Sunday, 9 December 2012

A Knights Tale

Earlier this year I was commissioned to conduct an interview and write it up for a magazine. The article didn't go out for reasons, that are private, but here, in its uncut form is the piece I wrote about someone who I had known for 22 years, who was my teacher, and like millions of others, an inspirational astronomer... Sir Patrick Moore. The poignant last paragraph a testament to a man, who I spent the entire day with, laughing, joking and talking about all things astronomy. The almost 3 hours of mp3 recordings I still have of this interview are very precious to me for many reasons, as they tell the truth of  the day with a great astronomer, and the wonderful day spent in his company.

A Knights Tale

After a record breaking 55 years presenting the BBC’s seminal “Sky at Night” television program, Nick Howes visits the home of Sir Patrick Moore

The drive down to Selsey, a seaside town on the south coast of England is always one filled with excitement. I have known Sir Patrick (or just Patrick as he likes to be called) since the late 1980s when he was a visiting lecturer in planetary science at my University. In those days, he’d make the journey in a vintage black car, typically eccentric in style, and come bounding in to what was always a packed lecture hall, full of wide eyed undergraduates devouring his every word. I’d been re-introduced after almost 20 years courtesy of invites to be a part of some Sky at Night television shows, where a group of amateurs were invited to his large garden, with telescopes, to have a mini star party.

Patrick lives in a wonderful thatched roof house, in an area famed for its almost mythical micro climate. Selsey, despite its proximity to the large naval city of Portsmouth, is a relatively good dark site location, and with its closeness to the sea, and protrusion out from the nearby coast, seems to have clear skies, even when the aforementioned nearby city is overcast.  The house, which Patrick has lived in for around 50 years is known as “Farthings” (Far Things!), resplendent with wood panelling throughout, it’s like entering a gallery or museum of the greatest achievements in astronomy of the past half a century.

Barring the Knighthood, which Patrick received from her Majesty the Queen in 2001, he also holds a CBE, OBE, and one of his proudest achievements, being made an honorary fellow of the Royal Society, also in 2001.

I was greeted at the door by one of his assistants. Patrick, at the tender age of 89, has long suffered with ailments which he says stem from a “war time spinal injury, which finally caught up with me”. He finds his current physical state, compounded with acute arthritis “immensely frustrating” not only due to the fact that he cannot use his beloved telescopes any more, but also that he can’t pursue some of his other passions in life, being cricket and music.

I asked Patrick first about his music. An accomplished xylophone player since the age of 9, though he was playing the piano from a much earlier age (allegedly before he could even talk), he famously once accompanied Albert Einstein who was playing Saint-Saen's the Swan on the violin.

“I loved to compose, and as for my own musical tastes the music of Strauss is some of my favourite music. I love his grasp of harmony” Patrick himself having many notable compositions to his name.

A long-time friend of Brian May, the guitarist from Queen, who recently returned after 36 years with that iconic group to complete his doctorate in “zodiacal dust clouds”, Patrick says “I like Brian so much, a terrific friend, and a good astronomer, but I don’t like his music, and I’ve told him as much. Our musical tastes are sadly separated by a few hundred years”

Patrick’s xylophone still gets played by those he invites to use it, and his musical compositions, were even that week being played at a local concert by a young local xylophonist. He hands me a leaflet with the concert details “I shall be going to see that, would you like to come along?” he asks. This is Patrick through and through; he’s an incredibly warm and welcoming individual, who makes you feel very much at home whenever you see him. In a time when celebrity culture is being criticised so much in the press, to find a man, who still lists his phone number in the telephone book, and welcomes guests, is refreshing.

Patrick famously mapped the moon in the 1960s for both the Russian and U.S programs, and pre missions to the lunar far side, discovered the crater Einstein, and for a time was credited also with the “discovery” of Mare Orientale (though this is now credited to Julius Franz) His lunar maps were and still are some of the best ever made, pre the large scale imaging surveys. Patrick has always been a visual observer, even with the advent of modern CCD imagers at a time when he was still active, Patrick stated that there was and is nothing better than being at the eyepiece.

His lunar and planetary sketchbooks are almost legendary, with detailed annotated (sometimes amusingly) drawings, his passion for solar system planetary bodies really does shine through. “I am pleased that one of the new co-presenters of the Sky at Night, Paul Abel is also so keen on sketching the skies” says Patrick “I know with modern computers, and imagers like my good friends Pete Lawrence, and Damian Peach (both of whom live in Selsey as well, testament to the good skies it has), that sitting and drawing objects in the sky is a dying art, but Paul really does it so well, much better than me” Patrick is nothing if not modest in his achievements.

The television show has now moved on quite substantially from its roots. In 1957, shows were live to air, with some famous episodes, where Patrick and often keen amateur astronomers, would be trying to observe objects, and be clouded out for the entire show. Nowadays, whilst Patrick still opens and presents the show, a team of reporters, such as Pete Lawrence, Dr Chris Lintott (of Galaxy Zoo fame), Dr Chris North and Paul Abel, assist with outside broadcast and observing duties. “I don’t get to travel much, London is about as far as I can get now” says Patrick, who regularly attends the European Astrofest show, where queues of people hundreds of yards long will form, to see him and get him to sign one of the hundreds of books he has authored.

