably some complaints were made about the noise! So we held off finishing that until all the exams were done. But the end product looks great, and we all agree the view from 22 floors up is simply mind-blowing – especially at night! So if we get parents that aren’t too interested in astronomy bringing their children along to open houses, we still have something to take their breath away.

install_scopeOf course, the most fun part of the whole project was the new telescope arrival and installation! With a 6 month delivery time, we had our fingers crossed it would be delivered just before Christmas 2013 so that we could swap it in for the new term starting in January 2014. Everything went to plan. But installing a new telescope in the middle of December in Canada is a chilly proposition! So we had to borrow a 5kW heater to warm things up. The 40 year old mount bolts were just fine as well, despite us being very worried about the possibility of things breaking!

press_confAnd finally bringing the story up-to-date, this week (October 2014) we’ve been able to celebrate the installation and thank everyone involved! There’s still a lot of work to be done on the social media side, but the hardware is all in place. The press events this week went off fantastic, and some of our friends in the media did an awesome job of letting people in Halifax know about the renovations (here, here, here, here). We’re just over the Moon (sorry! 🙂 ) to have everything get to this point!

So please, if you’re in Halifax and want to take look, reserve a ticket and come to a public night! We’d love to see you there!

Russian meteor & 2012 DA14: Top Ten questions

15 02 2013

russian_meteorEcogirl woke me up at 6 am this morning (February 15th 2013) to tell me about the fireball over Russia this morning and the casualties that resulted. My immediate reaction was “Oh no, I hope this isn’t related to 2012 DA14!” the asteroid that will do a record close fly-by of the Earth later today. After spending an hour weighing up the internet reports I’m fairly convinced they aren’t related – this is a truly cosmic coincidence! So because like me you were looking for information about what’s  happening, here’s a top ten list I’ve put together along with some help from some other great blog posts (here, here, here).

camping-night10. What time did the Russian meteor hit this morning? 3:15 am UTC (essentially GMT in gold old fashioned terminology!) converts to 10:15 pm eastern. So this one happened while most of N. America was either in or getting ready for bed!

9. What caused all the damage? Was it the meteor exploding? As far as we can tell from the video footage, the meteor did break in two, but there wasn’t a cataclysmic single explosion event in the trail (although this is still an “air burst“). Most of the early evidence suggests the boom was from the “sonic boom” as the meteor reached down to roughly 40,000 feet in the atmosphere (reports suggest small pieces seem to have hit the ground as well) while travelling much faster than the speed of sound. Note for multiple pieces it’s reasonable to have a number of booms, so the reports of their being multiple parts to the boom are quite reasonable. Better analysis is still needed. Update: the air burst is now being quoted as occurring at around 100,000 ft, much higher than anyone initially thought. That means the meteor was much bigger than originally thought, and the shockwave probably did have something to do with the explosion. Models are still poorly constrained, but the explosion could have been equivalent to several Hiroshima bombs (50kT). That means the shockwave wasn`t just a sonic boom either. The models will definitely improve over the next few days as more data becomes available.

brightest8. Just how fast was it travelling and how big was it? Video footage is difficult to interpret, but estimates are coming out that it was travelling around 50,000 kph when it hit the atmosphere. Based upon the size and brightness of the trail it’s been estimated that the meteor was probably around 10 tons – but remember it’s very early in terms of data analysis. It will take a few days to get a really good idea of what happened. Don’t trust everything you see right now, and the flaming impact crater videos on youtube are totally fake. Update: NASA estimates have placed the mass in a much larger range – perhaps as large as several thousand tons!

7. I’ve never heard anything during the meteor showers I’ve seen. How come this one made a sonic boom? Most meteor showers are from very small (cm size) objects hitting the very tops of the atmosphere. They burn up very quickly, very high up (80-130 km or 260,000+ feet). You all know that thunderclaps can’t be heard from large distances, and it is the same with the sonic booms from objects that are very high in the atmosphere. Today’s fireball, being caused by something in the range of 10 tons in mass, meant it reached much further into the atmosphere (pieces likely impacted). Update: As you can see from above, this object seems to have been far larger than anyone initially anticipated! I don`t think there is much doubt that it wasn`t just a sonic boom that was heard.

russian_mig6. Did the russian military shoot it down? No. While it’s almost certain this event was at least seen  by the military once it got lower in the atmosphere and produced an ion trail, it was travelling too fast for them to intercept. Anyone remember how difficult it is to design a missile defence shield? Same problem here.

