RSSArchive for April, 2011

New Australian astronomy centre

Australia from space

Astronomy is booming in Australia, and the new Macquarie Astronomy, Astrophysics and Astrophotonics Research Centre aims to be among the best in the nation.

THE MACQUARIE ASTRONOMY, Astrophysics and Astrophotonics Research Centre (MQRC AAA) has been officially launched.

The research centre, led by Professor Quentin Parker, has ties to over 100 national and international universities, observatories, research institutions and commercial companies in 23 countries.

This solid network will provide for effective multi-national collaborative research programs and partnerships with some of the world’s leading institutions.

With its planned growth in research, the centre is predicted to soon be among the top four astronomy cohorts in Australia, alongside the Australian National University, the University of Sydney and Swinburne University.

Apart from many exciting mainstream astrophysics research programs and strong growth in the emerging field of cutting-edge astrophotonics, the centre has many other major projects already underway.

One example is the Macquarie University-led $2.4 million dollar ARC supported project ‘Space to Grow’ which combines astronomers with educational, ICT and science teaching experts to engage high school students in science using the hook of astronomy.

At the cutting edge

Macquarie has emerged as a world leader in the discovery and study of planetary nebulae in our galaxy and Large Magellanic Cloud. Knowledge of planetary nebulae—the death throes of many types of stars—is important to understand the evolution of stars, the spread of chemical elements through space, among others fields.

The Ring Nebula

Planetary nebulae are a focus of research at Macquarie

“Macquarie is playing a key role in unravelling the complexities of these fascinating phenomena,” Professor Parker told SpaceInfo.

“We are also strong in galactic archaeology—the ‘genetic’ finger-printing of vast numbers of stars in our galaxy to expose the fossil record of how the Milky Way formed and evolved,” he added.

Radio astronomy is another field where Macquarie intends to increase its profile.

“We have a very strong strategic vision to expand our expertise and involvement in radio astronomy,” said Professor Parker. “This is a tremendous strength of Australian astronomy and, as with our extremely strong links with the AAO, we want to take advantage of our close physical proximity to the ATNF/CASS to develop close-links and projects.”

One of the most exciting technologies in astronomy at the moment is astrophotonics. This is the use of special optical techniques, including fibre optics, to improve the sensitivity and efficiency of major telescopes.

“We are involved in several major projects associated with cutting edge astronomical instrumentation and are working closely with the Australian Astronomical Observatory and Sydney University to create a powerful astrophotonics triumvirate in Sydney,” said Professor Parker.

Collaborative effort

The new MQRC AAA will also have a strong focus on building links to the Indigenous community by engaging the Aboriginal Astronomy Research Group, a group dedicated to researching the astronomical knowledge and traditions of Indigenous Australians.

Professor Parker has been overwhelmed with the support received in order to make this launch possible.

“Thanks must go to Macquarie itself for so strongly supporting astronomy over the last eight years and allowing our potential to be realised,” said Parker.

“We must also thank the Australian Astronomical Observatory, our major external partner and the Australian Research Council whose support has been crucial to our spectacular growth.”

The collaborations that this new centre will encourage are sure to see a strong growth in the outstanding research outputs in astronomy, astrophysics and astrophotonics by Macquarie University in the future.

Adapted from information issued by Macquarie University. Images courtesy NASA.

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Data deluge for astronomers

Artist's impression of the LSST

The proposed Large Synoptic Survey Telescope will survey the entire visible sky every week from a mountaintop in Chile.

THE STEREOTYPICAL ASTRONOMER of yesteryear was a patient soul, endlessly gazing skywards searching for a faint glimmer that might lead to a discovery.

But for the astronomers of tomorrow this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Super-sized telescopes currently under development around the world like the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) and the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), will be so sensitive that information from the rest of the Universe will literally pour from the sky.

Once these data-intensive telescopic beasts come online the challenge for astronomers will no longer be to find the needle in the haystack, but to remove the hay from the pile of needles and choose which are the most likely to further our understanding of the cosmos.

To tackle this data challenge head on, two organisations on opposite sides of the planet have joined forces.

Artist's impression of SKA dishes

Artist's impression of some of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) dishes. The SKA will produce copious amounts of data that will need to be sifted carefully.

The LSST Corporation in the United States and the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) in Perth, Western Australia have signed an agreement to work together on designing common database systems for optical and radio astronomy and research tools that will enable direct comparisons of objects discovered by these optical and radio telescopes.

“This collaboration will give us a great head start in preparing for the enormous data challenges of the SKA and will allow scientists access to both optical and radio data to probe the Universe across all wavelengths,” said ICRAR Director Prof. Peter Quinn

The LSST was ranked the number one project in the US by the Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey conducted in 2010.

“Once you have separated the incoming data into sources and objects, it makes little difference to the system if the signal is at optical or radio wavelengths,” said Jeff Kantor, Data Management Project Manager.

“So it makes sense to join forces with ICRAR to find data processing solutions for the enormous databases that will be generated by both of these amazing telescopes.”

Using supercomputers located at the new Pawsey Centre in Perth, ICRAR’s Professor Andreas Wicenec is heading up the international team designing data systems for the SKA radio telescope.