Aside from the honours and medals, including an honorary doctorate (“I never wanted to be a professional astronomer, as my maths is not very good”) which take up a glass cabinet on the wall next to where Patrick presents the TV show, is a BAFTA award. Like the British version of the Oscars, Patrick was presented this in 2002 by none other than Buzz Aldrin, another long-time friend. Patrick knows all of the Apollo astronauts well, having interviewed pretty much all of them, including Neil Armstrong not long after the lunar landing. “I think I am the only person alive who’s met the first man on the Moon, the first man in space and the first man to fly” says Patrick, having met Gagarin and Orville Wright. “It’s quite incredible that we went from the first flight to manned spaceflight and then on to the Moon in such a short period of time”

Patrick has no time at all for modern politicians and their meddling with science. “Kennedy was in a different league to modern politicians, whom I’d mostly like to send on a one way trip to Alpha Centauri if I could” He goes on to name various U.S presidents and British politicians who he’d probably actually pay for that ticket for. “Missions like Voyager, Apollo, Viking and the Hubble Space telescope show what we can achieve, but political will needs to be there, and I don’t think any of them really have it any more”. Werner Von Braun, who Patrick knew and liked immensely “could not see his ultimate dream through of sending a man to Mars, and that’s a shame”

Patrick’s own work, which included helping set up and saving the William Herschel Museum in Bath, where Uranus was discovered, and being on the planetary commission of the IAU (he also has his own asteroid), also involved helping set up one of the first robotic telescopes for schools. The Liverpool Telescope in La Palma.  “I was approached to chair a committee setting it up, and I am very proud of that” states Patrick “I think, if anything, my greatest achievement is that I have encouraged so many people, especially youngsters in to astronomy” If you ask most people in the UK, and even globally, his reach is as prolific as someone like Carl Sagan, they will tell you that it was “The Sky at Night” and Patrick’s infectious enthusiasm which got them in to this hobby.

“It’s wonderful that many professional astronomers come back and say it was me that got them inspired, even my co-presenter Chris Lintott, who was an enthusiastic youth at a school I gave a talk to” I asked Patrick if he considered, given his inability to use his own telescopes, using a robotic scope “not really, I love being out under the stars, at the eyepiece” a sadness briefly comes over him, but then in his usual style, he bounces back, announcing that lunch will be served up, and that we must all join him.

We have lunch together in his wood panelled dining room, and then the British Astronomical Associations lunar director Bruce Kingsley, (whom I’ve known for years, and who was one of the amazing team that worked on the lunar world record image, which Patrick also sat in on), , took me round the telescopes.

 The 15” Newtonian on its Fullerscope mount being one of the most photographed telescopes in the world in the “dome” at the back of the garden, being our first port of call. Balanced with weight lifting weights, it’s clearly a loved and well used scope that Patrick still encourages everyone to look through. My own personal favourite though is the Cooke refractor, recently expertly restored by Steve Collingwood of Meade’s distributors in the UK, it sits in an also recently restored run off roof shed, and looks as remarkable and pristine as any modern refractor, though suffering with colour fringing, the views having looked through it, are still breath-taking.

After the telescope tour, we go back in to find Patrick at his computer, the famous Woodstock typewriter on which he wrote so many of his books, sitting now, silently on a desk. He offers us drinks, and we chat about a plethora of topics from world politics to current deep space missions and the budget cuts impacting them. Time really does fly by with Patrick, and my stay, initially planned for only a few hours, quickly runs well in to the early evening. We bid each other farewell, and it’s clear Patrick has enjoyed, as he always seems to, having people who are as passionate about astronomy as he is, around.

55 years of the Sky at Night has inspired so many people to look up and observe the wonders of our universe. As Patrick himself says “nobody else has done anything quite the same, many people come and go in astronomy, but I’m still here” With his passion for astronomy, who’d bet that it won’t continue for more years yet. Only Patrick knows the answer to that, but, in a world where Knighthoods are given to people, who may not deserve it, Patrick truly deserves his. A defender of the skies for hopefully many more years to come.


Footnote - Added 10th Dec 2012
There's a lot of debate on social media forums, about the rights and wrongs of Patrick's political and cultural views. Whilst I am not someone who would ever think ill of the depearted, it's hopefully clear that any decent minded person would not in any way shape or form endorse or support any of his views w.r.t race/politics/immigration or the role of women in science/society. They were his views, and the views of a different generation. It's not to excuse them, it's just to explain I hope where and how they were formed.

What I have tried to convey in this story, is the man who inspired a generation of amateur and professional astronomers, and nothing else.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Friday, 30 November 2012

"Bilge and a waste of money" Royal Decree

Dr Ian Crawford is a brilliant scientist, of that there is no doubt...but his article in A&G the RAS journal this month on the legacy of Apollo is just outstanding. The ADS citation count alone, and the efficiency of the astronauts on the moon walks shows time and again that WE HAVE TO EXPLORE not just send robots. Even Steven Squyres conceded that point, and he's had two rovers on mars for the best part of a decade, not a cumulative 25 days across 6 missions.

What stunned me though in the article was the irresponsible and quite appalling comments by the then "Astronomer Royal" which sadly seem to have been passed down through successive ones... that "it was bilge and a waste of money"...

If taking part in humankind's greatest technological achievement, uniting most of the planet, ending the cold war, and delivering inspiration to millions of kids, whilst generating thousands of scientific papers and research, and making international heroes 

out of a group of men who risked their lives to do something that 43 years on we've STILL not matched is "bilge" then I give up with these people...

Appointed spokesmen (and women) for science like the Astronomer Royal should support breakthroughs and discovery. Werner and his team delivered a breakthrough in technology, whilst Aldrin/Armstrong through to Cernan and Schmitt from the Crawford paper delivered science on a scale which is still unprecedented and has never been matched since by all of the robotic landers on other worlds..