5. How often do these things happen? Should I be worried? More often than you’d think. Objects 3-4m in diameter hit the atmosphere about once a year, and experts are estimating that the Russian event is a 1 in 5 year to once a decade event. Military satellites sent up decades ago to track missile launches surprised everyone when they discovered far more meteors hitting the atmosphere than anticipated. Should you be worried? Well impact events obviously happen and we need to look for potential impactors, so while I don’t think you should worry, yes it’s something you should know the risks of – I’ll say more about this at the end! Update: the revised mass estimates mean this is at least in the once a decade range, maybe longer!

2012_DA144. What’s the link between asteroid 2012 DA14 and the meteor this morning? As far as we can tell right now, the impact trajectory of the russian meteor is completely different to that of the asteroid (moves South to North). If you run the clock back in time that means the meteor and asteroid just get further and further apart – so no, it really doesn’t seem like there is any link. Of course, without knowing that, when I was woken up this morning I was initially quite worried until I saw the news reports!

3. How close is the asteroid 2012 DA14 going to get to the Earth? Will it enter the atmosphere? At around 2:30 Eastern this afternoon it will pass with 28000 km of the surface of the Earth. That’s about 2.5 times the diameter of Earth, so while it’s very close by astronomical standards it’s still a long way from the atmosphere. Update: passed by… no worries!

tunguska_event2. What would happen if 2012 DA14 hit the Earth? And will I be able to see it? I’ll say it again – it isn’t going to impact – don’t worry! But at 130,000 tons, it would be far, far more devastating than the Russian meteor this morning. We’d be talking about something akin to a megaton nuclear weapon – hundreds of times more powerful than Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Thankfully that isn’t going to happen, but if you want a good comparison, take a look at the Tunguska event.

lsst1. Is there anything that can be done to stop this an impact like this? What can we do? We need to know what’s out there first, and that means better monitoring. There are probably a few thousand asteroids out there that are potentially hazardous. Astronomers are working on a number of telescopes that will survey the sky on a regular basis. Although objects that come at us from the direction of the Sun are very hard to spot. Once we’ve got a really good idea of what’s out there then we can start to talk about how we can stop any collisions (and calling Bruce Willis isn’t the best course of action folks!). Of course, this is all within the limits of the budget cuts that everyone is facing because of the financial crisis!

Apologies that I couldn’t get this posted sooner! Sometimes work gets in the way of news! Update: It`s great to see how things unfold as better data comes in. Everyone should be really careful about reporting initial data, even I was taken in by the sonic boom argument. Will no doubt hear a lot more over the next few days.

Goodbye Sir Patrick Moore

9 12 2012

Patrick MooreSadly, the internet is fairly abuzz with the news of Sir Patrick’s passing at 89. Many people in N. America will likely be unaware of his fame in the UK, where for generations he was and arguably still is, even in his passing, the face of astronomy. He presented “The Sky at Night” show for over 50 years, making it the longest running show with a single presenter on television.

moon-mapGrowing up in the UK, I can’t honestly remember the very first time I heard of him he was just there… a UK institution if you like. My earliest recollection of knowing about him is just after the moon landings and he seemed to be on TV all the time then. Many people are unaware that he was extensively involved in the mapping of the Moon prior to the Apollo landings, so it’s probably no surprise that he greatly enjoyed those missions and the resulting exposure they got on television.

caroline-herschel-1There’s no doubt Moore inspired generations to be interested in the sky above them, but his fame was not without controversy. I will not go into great detail, but in later years many know that he said some frankly inappropriate things about women and voiced strongly right-wing political views that engendered criticism. Yet individual anecdotes about him encouraging young women to enter astronomy can be found around the web, he also authored a book on the unappreciated Caroline Herschel. So I hope he is remembered for the good he did rather than things said in somewhat angry old age.

storyastroAt a personal level I actually got far more from his books than I ever got from his TV show. Ironic as it may be, I found the TV show quite slow and well frankly over my head as a young kid. I ended up being far more engrossed by Sagan’s beautifully produced “Cosmos” series. But Moore wrote a truly prolific number of books over his lifetime and his “The Story of Astronomy” was the first ever book I remember  being completely engrossed by. At 9 years of age I think I read that book cover-to-cover and sections of it repeatedly.  The story of George Hale and his efforts to build ever larger telescopes at Mount Wilson and Palomar totally captivated me. I must have read those chapters dozens of times.

Sir Patrick or really just Patrick, as he liked to be known, leaves a truly remarkable legacy of achievement in education and television. It’s hard to even think of anyone ever breaking his record of presenting a show for so long.