“We expect to detect more than 100 billion objects, which is at least 10 times more than we’ve observed in the last 400 years of astronomy,” said Professor Wicenec. “This represents an immense challenge but potentially huge scientific reward

Adapted from information issued by ICRAR. Images courtesy SPDO / Swinburne Astronomy Productions / Todd Mason, Mason Productions / LSST Corp.

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That’s not a telescope!

IF CROCODILE DUNDEE had carried a telescope, it would have been an extremely large one … perhaps the largest in the world.

The science and engineering needed to make a telescope that has a primary mirror 10 times the size of world’s largest telescope is truly astronomical. Such telescopes, costing in excess of 1 billion Euro, are currently being designed in both Europe and the United States.

This month Prof. Jason Spyromilio, who heads the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) Project, will present a public lecture on the most ambitious of these designs…an optical telescope with a 42-metre-diameter primary mirror!

The European ELT will be over 10,000 times more powerful than any telescope in Australia, able to image planets in other star systems and directly observe the expansion of the universe, amongst many other scientific objectives.

Size comparison between the European Extremely Large Telescope and the Sydney Opera House.

Artist's impression comparing the sizes of the European Extremely Large Telescope and the Sydney Opera House.

Jason Spyromilio completed his PhD at Imperial College London before coming to Australia to join the Anglo-Australian Observatory (now the Australian Astronomical Observatory) in 1991, where he was the instrument scientist for a number of Anglo-Australian Telescope instruments (and is remembered for augmenting one of them with a Lego train set!).

He moved to ESO in 1994, and has headed the European Extremely Large Telescope Project Office since 2006 (and was the director of ESO’s La Silla Paranal Observatory 2005-2007).

Prof. Spyromilio’s main research interest is supernovae (exploding stars), but he has also worked on comets, brown dwarfs and other cosmic phenomena.

Details:

Where: Long Room, Customs House at Riverside, Brisbane

When: Monday, May 9, 2011, 6:30pm to 7:30pm

Arrangements: Doors open at 6pm. No need to book—just turn up!

Contact: Any questions, please email Andrew Stephenson a.stephenson@uq.edu.au

Refreshments: There will be complimentary drinks and nibblies following the talk, where Prof. Jason Spyromilio will be available to answer any questions

Adapted from information issued by BrisScience / University of Queensland. Images courtesy ESO.

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Hidden cosmic treasures

OBSERVATIONS MADE WITH the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) powerful ground-based telescopes are veritable treasures, stored in a huge archive usually only visited by professional astronomers on a mission.

And yet, an amateur astrophotographer from Russia managed to uncover a real gem from ESO’s Hidden Treasures, winning a trip to Chile to observe with the Very Large Telescope and take part in the observations.

How did he manage it? And could you do the same?

This podcast episode takes you behind the scenes of ESO’s Hidden Treasures competition and shows you how a group of determined and talented amateur astrophotographers managed to find and produce stunning astronomy pictures.

Adapted from information issued by ESO.

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Planets all in a row

EARLY-RISING AUSTRALASIAN SKYWATCHERS are in for a treat this coming Saturday morning, April 30, as four of the naked-eye planets and the crescent Moon all come together in the morning sky before dawn.

In the video above, Melbourne Planetarium’s marvellous astronomer, Tanya Hill, explains when and where to see the spectacle.

And you can keep up-to-date with sky happenings with SpaceInfo.com.au’s monthly Whats’ Up? section.

Video courtesy of Museum Victoria.

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Sunset from above

Sunset seen from space

Sunset from space. This photo was taken by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station.

ASTRONAUTS ABOARD the International Space Station experience, on average, 16 sunrises and sunsets during each 24-hour orbital period (as an orbit takes only approximately 90 minutes).

Each changeover between day and night is marked by the ‘terminator’, the dividing line on Earth’s surface separating the sunlit side from the darkness.

While the terminator is often conceptualised as a hard boundary—and is frequently presented as such in graphics and visualisations—in reality the edge of light and dark is blurred due to the scattering of light by the Earth’s atmosphere.

On the ground, we experience this zone of diffuse lighting as dusk or twilight—although the Sun is no longer visible, some illumination is still present due to light scattering over the local horizon.

View from orbit of the Salar de Coipasa salt lake

A contrast-enhanced view shows details on the ground, including the Salar de Coipasa salt lake in Bolivia.

The terminator is visible in this panoramic view across central South America, looking towards the northeast. An astronaut took the photo at approximately 7:37pm local time.

Layers of the Earth’s atmosphere, coloured from bright white to deep blue, are visible on the horizon (or limb). The highest cloud tops have a reddish glow as they pick up direct light from the setting Sun, while lower clouds are in twilight.

The Salar de Coipasa, a large salt lake in Bolivia, is dimly visible on the night side of the terminator. The salar provides a geographic reference point for determining the location and viewing orientation of the image.

Astronaut photograph provided by the ISS Crew Earth Observations experiment and Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, Johnson Space Centre. Text adapted from information issued by William L. Stefanov, NASA-JSC.