Science is science, we should all applaud it, if it furthers our knowledge, and yes, it may and did have political aims too, but it had them and delivered something great from it, unlike the Vietnam War and every damn war since, which has done nothing but bring misery and suffering to millions. A political desire to "outperform" or "show off" to your "sworn enemies" in the case of Apollo was the spark that ended the cold war...if that's a bad thing then we live in a very very messed up world.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

A Passion for Space

Some nights I dream of what it must have been like to walk on the Moon or what it will be like to walk on Mars for someone in a few decades time. Then there's the dream of seeing the sky with your own eyes in the way that the giant telescopes do... that "Rutger...time to die" moment from Bladerunner, imagining what it must be like to skim past the Orion Nebula or hover above the galaxy. Most of humanity look up at the sky, and never pay it any attention, it's always there, so, like a local building or corner shop, why would/should they care..? Some people look up and may wonder a bit, or stare at the Moon looking for meaning to a problem in their life,,,,

I think astronomy people and fans of space science are blessed, in that we look up, and see a million suns burning brightly, consuming their gaseous fuel at a relentless pace... with a plethora of planets orbiting probably each and every one of them, we see gas clouds, intricate in form, and colour making new stars, we see the explosive remnants of stars, weaving their spider like tendrils across the sky... that once may have harboured life bearing planets in their own solar systems, we see galaxies of every conceivable shape and size, huge black holes at their centres with arms that stretch out for distances we cannot begin to comprehend, we see our nearest satellite, shining brightly, never changing and yet constantly illuminated in subtly different ways... with the footprints of 12 great human beings imprinted on them for the next 10-20-30 million years, but most of all, I think we see and grasp the Universe in a way most don't... an infinite sea, as I think Sagan once called it, where we're just starting to dip our toes in to the cosmic shore.
Like most things we may take for granted, one day it may not be there, maybe light pollution, maybe illness or maybe some other factor will make it impossible for you as an individual to see it.. so next time you step outside, don't forget to look up, and if it's a clear night, just take a few moments to enjoy the greatest, most beautiful free light show this planet has to offer... and then realise why people who are passionate about astronomy and space are that way..

This post is dedicated to friends who are "the astronomy" people , and to my friend Giovanni Sostero, who I hope against hope will again see the universe he loves so much

Friday, 23 November 2012

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Giovanni Sostero

It is with deep sadness that I must tell you of the sudden illness of our
friend, mentor and colleague at Remanzacco Observatory, Giovanni Sostero.
Giovanni suffered a heart attack last weekend, and is now in intensive care in
hospital, after having surgery.

I hope that you will all join us in wishing him a speedy recovery, as our
community is a better place with people of his calibre among us.

Ernesto is in contact with Giovanni's family and is passing on the thoughts and
prayers of everyone.

Nick Howes and Ernesto Guido

Monday, 1 October 2012

Monday, 24 September 2012

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Remanzacco Observatory - Comets & Neo: Distant Minor Planets 248835 & 2009 MS9

Remanzacco Observatory - Comets & Neo: Distant Minor Planets 248835 & 2009 MS9: The Lowell Observatory LARI program hopes to engage the ever-growing and technically sophisticated amateur astronomy community in some ex...

Remanzacco Observatory - Comets & Neo: Close Approach of PHA Asteroid 2012 QG42

Remanzacco Observatory - Comets & Neo: Close Approach of PHA Asteroid 2012 QG42: M.P.E.C. 2012-Q72 , issued on 2012 Aug. 28, reports the discovery of the PHA asteroid 2012 QG42 (discovery magnitude 16.8) by Catalina Sky...

Remanzacco Observatory - Comets & Neo: Close Approach of Asteroid 2012 QC8

Remanzacco Observatory - Comets & Neo: Close Approach of Asteroid 2012 QC8: M.P.E.C. 2012-Q25 , issued on 2012 Aug. 20, reports the discovery of the asteroid 2012 QC8 (discovery magnitude 17.1) by Siding Spring Sur...

Remanzacco Observatory - Comets & Neo: New update on comet C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS)

Remanzacco Observatory - Comets & Neo: New update on comet C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS): Comet C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) , discovered by Pan-STARRS 1 telescope on Haleakala, Maui, on the night of 2011, June 5-6, will reach perihelio...

Saving the planet - 1 asteroid at a time

Thursday, 17 May 2012

No need for Bruce Willis just yet

For those who missed it, this week, Faulkes Telescope Project, who I work for as their Pro-Am programme manager and the European Space Agency's, (who I work for in the space science communications division) Space Situation Awareness team agreed to work together on keeping our planet safe. Detecting potentially hazardous near Earth objects is critical work, and between us, we're going to do our best to help look for and find these asteroids.

As part of a major ongoing solar system science project working with schools, students and the wider science community, and it all ties in with work we're doing on comets/snoopy etc... There's a lot of interesting stuff on our solar system, and we're picking up new objects almost every week

You can see more on the official ESA website release

Monday, 30 April 2012

Jolly Awesome - NEAF 2012

The NEAF (North East Astronomy Fair) held in Suffern, which is about 45 minutes up from New York is generally regarded as one of the biggest amateur astronomy shows in the world. With over 130 on site vendors, a plethora of world class speakers, and the annual “solar star party”, for anyone interested in Astronomy in the East Coast USA, it’s one of those “must attend” events.

Much like Astrofest in the UK, but set out over one gigantic sports hall, with several smaller breakout halls for seminars and workshops as well as the main lecture theatre, this year’s event, my second, was another truly memorable experience, but for completely different reasons to last year. In 2011, I was on assignment for UK magazine Astronomy Now, primarily to look for new and interesting equipment to review, but also to meet up and speak to the US/Science Channel TV stars “Meteorite Men”. The article’s I wrote on the show itself and on the Meteorite Men, which was a cover story special came out in 2011, and since then Geoff and I have stayed regularly in touch, becoming good friends online, as we share many common interests in music and space science.