So long, and thanks for all the photons!

Why Curiosity is a big deal

7 08 2012

With all the great press coverage of Curiosity, Cosmoboy’s family asked one unexpected question: “Why is there so much fuss about Curiosity when there have been a bunch of other Mars rovers?”

Although the “Countdown to Curiosity” articles detailed all of Curiosity’s amazing scientific apparatus, the articles didn’t really put into perspective how much better Curiosity is than the other Mars rovers (Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity). So let’s right that wrong!

Sojourner landed way back in December 1996! I was actually studying for my PhD at the time, but there was a lot of great press coverage. It was perhaps the first space mission to really use the internet effectively. But for all the communication successes, Sojourner didn’t really have a great suite of scientific instruments. Given it’s small size, just a little over 10 kg and only 60 cm long, there wasn’t all that much space for scientific payloads. The key scientific instrument (other than cameras) was an Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer for determining the elements in rocks (Curiosity has a much more advanced one). But what many people remember about Sojourner was how slow it moved: it had a top speed of a little over 0.5 cm a second! But there again, this mission was put together on one tenth the budget of Curiosity.

The twin Spirit and Opportunity rovers came next, landing in January 2004. Like Sojourner, they both carried an APXS, but this time they came with more sophisticated spectrometers to make even better assessments of the precise elemental components of the Martian rocks and minerals. Much larger in size, at 185 kg and around 1.6 metres long, they were much more capable of carrying a heavy payload. They also had the advantage of a robotic arm so they could get in close and even abraid the surface of rocks to see what was lying underneath (the RAT tool!) But perhaps what everyone remembers about Spirit and Opportunity was their “Energizer Bunny” impressions – they just kept going and going! With it’s solar cells still operational, Opportunity is still working today after having covered almost 22 miles! Spirit got stuck in a dusty soil area in 2009 and unfortunately sent its last communication on 2010.

Fast forward to today’s super-rover: Curiosity! Now we’re talking about a 900 kg vehicle roaming about, which is capable of carrying half the total mass of Spirit in scientific experiments alone! NASA likes to use the analogy that Curiosity is about the same size as a Mini-Cooper. In terms of the scientific experiments, the list is pretty amazing (Curiosity is the first rover with a laser): ChemCam (remote sensing, including the laser, for chemistry) APXS, ChemMin (for mineraology and chemistry), SAM (detailed sample analysis), RAD (radiation assessment),  DAN (for detecting ice near the surface), REMS (for monitoring Martian weather) and not to mention a whole bunch of cameras! All in all, Curiosity is leaps ahead of went before it! It should truly help us understand the Martian geology and mineralogy in unprecedented detail.

Hopefully, that makes it clear why Curiosity is so important for studying Mars. It’s scientific designation, “Mars Science Laboratory” puts into perspective what this mission represents – a true suite of lab experiments on the surface of Mars!

And one last image to leave you with – a shot of all three rovers compared (but not on Mars!)

Countdown to Curiosity: Landed!

6 08 2012

Congratulations to the Curiosity team! I’ve put a capture of the very first image downloaded from the surface to the left. Hard to believe after the months of flying through interplanetary space that Curiosity is on Mars!

The NASA website has already gone down with everybody trying to download the initial images, but keep trying! News coming in by the second – they’ve just managed to get things going again.

A press conference is schedule for 11:15 Pacific, but just to keep the info flowing, here’s what we said about the landing in the blog:


Imagine hurtling toward a planet at tens of thousands of kilometers an hour. Your millions of miles away from the Earth and there’s no human pilot to plot a course once you’re inside the atmosphere to avoid any unexpected events. Sounds pretty risky, yeah? And it is… Beagle 2 was the last surface mission to fail (and we think we found the wreckage), but just four years earlier two missions, Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander, both failed as well. If you want statistics, NASA has landed on Mars successfully five (yes only five) times! And when it comes to Curiosity, the landing procedure that’s been chosen is more complex than any other mission before it…

While the Apollo missions entered into orbit around the Moon, Curiosity is going to slow down from interplanetary speeds without this step. In this sense its landing will be somewhat similar to the Apollo “splashdowns” on Earth. Thus Curiosity is going to hit the Martian atmosphere travelling at over 20,000 km per hour, and again, just like the Apollo missions, the spacecraft carrying Curiosity has a heat shield underneath to protect the rover from the extreme heat (a peak of 2100 C) produced in re-entry. All the steps that follow are given on this great graphic provided by NASA:

Once into the atmosphere Curiosity will begin a series of maneuvers at several times the speed of sound, before deploying its parachute while still at supersonic speeds. This part of the descent is anticipated to go pretty well. Supersonic breaking parachutes have been used since the Mercury missions in late 1950s early 1960s so the technology is nothing new.