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Latest Hubble video report

THE HUBBLE SPACE TELESCOPE is working on three of the most ambitious projects in its history just now. These programs are using Hubble’s unique ability to observe across the spectrum from ultraviolet, through visible, to infrared light, to build up a library of data that will serve astronomers for many years.

In this podcast episode, presenter Dr J (aka Joe Liske) looks at these projects, and how they will complement the capabilities of the next great thing in space-based astronomy, the James Webb Space Telescope.

Adapted from information issued by ESA / Hubble.

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The Andromeda apparition

THE ANDROMEDA GALAXY is a huge spiral galaxy about 2.5 million light-years away from Earth, making it the nearest big galaxy to our Milky Way.

Both Andromeda and our Milky Way are moving through space toward each other, and are expected to crash head-on in about 4.5 billion years from now.

The European Space Agency’s fleet of space telescopes has captured views of Andromeda, also known as M31, in different wavelengths. Most of these wavelengths are invisible to the eye and each shows a different aspect of the galaxy’s nature.

Visible light, as seen by optical ground-based telescopes and our eyes, reveals the various stars that shine in the Andromeda Galaxy, yet it is just one small part of the full spectrum of electromagnetic radiation. There are many different wavelengths that are invisible to us but which are revealed by ESA’s orbiting telescopes.

Starting at the long wavelength end, the Planck spacecraft collects microwaves. These show up particles of incredibly cold dust, at just a few tens of degrees above absolute zero. Slightly higher temperature dust is revealed by the shorter, infrared wavelengths observed by the Herschel space telescope. This dust traces locations in the spiral arms of the Andromeda Galaxy where new stars are being born today.

The XMM-Newton telescope detects wavelengths shorter than visible light, collecting ultraviolet and X-rays. These show older stars, many nearing the end of their lives and others that have already exploded, sending shockwaves rolling through space. By monitoring the core of Andromeda since 2002, XMM-Newton has revealed many variable stars, some of which have undergone large stellar detonations known as novae.

Ultraviolet wavelengths also display the light from extremely massive stars. These are young stars that will not live long. They exhaust their nuclear fuel and explode as supernovae typically within a few tens of millions of years after they are born. The ultraviolet light is usually absorbed by dust and re-emitted as infrared, so the areas where ultraviolet light is seen directly correspond to relatively clear, dust-free parts of Andromeda.

By putting all of these observations together, and seeing Andromeda in its many different colours, astronomers are able to follow the life cycle of the stars.

Adapted from information issued by ESA.

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Tour the International Space Station

IN FOOTAGE EERILY REMINISCENT of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, NASA’s Expedition 27 Flight Engineer Catherine ‘Cady’ Coleman flies through the International Space Station with a high-definition video camera in hand, giving us a rarely-seen insight into life in Earth orbit.

It starts off as an un-narrated tour, but in the second half Cady explains some of the equipment aboard and gives us some amazing views of the world to be seen through the Station’s windows.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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Comet doomsday nonsense

Artist's impression of a comet

Artist's impression of a comet. Comet C/2010 X1 (Elenin) will make a distant fly-by of Earth in October 2011.

I WAS ASKED THE OTHER NIGHT (by a caller while I was a guest on Tony Delroy’s Nightlife show on ABC radio), whether there is any truth to the rumour that Earth is going to be buzzed—perhaps even hit—by a comet later this year.

I must admit I hadn’t been keeping my eye on cometary matters lately, so I wasn’t able to give the caller a detailed reply. What I did say was that if a very close approach by a comet were on the cards, let alone a collision, I was sure I would have heard about it.

But I promised to investigate the matter and post something about it on SpaceInfo.com.au

Hunting around, it seems the caller had heard about Comet C/2010 X1 (Elenin), which was discovered on 10 December 2010.

Elenin is a long-period comet (ie. with an orbital period longer than 200 years) that is estimated to have a solid icy core, or nucleus, about 3 to 4 kilometres wide. Quite average for a comet.

As far as visibility for Earth-bound observers is concerned, there are two points that matter in a comet’s orbit—the point of its closest approach to the Sun, called perihelion, and its closest approach to Earth, called perigee.

A comet shines by light reflected from the gas and dust cloud that builds up around its icy nucleus—gas and dust that has been liberated from its frozen surface by the Sun’s heat. The point around perihelion is important, as this is where the most gas and dust can be expected to be liberated. (Technically speaking, the ice does not evaporate, which involves a liquid phase—it sublimates, which is when ice turns directly into gas.) The more gas and dust, the more reflected sunlight, and the brighter the overall comet will appear to be.

The time around perigee is important too, as being closest to Earth the comet will appear larger (and therefore brighter).

In the case of Elenin, perihelion will occur on 10 September 2011, and perigee will be reached on 16 October 2011 at a distance of about 34 million kilometres.

Is that close? No, it’s a long way away. It’s about 100 times further than the Moon, which means Elenin poses no threat to Earth at all.

So if you come across any Elenin doomsday stories on the Internet, please disregard them—they are nonsense.

South Australian amateur astronomer Ian Musgrave has a great set of Elenin questions and answers on his Astroblog site.

Story by Jonathan Nally.

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