NEAF itself lasts 2 days, preceded by the NEAIC conference for a day, when close to 400 of the world’s leading Astro imagers come together to share tips/tricks and images. The likes of Robert Gendler, Christopher Go, Sean Walker and many many more, give you some idea of the calibre of imaging talent at this event. That I think is something for next year all being well. Hotel’s nearby range in price, but for under £150 you can get a full weekend’s worth of excellent accommodation not too far from the main event hall.

Rockland Astronomy Club run the show each year, with Alan Traino, a man who is probably the busiest man you could ever wish to meet, running around keeping it all together. Alan’s networking skills and ability to marshal people is quite legendary, but you’ll very rarely see him, despite how busy he is without a smile from ear to ear.

This year I’d flown over to lay the groundwork for some work I am working on with the Faulkes Telescope Project, and also to shore up some new writing opportunities with several US publications, but, alongside that, to really also meet up with a great bunch of online friends made at previous shows and events all across the globe.

The Twitter based space community, known affectionately as “The Spacetweeps” is becoming a force of’s as simple as that. These guys travel all over the world to space based events, and generate millions of tweets/retweets etc, which provides the people behind the events (like ESA and NASA) with marketing and enthusiasm passed on to millions of people, the like of which money simply cannot buy.

This year at NEAF, with the draw of speakers like the amazing Dr J (Dr Joe Liske) from the Hubblecast, the superb David Eicher from Astronomy Magazine, along with the Meteorite Men, who quite literally stormed the stage with 2 of the most amazing hours of public speaking I have ever witnessed (some of it from the audience, as Steve decided to join us in the crowd), had the tweeps literally in rapture.

We had two great nights of meals and drinks, the first with Woody, Cassie (two great friends who’d twisted my arm to come to NEAF again in the first place, and who ferried me to and from the airport...thank you!!) and Talking Space star Sawyer (aka @thenasaman) who that day had been on the VIP stand as the space shuttle Enterprise rolled in to JFK airport.

Sawyer (and this guys knows everybody who’s worth knowing!) had given a speech and then hung out with non other than Leonard Nimoy (aka Dr Spock!) who was another VIP guest for the shuttle’s arrival in to New York.

His home (and a big thank you also to his parents for laying on such a great welcome) is like a shrine to NASA, with Apollo era mission patches, shuttle and ISS astronaut signed images and ...probably the coolest thing ever, a signed Werner Von Braun picture with the Apollo flight team...saying thank you for the success of Apollo 11...something which is quite simply priceless.

My second night in NY started with a spacetweep party at a local restaurant, and then, joined by the Meteorite Men, we went over (courtesy of Sawyer) to the Challenger Centre, an educational outreach centre aimed at keeping alive not only the memory of the tragic accident which took the lives of seven astronauts in 1986, but also to educate and entertain young people, with simulated missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond in a realistic flight control and spacecraft environment. Everyone had a truly phenomenal time in the centre, for me, something quite surreal to be working on a lunar landing mission, whilst the erstwhile Geoff Notkin was doing a quite hilarious and brilliant “Darth Vader” impression as the mission commander/capcom. That night was one I’ll never forget, making lots of new friends, and seeing outreach work at its absolute best.

Day two of NEAF started with more meetings one of which was a great 30 minutes with IDA director Bob Parks, who is so passionate about the night sky, and maintaining it in all its glory for future generations, that I’ve become convinced to try my utmost to help them in their mission. My dear friend from Palomar, now at the IDA Scott Kardel was there, and it was like we’d never been apart, even though it’s close on 3 years since I last saw him, his ambassadorship of the IDA I am sure will help get attain the goals they seek in keeping our skies visible for all.

The solar star party was next, and I introduced many friends to the best H-Alpha telescope pretty much in the world (ask anyone who looks through it) in a “custom configured” Coronado 90 double stack, which literally tore every other scope (including a 200mm one!) apart with the views it gave.

The owner of that scope is another great friend, and amazing outreach guy, Stephen Ramsden, who runs the Charlie Bates Solar Astronomy project as a charity in memory of his air traffic control and service buddy. If anyone deserves the award for the hardest working man in astronomy outreach, it’s Stephen, and all I can say to anyone who reads this blog is please visit his website, and take a good look at the truly magical work he does. Over 60,000 schoolkids in one year have looked through and been awed at the views with his collection of Solar telescopes, and he does this at the same time as one of the hardest jobs in the world, being an air traffic controller in US airspace.

So after some great meetings with S&T, Astronomy (and they get on really well...a good mantra for the industry I think!), Sky at Night’s editor Chris Bramley (really nice guy) and some of my old colleagues from Astronomy Now (copies of the Meteorite Men issue were flying off the Meteorite Men stand, many of which we (Geoff/Steve and I) were being asked to sign!), nights with the Meteorite Men/Spacetweeps...what was the highlight of the two days? (and no it wasn’t the rubber gloves in the Challenger Centre.... (You had to be there to get that joke!))

Whereas last year, the equipment (and there are some stunning toys there, from the like of Astrophysics, Televue etc) was a major focus, the highlight this year was, what makes the interest in space, be it science, imaging or collecting  so enthralling, so magical and something which can inspire passion in the hearts of young and old.

The highlight was a guy, named Jon, not an astronomer who turned up at NEAF, after being told to go by his mother and wife Alanna. Jon had absolutely no idea that his mother had bought him a meteorite as a graduation present.

