Sunday, May 17, 2009

Herschel and Planck - two great names, two amazing spacecraft

Why take a risk when you can take two? That was the nailbiting scenario planned by the European Space Agency on Thursday when it launched two highly sensitive and extremely important astronomical probes in the same launch vehicle. Planck and Herschel are now on their way on the next stage of their journey to an orbital position known as L2. Herschel is the largest ever space telescope with a mirror twice the size of that of Hubble, but operating at far-infrared wavelengths which are particularly valuable in probing star formation processes. It will be able to detect early galaxy formation and evolution by looking at extremely distant targets. For those of you that are relatively new to astronomy, the probe is named after the distinguished historical astronomer, Sir William Herschel who was assisted by his wife Caroline.

Planck, named after the great physicist, Max Planck, will study the distant cosmic microwave background radiation. For both such tasks you require low temperatures and this is one of the advantages of their particular location. You can learn more from this video which was produced last year.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

April came and went...!

Apologies for the long gap and the absence of April's programme. Ended up being completely swamped in work and with family commitments. Tsk, tsk. Dashing the expectations of my loyal following. I will make amends and double up the number of podcasts to compensate. There's a lot going on astronomically speaking, so plenty to talk about. Next topic though is likely to be the Sun, since it causing some intrigue amongst astronomers at the moment.....

Saturday, April 4, 2009


New month, new video! Just be patient and all will be revealed, with luck later this week. For the moment, however, time to enjoy the brighter days (for some of us, at least)...

Friday, March 20, 2009

20th March at 11:44

Happy vernal equinox! The Sun moves North into the summer zone as it passes the origin of right ascension. How's that for a technical sounding sentence? What does it mean...? ah now that would be telling, but spring has sprung and for those of you with winter gloom the bright few days we've had recently have rather symbolically illustrated the astronomical seasonal shift.

For Right Ascension, the zero point is known as the First Point of Aries, which is the place in the sky where the Sun crosses the celestial equator at the March equinox.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

subscribe to our podcasts

We're on iTunes now, so if you'd rather access our podcasts that way and pop them onto your iPod/mp4 player then simply subscribe in the iTunes store to this URL:

Monday, March 9, 2009


As you no doubt, now realise, the launch of Kepler was a success. So, it's all go now as we try to track down Earthlike planets over the next 4-6 years of observations.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Kepler launch imminent

Only a few hours to go now before the launch of one of the most exciting space missions yet. The Kepler telescope will gradually make its way to an earth-trailing orbit which balances out the gravitational pull and minimises the torque on the spacecraft allowing it to be stable and afix its gaze on a patch of sky and stare and stare and stare! Looking at the light from stars to detect the clues that reveal planets. It will be able to reach down to Earth size detection, something that has not been achievable to date. Any such detection of a planet like this in the 'goldilocks' zone around another star will be a great achievement, so fingers crossed for a successful launch.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Cosmology - an introduction

Our next video episode is an overview of some ideas that underpin cosmology. We'll be returning to these in later editions and in other articles on this blog (eg expansion of the Universe, background radiation, dark matter and distorted space), but for the moment this, hopefully, sets the scene. It's a bit long and I'm afraid I speak a little slowly this time, but with any luck the beauty of the images and the sheer profundity of the subject will carry you through!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

It's coming soon - the story of the entire universe!

Our next video programme is nearly complete - just been busy with a few other pressing deadlines in my non-astronomy time! I hope to post it up during this coming week.

In the meantime, however, the next couple of days is also the closest approach of Comet Lulin. Not one of the most dramatic cometary visitors, but it is still visible in small telescopes and binoculars and if it reaches the predicted magnitude 5 you should be able to see it unaided in good conditions. For more info and some lovely images click here.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

down at the docks and up in the sky

After entertaining sailors and random others in a bar in the docks with stories of the wonders of deep space ( a public 'science in the pub' type event), I'm turning now to the latest episode of our video series and it will be online soon. The theme will be the Big Bang and the universe on the largest scales.

In the meantime, may I suggest that if you are keen on seeing what stars and planets are visible from your location at any time, and would like to explore the night sky in some detail, that you download and install the free Stellarium software? Versions run on Mac, Windows and Linux and its fun and extremely simple to use.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Moon - latest video

As promised, the latest 'astronomy in roughly 5 minutes' video is about the Moon. Of course this is a potentially vast subject and I only skirt around some aspects, but there's plenty more scope to revisit some topics as IYA 2009 continues! No questions on the video this time, but if you want a challenge, why not find out why we don't have eclipses every month?!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Lunar influence

As storms start to batter the western seaboard of Ireland, there's little hope that the telescope will see much action over the coming nights. Rain and sleet are promised, all fine for blowing away the cobwebs but classic hibernation weather too. Living on the coast, as we do, then its hardly surprising that we're aware of the tides as they rise and sink and indeed it's been suggested by a couple of my readers that perhaps I might say something about that engine of the tides, the moon, in one of my little 'astronomy in five minutes' videos. So why not? Sure there are plenty of other topics to cover, but its nice to get suggestions and with so many blogs that have no readers/followers I'm grateful that I have a readership and so am happy to oblige! I'll look at some interesting and lesser known aspects as well as the basics. I also had it originally in mind to issue an episode on every full moon, but I'm out of sync thus far!

The video below shows the rotating Earth as the moon passes by viewed from a space probe some 31 million miles distant.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Podcast 2 - Venus

Well here's the second of our video episodes, focusing this time (as promised) on the planet Venus. I aim to upload a video each month, but since this is the start of the series I thought an extra bonus episode wouldn't go amiss. I'd like also to acknowledge permission from the astrophotographer Tunc Tezel (in Turkey) to use his amazing picture of the retrograde motion of Mars in this programme. Many thanks!

Venus is of course the object most responsible for supposed sightings of "UFOs" given its brightness and the effect of an apparent motion near the horizon if you watch it whilst driving! It's often reported that such sightings peak when Venus is visible.


Wednesday, January 7, 2009


Standing out in the cold and frosty nights that are around us, here in Galway at the moment, the most prominent evening object (apart from the Moon!) is the planet Venus. It's a fascinating object and one that played a pivotal role in the development of our view of the universe with Galileo's observations. In addition, it is a remarkable "sister planet" of the Earth, with its runaway greenhouse atmosphere perhaps a pertinent warning!! 

Anyway, it forms the subject of our next podcast episode (online later this week) but to whet the appetite, here's the picture of Venus (bottom series) that Galileo drew from his telescope observations, a series of sketches that had a profound effect at the time....but you'll have to wait for that!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

First Podcast/Vodcast January Skies - Orion

In this, the first of our series of short programmes I talk briefly about the Orion constellation and draw your attention to some of its interesting members. My approach is fairly simple and if you want to get the most out of these resources then:

(1) Get yourself a notebook and pencil
(2) Sketch the basic constellation layout 
(3) Jot down anything new or interesting you learn from the episode
(4) Try and answer the challenging questions I set, either by hitting "google" or looking at astronomy books.

Enjoy. Horizon/Nova it is not - but I'm aiming to pass on some basic knowledge rather than to dazzle with orchestral music, globe trotting reports and special effects!!!