But once Curiosity has descended to about 1.8 km above the surface, and is travelling at aroud 400 km per hour, it will separate from the parachute and begin a powered descent. In about 40 seconds it will be down to just 20m above the Mars surface, and then perhaps the most risky part of the whole mission begins: lowering to the surface on the end of a “sky crane”. Curiosity can’t just be “dropped” – it’s too heavy at almost 1 ton in mass. Once the sky crane is fully deployed the spacecraft will slowly descend down at about 0.75m per second. Once it detects that Curiosity is on the ground it will cut the lines on the crane and fly away at least 150 m away from the rover.


Update: 10:45 am (ADT) still waiting for those images from MARDI showing the descent! 🙂

Solar burps

7 03 2012

So sorry for not posting more – life has been utterly hectic over the past few months.

Is the solar storm headed our way something to worry about? Should we hunker down inside and disconnect our TVs, toasters and breadmakers? Or is this just hype about a non-event?

The truth, as always, is somewhere in between. Solar storms can cause very real problems for electrical equipment. Residents of Quebec still remember the power outage in March 1989, that left many regions in the province without power for 9 hours. Five years later two of the Anik communication satellites were taken out of commission, one for hours, another for months, due to a solar storms.

But why exactly does electrical equipment take such a bashing in these storms while we seem just fine? And for that matter, what are these storms actually anyway???

Let’s deal with the second question first. Despite the Sun’s warm glow looking constant from day to day, in fact its surface is highly active. The truly incredible amount of power released every second in the Sun, roughly 25 trillion (i.e. 25,000,000,000,000!) times that required by the inhabitants of the Earth, makes its surface bubble like a cauldron. We can see structure on scales from thousands of kilometers down to just a few (see this incredible image for an example) and probably smaller.

Sun spots are just a very visible part of all this activity. They’re caused by regions of intense magnetic field activity and have enormous amounts of stored energy within them. All this energy can produce huge flares/eruptions which send billions of tons of hot plasma into space travelling at two million kilometers per hour.

And the Earth is often right in the firing line.

But it isn’t as bad as it sounds. While billions of tons travelling at high speed sounds like it would wipe out everything in its path, by the time it reaches the Earth it’s spread out over a vast area. The density is so low by the time it reaches us that if you could imagine standing up in the “wind” of particle travelling at millions of kilometers an hour, you wouldn’t feel a thing. But your body’s cells would. Constant bombardment of DNA with these high energy particles leads to cancer. That’s one of the reasons why sending astronauts to Mars is so tough. How do we protect them?

But the good news is while we’re on the surface of the Earth, our magnetic field protects us from the worst of these high energy particles, diverting them away and concentrating them around the poles – that’s what produces the aurora. But this safety net comes with a price. Under this flood of electrically charged particles our magnetic field changes and distorts, some times incredibly rapidly.

Why is that a problem?

Well, over 180 years ago Michael Faraday showed that if you change the magnetic field over a wire, it will produce an electric current. It’s a really simple idea that has incredibly profound consequences. Electric motors run on this principle.

But now take the magnetic field around the Earth and change it. Where are the wires? All around us! The power grid is the biggest example. When magnetic fields change on scales tens and hundreds of kilometers across, then you can really start getting some serious electrical currents induced. In 1989, it was enough to shut down the Quebec power grid.

These are all serious events. Lost satellites can cost billions of dollars. Losing a power grid can be equally costly, not to mention public safety issues. So it should come as no surprise that predicting these events, and building in safety measures for both satellites and power distribution systems is taken very, very seriously. Early warning systems are well in place now – we get anywhere between two and five days notice.

But the truth is we haven’t really seen a truly huge solar storm in over 100 years. Neither of these two events in 1989 & 1994 compares to the great solar storm of 1859. That flare produced currents so large that telegraph equipment produced huge sparks within offices and aurora were seen almost all around the globe. Compared to the so called “Carrington event” of 1859, what we’re seeing now are small solar “burps”.  Yet even the 1859 event is dwarfed by what we see on other stars. One distant event seen with an X-ray telescope corresponded to a flare so powerful (100,000x a typical solar flare) it would have caused mass extinction on the Earth if it came from the Sun. But don’t worry, the Sun isn’t about to do anything quite that bad.

It makes you think. The Sun may give us life, but one extra big belch from it could produce some real problems.