This was no ordinary meteorite, this was, in the words of the Meteorite Men themselves, one of the most amazing pieces they had ever sold, and seeing it in the flesh, they were not kidding. Apparently Jon’s mother had spent weeks negotiating a piece, which had come out of the vaults at Aerolite meteorites (Geoff’s business). The meteorite in question being a massive 835.7 gram transition meteorite slice, showing the characteristic Widmanstatten patterns of an Iron type, morphing in to a pallasite laden with beautiful crystals which took on a three dimensional appearance at certain angles.

The look on Jon’s face when he saw it (and this is a multi thousand $$$$ piece) was one of awe, the kind of awe you see in a 5 year old on Christmas morning, the kind of awe you see on the faces of people at a rocket launch. Signed and photographs with the guys, it was a remarkable 30 minutes just watching him take it all in.

Watching a grown man in awe of the gift his mother had presented him, and that gift being a rock, over 4 billion years old from the very dawn of our solar system, spoke volumes for why “space is ace”

When you’re a child, most of us love dinosaurs and space. That element of wonder, mystery and sheer scale, enthrals us as children, we develop inquisitive minds, hungry to find out more, but then, without the right parentage or teachers, many of us lose that passion, and thirst for knowledge.
TV and games consoles have their place in society, don’t get me wrong, but these days, I firmly believe that youngsters need to be introduced to more than a video game, or left for hours in front of mindless cartoons.

I know from my own 6 year old, how much she loves going to science museums, launching rockets, looking at the Moon etc, but I also know that if I could not be bothered to spend the time with her nurturing that passion, that she’d probably be equally as content in front of the TV.
Jon had stated time and again what an “awesome mom” he had, and you could see it, and hear it in his voice, just how much this gift of a rock from space meant to him.

So that was the highlight, because now more than ever, in every way possible, I want to keep the fire burning in the hearts of people, young and old, with regard to a love of science. My own dealings with STEM outreach have shown me that even the most jaded and disgruntled teenagers can have that “wow” moment when you show them something like the prominences of the Sun or the Apollo landing site regions on the Moon through a telescope.

My friend Stephen Ramsden, who gives so much of his time and energy to outreach, travelling, coast to coast in the USA pretty much summed it up though “With all the bad stuff in the world today, wars, economy, politics etc, I just want to give people some magic, and you show them something cool in the sky, and for a moment at least, and sometimes for a lifetime thereafter, all that anger, worry, sorrow etc.. just melts away”

And looking back at the people I met or hooked up with at the show, every single one of them, in their own way, wants to do that. They want to bring that magic to people, young and old...and that, to coin the phrase of this blog and the show is “Jolly Awesome!”

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Social Media and Astronomy - A Force for Good

What a month March 2012 was. I'd been invited over to ESTEC which is the ESA Centre in Holland, home to around 2000 of the most brilliant minds on the planet working on all aspects of space science and research. My work as a science writer with the European Space Agency meant that I had to visit for some training in software applications they use, so I combined this, with a planned visit to meet up as part of my role with the Faulkes Telescope project with ESA's Space Situational Awareness team. These guys are on the hunt for dangerous or potentially hazardous near Earth objects, and use a 1m telescope in the Canary Islands to hunt for them.

As my projects with Faulkes are primarily based around comet and asteroid detection and follow on work, measuring light curves, rotation rates and dust/gas ratios with two fantastic colleagues in Italy as part of the CARA projecdt group, it seemed like a sensible idea to suggest that ESA's SSA team and Faulkes collaborate, and that is why we met.

A very positive and good meeting occurred and we're starting to work together on some known NEO's to tr to refine the orbits.

Faulkes being co-located in Australia and Hawaii, combined with the access I also have to the 2m Liverpool Telescope in La Palma, where I am running a comet monitoring program, ahead of another ESA mission we're involved with is ideal to complement the ESA SSA 1m telescope, as we have deeper magnitude capabilities and also more scope time, which the SSA team can now request access to via our students and my programs to either access data or request follow on observations of objects.

Whilst at ESTEC, literally the morning I arrived, I learnt that my beloved grandmother had passed away. Whilst it was utterly devastating news, I took great strength from her mantra throughout life of "just keep going". As she'd got me in to astronomy in the first place, I felt it only right to carry on that day, to "do her proud" so to speak. So the day of meetings went on, with everyone oblivious to the news I'd learnt. I felt it unfair to share a burden with people I was just meeting, the end of the day, could call many "friends"... such was the day, full of laughter and great conversation.

I took a week off work, and from Facebook and Twitter, just to be with family and close friends, many of whom, when I got back online had left really wonderful messages of support. To all of you, I say a huge thank you, it really meant a lot, also re-enforced for me what is great about social media...and to my nan, whom I miss terribly

When you feel at your lowest, true friends will always be there for you, in spirit if not in person, and the messages, some as long as an essay really did help.

Almost straight after the funeral, I was then off to CNES, the French Space Agency in Toulouse in conjunction with ESA had set up a "Tweetup" where 60 space fans had been invited to be at the mission control centre for the docking of the ATV (Automated Transfer Vehicle) with the ISS.

It really was like being on the set of Apollo 13, sitting behind the mission control team, whilst members of CNES and ESA gave us an in depth insight in to how things worked, and a detailed overview of the mission itself. But again, what was great, to me anyway, was the sheer passion, enthusiasm and will to share and talk about space by all the "tweep" (Tweetup attendees).

Academics sometimes moan about "social not-working" sites like Twitter and Facebook, but used in the right way, as a means of communicating good things, be they life events, general day to day good stuff, coordinates for a comet (done that!), or whatever it is that fires your soul, they can be a force for real good, and real change.

