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.”


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!

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! 🙂

higgs, Higgs, HIGGS!

3 07 2012

Update: Both the ATLAS and CMS experiments confirm combined signals from different channels at “5 sigma”!! That means there is about a 1 in 2,000,000 probability this is just a random event (although this kind of analysis can’t rule out what are called “systematic” errors). Nobody is sticking their head out to say “This IS the Higgs” but it really looks like it is. Pinning down the details will likely take a while, but they’ve got every right to open the champagne! As Peter Higgs said “I’m glad it happened in my lifetime!”

The internet is rife with chatter about tomorrow’s announcement at CERN: confirmation of strong statistical evidence of a particle with Higgs boson-like properties exists. OK, that sounds like an incredibly wordy let down. Why can’t we just say “Higgs discovered!”? And, for that matter, why is there so much fuss about the Higgs boson?

I guess it doesn’t hurt to call something a “God Particle” – which is damn silly if ask you me. The journalists might like it but the religious people won’t, and for that matter atheists probably won’t either. Hmm, sounds everyone would be upset by that name!

But, back on track. Simply put, the Higgs boson is what gives the subatomic particles like electrons and quarks (which make up the neutrons and protons in the nuclei of atoms) their mass. And that is a really big deal! Mass is one of the single most important properties of matter. Without it, we’d all zip around at the speed of light. So hunting down the Higgs has been a big deal for a long time.

Particles acquire mass through their interaction with the Higgs bosons. The Higgs field (which the Higgs particles tell the other particles about) permates all space. As a particle moves through it you can think of it as being slowed down by the field as Higgs bosons cluster around it – some people like to give the analogy of clumpy molasses. Different subatomic particles are affected in different ways by the field, so some particles appear more massive than others.

So that tells us what it does, but why is finding the Higgs boson so difficult? Why can’t we just say it’s been found? Simply because we can’t actually detect the Higgs boson directly. They’re far to elusive for us to do that. Think of them as the lesser-spotted-black-backed-southern-migrating-hoji-mawatsit bird of the particle physics world. Yeah, you don’t get to see too many of them.

But what you do see is the things they turn into. And that’s the key. One the best ways of finding the Higgs is that it can decay into two photons (photons are the particles than transmit light). But there are plenty of other possibilities, all of which are mimicked by many other interactions in the subatomic world. So finding the Higgs boson is a needle in a haystack operation. You have to look through hundreds of trillions of events in the hopes of finding what you want.

To put this in perspective, how big is a trillion? Well it would take you 50 years to count to a billion, and trillion is a thousand times larger. So it’s likely no surprise to anyone that analyzing all this data has been as much a triumph of computing power as it has been an engineering marvel to build the LHC itself.

What can we expect tomorrow? At the present time, the physicists have a signal that their confident in, and I suspect that is how the announcement tomorrow will be framed. But it’s far too early to exactly specify the type of particle it corresponds to – there is still a lot more work to be done on that. But the mass of the particle (around 130 times the mass of a single proton) is about what is expected for the Higgs boson.

From a personal perspective, it’s great to see the Higgs finally being uncovered. During grad school, which is over 15 years ago for me now, I had good friends that were working on the ATLAS project at the LHC. It’s amazing to think about how much planning it has taken to get to this stage. The LHC has taken billions of dollars and thousands of the brightest people on the planet over a decade to put together. It is a marvel of technological and intellectual achievement!

Just stop and think about things – isn’t it incredible that as a species we have been able to probe the very nature of the Universe to this degree? We’ve almost uncovered the mechanism through which the reality that we live in gets one of its most fundamental properties – mass! It really is almost unbelievable.

OK, feet back on the ground: Where does particle physics go from here? There’s a lot of important work on pinning down details of the Higgs, but beyond that? Is there the political will to build anything bigger than the LHC? I think not. At 10 billion dollars it’s likely the most expensive ground-based civilian scientific experiment ever (although the Hubble Space Telescope cost more over its mission lifetime because of the high cost of spaceflight). Since the LHC is largely a world-wide collaboration, it’s interesting to look at how much a billion dollars a year (i.e. 10 billion dollars over 10 years) is as fraction of the world economy. In short, 1/70,000th. That puts things in perspective.