At the first Tweetup I attended, the statistics showed that from just a few dozen people, the message of "space" reached a potential audience of 19 million people. In these difficult times, when the news is full of stories of woe almost every day, how incredible is that, that 60 people, who all share a passion for space and space science, could reach the population of Australia almost with messages of positivity...

I know for a fact that social media, and the many outstanding friends I have made through it have got me through the tough times, and been there to share the good ones....long may it continue

Saturday, 10 March 2012

A Great Book for Kids

I remember at the age of 8-ish what first got me in to astronomy. I'd seen Star Wars at the Cinema, and was instantly hooked on space and sci-fi. Voyager's 1&2 were cruising past Jupiter, bringing the most amazing images I'd ever seen to our newly bought colour TV, and I guess that love of space must have permeated through to my parents and grandparants, as that year, my nan bought me small refracting telescope and a book on "Space" filled with the Palomar images and a cartoon drawing of the Space Shuttle, which was still being developed at the time.

34 years later, and my own 6 year old daughter has a fascination for space. She's not an atypical girl at all. Hates pink, hates "princesses" (recently dressed up for a princess party as Princess Leia, as "she's the only cool princess".. We launch rockets (SRB types the Estes models), we build crystal radio sets, and she's obsessed with being the first "girl" on the Moon as she got "very upset that only boys have been so far".

She's used and operated a goto telescope on her own (EQ3 synscan) to look at the Moon, has imaged Jupiter (with help) and the ISS (on her own, which got her in to Popular Astronomy Magazine, the youngest ever contributor for an image)...

So I bought her a new book... along the same lines as the one I was given at the age of 8. "My Tourist Guide to the Solar System...And Beyond" by Dr Lewis Dartnell, and published by DK (Lewis is one of the UK's leading astrobiology experts), is perfectly pitched at that 7-10 age group, large clear images, cut out short blocks of text, which my 6yo daughter reads through and then asks questions about. It's this lack of large paragraphs, which can intimidate a young reader, which I think makes the book work so well. It's littered with fun facts about the planets, comets, asteroids even out to black holes and red giant stars, with useful analogies (e.g. how long it would take you to get to Betelgeuse in the fastest rockets we have now...)

It mixes fact with fictional ways to explore some of the most exciting places in the solar system, like ice diving on Europa, which being in to scuba, would be a dream come true even for this 42 year old!

It's fired up her mind no end... she's now interested in the aforementioned black holes, though doesn't quite get how something the size of a full stop could swallow a planet :-). It's things like this which expand the mind. Something the great Richard Feynman said in his autobiography has stuck with me for most of the past 10 or so years, in that when he was a child, his father used to spend lots of time, explaining how things worked to him, not just saying "oh that's a so and so"... So spending hours with her the past few days, answering questions she raised and explaining with drawings, you tube videos etc, how things like a black hole work, I feel is just taking his wise words and acting on them.

So... parents...if you want a really good book, one that is both beautifully illustrated, and very well written, and will genuinely fire up the imagination of a child...I can heartily recommend this one.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Save our skies

BBCStargazing Live promoted the need for dark skies in the UK. Over 4 million people watched the show every night on BBC2, and hundreds of thousands around the UK attended live events.

Astronomy Magazine's article with the IDA stated

"Without question, lights help us feel secure. Whether in our houses, our cars, or on our pavements (UK), we bask in the protective glow of lights. The IDA does not seek to eliminate such useful and necessary forms of lighting. Instead, it just hopes to modify the current excessive lighting practices. Following through with such efforts can conserve energy, reduce harmful glare on the road, and of course, allow for a purer view of the night sky"

If you value the skies, and want to make it possible for future generations to also see amazing sights, please put this in your timeline and encourage every friend you have in the UK to sign it...Sensible lighting will save millions for the economy too.. It takes about a minute to sign... thank you

Monday, 23 January 2012

Comets over Christmas - La Palma and Faulkes Combine

Our "amateur" astronomy research team working on comet and asteroid related projects imaged a range of objects using the 2-metre telescopes of Faulkes (F65 & E10 MPC codes) and the La Palma-Liverpool (J13 MPC code).

We're currently working with support astronomers at La Palma working out methodologies for taking more detailed observations of the compositions of the comets ahead of a long term project supporting the Rosetta spacecraft mission, investigating dust and gas emissions from the comets.

Here's our team blog

Friday, 20 January 2012

How I take some space piccies - a step by step guide

Okay, this is the most common thing I get asked..."how in the h**l do you take images like that?"

Let's just say that I've been in to this for years, and have read/studied and learnt many tricks from some truly great people along the way. I can recommend some cracking books like Ron Wodaski's "New CCD Astronomy" which was like a mini bible for this topic, and Steve Richards excellent "Making every Photon Count" which I reviewed for UK magazine Astronomy Now when working as their equipment consultant.

So... from the start to the end, in a simplified manner, here goes

1: Check the skies... if the night is nice and clear, lots of stars, no or v little Moon light, and little or no clouds, it's time to get the equipment pointing up. I am lucky to have an observatory which was built by a local firm based in Marlborough, Wiltshire. It's a run off roof 8ft x 6ft shed, with CCD security/alarms and a direct underground link to the house, which means I now (as is the case with 99% of professional observatories) do all my work from indoors operating it remotely. In the observatory are netbook sized laptops which connect to the telescope mount and cameras, they are ethernet linked to the house via a powerline ethernet link, and that's about the size of that

2; Equipment. 80% of my night time imaging is done on a 4" refracting telescope, not a monster big Hubble like thing, a small, but very good optically TMB105 telescope. It is connected to a focal reducer, which gives it an F4.9 focal ratio (wider field and faster for imaging faint objects), which is then connected to a cooled Atik 4000 camera, usually running at around -35 degrees (the cooling keeps the amount of noise in the camera down to almost zero). Noise is a key factor in astro imaging, and most DSLR's cope well with it these days, but the professional cooled CCD still beats pretty much all. Dual stage cooling, as in the Atik (triple in the 4000 with a water cooling option) really does kill almost all the noise.

That sits alongside a skywatcher ST102 (102mm) refracting telescope which has a Meade DSI-C CCD camera on it, which in turn acts as a guide camera. I use that as it's very sensitive compared to many of the other CMOS type guide cameras, and up to now has never ever failed to find a guide star with a 1s exposure.

A guide camera is critical for deep sky imaging, as it basically locks on to a star in the field of view where you're imaging, and sends minute corrections to the telescope mount (which, unless you spend about £10K on a mount, will need it) to ensure that the scope locks on to your target. Both scopes have dew heaters wrapped around the top near to the main lens to get rid of any dew (Kendrik dew heater with 4 channels, the other two work on the other scopes/cameras). I use a GPUSB guide port interface, which connects to my EQ6 telescope mount, and then via USB to the computer. The cameras also connect via USB to the computer. So in effect, you need a laptop with at least 3-4 USB ports or a USB hub, ideally an active one to get it all connected. (in this scenario)

3: So... first things first... Boot up the PC, and then I launch an application called PHD Guide. This is free and brilliant guide camera software written by Craig Stark. I select the Meade DSI and the GPUSB and then select 1-2 seconds exposure time..the camera, which at this point is pointing towards polaris (which is the telescope's "home" position) shows me stars. Next step, I boot up the Atik capture software, which comes free with the Atik cameras.

I set this up to start cooling down the camera (takes about 3 minutes on average) and again cycle to expose on the stars near polaris. I check the filter wheel (Atik EFW which is also connected via USB as it's motorized), and check the focus position on the filters I will be using (they are all parfocal Astronomik filters, but I always check them each night) The filters I typically use are CLS (light pollution, though it's not bad near me at all), H-Alpha, OIII, SII and HBeta. These are almost all narrowband filters, which work really well on nebula and comets (OIII on comets is v good)The SII/HA/OIII combination of filters when mapped to RGB colours is commonly referred to as "The Hubble" palette as it was used famously on the 1995 image of the "Pillars of Creation"

4: Then comes the magic bit...using another bit of free software called EQMOD, and EQASCOM control, I launch a free planetarium application called Cartes Du Ciel. In this I have various star catalogues loaded (also free). The software then gives me the option to "connect to telescope" which I do, and this fires the EQ6 in to life. The planetarium software now shows me that the telescope is pointing at Polaris. I then, after checking with websites like and various star maps I have, will pick a target (maybe a new comet, maybe a galaxy, may be a nebula)..I tend to image nebula in narrowband only when the Moon is up, and galaxies using the CLS filter and NB filters when not. I then click on the target and select "slew to target" on the software. The scope then moves to and locks on to the object I wish to image, with frightening accuracy...seriously, dead centre 99% of the time.. EQMod is free and it basically allows you to "map" alignment points of stars, which I do every few months or so (to refresh it), this is how it is so accurate.. great and free software!

5: Okay, so scope and cameras are now ready, cameras are cooled down, scope pointing at target. Go back in to Atik capture software, and set the binning (making the pixels work together) to 6x6 I select a 3 second ish exposure to verify that the object is in the right position (accuracy is one thing, aesthetic/framing is another!). I may then move the scope a bit, again using the software controls to nudge it.. when happy with positioning, I set up the Atik sequencer control to select the exposure times (anywhere from 30s to 40 minutes...yes, I have done 40 minute single exposures before!!) and leave that..

6: Then, back in to PHD guide software, and exposure time at 1-2 seconds, get a suitable guide star. Click on the PHD button, wait about 1 minute whilst it calibrates the mount, works out which way is which, and after a minute says "guiding", the star locked in cross hairs. I turn on the guide graph to verify how accurate the guides are

7: Now with the guide lock on, I go back to the Atik software, set the binning to 1x1 or 2x2 (both good enough resolution to get nice images) and select a star. Binning is when adjacent pixels on the CCD combine. It reduces the time needed to take the image, but also reduces the resolution, so works best I find on higher resolution cameras. I will fractionally tweak the focus until the star's FWHM (focus assist) reads a value close to or <1 (usually on a good night below around 1.5, but on an exceptional night <1), this means the stars are really tightly in focus. You can use various masks on the front of the scope, I just prefer the FWHM method, it works for me.. 8: Focus on, all looking good... set a test exposure up of say 60s, check it all looks nice at that time, then run the sequencer... leave to stew for however many hours that takes...go inside for cuppa !

9: Now, totally from indoors (it's warm!), remote desktop link in to laptops in observatory using Windows RDP or some VNC client (if using iphone/android phone which I sometimes do) set sound on, (as PHD guide will beep an alarm if it loses a guide star, which usually means a cloud or something got in the way, and that will cack up the image too)

10: When the image sequence run is done, I usually have about 30-60 individual images, around 10-20 for each of the usually 3 filters I will use (depending on the object).. these are all in FITS format

11: Now, load up Maxim DL (expensive software, but superb, really is the best out there).. load up the images in to that, and calibrate them.. This means noise reduction. Prior to imaging, about once a month (usually on a cloudy night) I will create a set of flat field frames (which are basically a white image created by covering the front of the scope in a white t-shirt and shining a diffuse lamp on it) . These show up any dust or other munge on the CCD/filters etc... I also do dark frames (cover the telescope with it's cover/cap and expose the camera for as long as your actual exposure times, so I have darks for 240s, 360s, 600s and 2400s stored). These record just the camera noise at the temperature I run it at.. usually not much, but then using the calibration option in Maxim DL, it removes all trace of dust and noise in all the images I have taken..