But particle physicists are all to well aware of this. There is, fortunately, some hope for the future of accelerator design that could bring down the cost of accelerators. Laser wakefield acceleration, where particles are accelerated by “surfing” on an electric field, hold great promise for the future. In theory, the acceleration produced by the 27km long LHC could be achieved in a few hundred meters using laser technology. But this technology is probably decades away from being realized.

There are still many great questions to be answered in particle physics. What about the beautiful idea of supersymmetry? Where is the elusive dark matter particle that we believe makes 5/6 of the mass in the Universe? Both of these questions are probably as important as finding the Higgs itself.

So I think of tomorrow’s announcement as the beginning of something and not the end. It’s an incredible achievement for us to have got this far (hey, and we all paid for it with tax dollars too!) but there is still so much more to learn!

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.

Tracking Curiosity

28 11 2011

Just a very quick post today, and one that’s a tad frustrated… I’ve been searching on line for a website that shows how far Curiosity is from Mars. If you go to the JPL mission website it will tell you how many days (great!) but I’m looking for something that tells you the distance. And so far I’ve found nothing… De nada. So I’d appreciate hearing from anyone who’s seen something like this on line.

In principle this isn’t too hard to do. You really only need a computer program that calculates the orbital trajectories of the Earth, Mars and Curiosity. Working out the distance from this model is actually easy. To set the model up you need the orbital positions and speed of all three of them. The Earth and Mars can be found easily, Curiosity seems a tad harder. I’m guessing it must be on line somewhere?

What you can find online is Curiosity’s position on the sky as it heads to Mars. JPL has it’s incredibly useful solar system data accessible through the HORIZONS on-line system. While I’ve not been able to figure out (yet!) how to get it to give me the orbital data I want, I have been able to use it to plot Curiosity’s celestial coordinates for the next month (these are for Halifax, Nova Scotia). While I’m not suggesting anyone go out and look, here are the next 6 days for fun:

Date__(UT)__HR:MN R.A._(ICRF/J2000.0) DEC

2011-Nov-28 00:00 08 19 14.59 -00 25 54.0

2011-Nov-29 00:00 m 08 21 53.08 +00 24 00.4

2011-Nov-30 00:00 m 08 22 59.29 +00 46 26.5

2011-Dec-01 00:00 m 08 23 33.30 +00 59 40.4

2011-Dec-02 00:00 m 08 23 51.82 +01 08 43.7

2011-Dec-03 00:00 m 08 24 01.34 +01 15 34.3

This area on the sky is between the constellations Hydra, Monoceros and Canis Major. Utah amateur astronomer Patrick Wiggins took this series of images on the morning of November 27th one day after launch (you can see Curiosity moves from frame to frame in the middle of the image)

As an added bonus HORIZONS will also tell you some additional data about Curiosity:

* Spacecraft
Mass: 3,893 kilograms total at launch,
2,401-kilogram EDL system (aeroshell + fueled descent stage)
539-kilogram fueled cruise stage

Cruise vehicle (cruise stage, aeroshell, w/rover & descent stage)
Diameter: 14 feet, 9 inches (4.5 meters)
height: 9 feet, 8 inches (3 meters)

Rover name: Curiosity
Rover dimensions:
Length: 9 feet, 10 inches (3.0 meters) (not counting arm)
Width: 9 feet, 1 inch (2.8 meters)
Height at top of mast: 7 feet (2.1 meters)
Arm length: 7 feet (2.1 meters)
Wheel diameter: 20 inches (0.5 meter)
Mass : 899-kilogram rover
Power: radioisotope thermoelectric generator & lithium-ion batteries

OK, so I’m sure I can probably hunt through the data from HORIZONS to figure out the trajectory, and then figure this all out! I’m sure, however, that the trajectory file is probably accessible somewhere, as it’s quoted in the data from HORIZONS as “msl_spk_cruise_1126-1502-tzero_v1_dsnsch”. It’s out there… Somewhere… Time to do some digging…