12: Next step, stack the images. Using Maxim DL's stacking option, I will then load up all the images into groups (usually called HA/OIII/SII etc) and set the minimum threshold of acceptability in each image (Maxim has an option for this for roundness etc).. Then hit the stack button and get three images which are the sum of all the images taken (I use SD mode in Maxim to sum the images, removing any cosmis ray strikes etc)

13: Now, we have three master images. Save them in FITS format

15: Next I usually run Maxim DL's DDP processing option. This kind of makes the overall image levels better, so, brighter cores in galaxies sit better with the outer arms...that kind of thing. This is well documented online.

15: Next step, I use a process known as deconvolution to tighten up everything more.. the fat tail deconvolution plug in (free) for Maxim DL works well, takes a minute or two to work, but works nicely and you get really tight stars

16: Finally, take the images and load them in to Photoshop (I use CS5, but GIMP or earlier versions will work). I use Noel's actions (google it!) for photoshop to clean up and tweak the images a bit more (usually noise reduction and light pollution removal). Then create a final image by combining the three images as Red, Green and Blue channels. Adjust levels and curves to taste, sometimes use the excellent "Focus Magic" to tighten the focus up a bit more..

And that's it! It's how I roll, but there are a billion different ways around this. The books I have suggested are excellent starters, and also forums like UKAstroImaging and Stargazers Lounge have tons of people doing this all the time, with different equipment, cameras etc...

Stargazing Live - The Future is in our hands

For the past year, BBC each January have hosted a new and exciting event known as Stargazing Live.

Devoting three nights of prime time television to a niche subject like astronomy was possibly a risk, but on the back of Professor Brian Cox's monumental success with his "Wonders" series, one that was clearly going to come off. The BBC assembled a great, dynamic and young team of people, alongside very familiar, yet astronomically linked faces like the intensely funny Dara O'briain to create a show that, coming from the kudos centre that is Jodrell Bank, home to the third largest fully steerable radio telescope on the planet, was almost guaranteed to succeed from the offset.

For the first show I did some work behind the scenes work on some image processing for Dara and the team at Faulkes Telescope, this year, the involvement levels went up quite a notch, as FT were involved not only in UK wide Big Screen events coordinated by Dr Paul Roche and Dr Edward Gomez of LCOGT (who manage the Faulkes scopes) , but also via the BBC TV program Blue Peter. The BBC, aware that the main live shows were going out late for many young people, were intent on taking the Stargazing Live concept to that younger audience.

Last summer, I coordinated a project trying to see if we could detect new asteroids. Our team at CARA (Comet Research group based largely in Italy) have been working with NASA on the EPOXI mission and are continuously imaging, and trying to find new comets, doing comet recovery programs to detect faint comets coming around again, looking for outburst and fragmentation events and tracking comets over long periods to measure dust and gas values, using both amateur sized telescopes and also the twin Faulkes Scopes. More recently we have been given permission to use the La Palma 2 metre Liverpool Telescope via a formal proposal process, which was a nice bridge again between what amateurs and professional observatories do.

The BBC filming lasted a day at the University of Glamorgan and then on to the really wonderful Hannah Blyth's house, Hannah being the Nuffield foundation student I was working with on the asteroid project. Hannah has since been nominated for two exceptional awards for her part in the project, and Faulkes have seen a massive increase in registrations and use, thanks to various TV/Radio and news items we both did. The Blue Peter show aired this week, and reaction has been really nice from friends, family and also my managers at the European Space Agency, who were thrilled that we got a Blue Peter badge (kind of special in the UK, and it gets you in to hundreds of places for free, which has thrilled my 5yo daughter no end)

Two radio interviews and a set of live talks at the birthplace of photography, Lacock in Wiltshire, to an event hosted again by the BBC to 2500 people ended up an amazing week of Stargazing live for me. I had worked also on a big ESA news release, which made the BBC home page courtesy of their fantastic science journalist Jonathan Amos, and had images I had taken shown on the live TV show, and used extensively on the BBC website.

But the best bit by far for me..and the reason I love astronomy so much...was seeing the looks on not only my own daughter's face, but also on the faces of hundreds and hundreds of kids who attended the stargazing live events, kids who had been dragged out in our case in Wiltshire, on a rainy cloudy night to experience the real wonders of the universe, via planetarium displays, robotics demos, rocket launches... etc. You know that scene in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" where the kids first enter with their golden tickets... that's the best way to describe it.

If just ONE of those young people goes on to become an astronomer or scientist, then we, as people sharing our passion for space, will have made the world a bit better, and maybe given our planet's future the next Einstein, Feynman or Sagan. The spark and flame in the mind of a young person, once lit...very rarely goes out, if you keep feeding it the oxygen it and space are two things most young people love.. its up to us to encourage that...

And this message goes out to all the academics, many of whom I know relish the notion of passing on to a younger audience their love of space, but, sadly not all... to those, remember this fact...

No matter how far up the academic ladder you reach in astronomy ,at some point,someone inspired you to start to climb...and most likely that was when you were a child.

You may never reach the top, you may never achieve whatever it is you reach for.... but so long as you always remember to help those on the rungs below, you'll always make a difference to someone's life, and that is better than any prize, from a Blue Peter Badge to the Nobel.

To watch the Blue Peter piece on BBC's iplayer (UK only), click here.