All systems JUICE

May 2, 2012

So the SPC has done its thing. Vast petitions and stern letters nothwithstanding, they have chosen JUICE and its all systems go for launch in 2022. Jupiter here we come. The official announcement is here. There’s some coverage already at the Beeb, and at Skymania. Always quick off the mark that Suthers. Andrew Coates and Michelle Dougherty do a splendid job on the embedded video at the Beeb article and wax lyrical about Life Under The Ice. Who wouldn’t want to check that out ?

There is also an article at Physics World including quotes from yours truly. You will note I have been nice about everybody. Except NASA of course.

So thats it for now. X-rated astronomers and gravy fans have a year to gird their loins. Who wants to open a book ?


X-ray astronomy crunch

April 19, 2012

I got an email this morning from old chum Paul Nandra. You may not be surprised because about eight squillion of you got the same email. In fact I also got it yesterday from Andy Fabian, and also via the Euclid mailing list (followed by a knuckle rapping from Yannick reminding us that the Euclid mailing list is for Euclid business…)

The email asked us to sign the Athena petition set up by Paul, who these days is King of German X-ray Astronomy, following Gunther’s retirement to Hawaii. Athena is a giant X-ray telescope, and has been on the shortlist of three for the L-class mission in ESA’s Cosmic Vision programme for some years. It descends from IXO, but our US chums pulled the plug on that. The other two rivals are NGO (which used to be LISA, and is  gravy wave thing) and JUICE (which used to be Laplace, and is a Jupiter moon thing). As explained in this BBC article, the tortuous decision process is almost done : the Space Science Advisory Committee has recommended JUICE. The fat lady in this case is the Science Policy Committee, so there is still a chance the decision could be reversed. Hence the petition.

The response has been pretty impressive – over 1100 signatures already. I think people see this as an issue for astrophysics, as well as specifically for X-ray astronomy. However, it seems a pretty faint hope. It just ain’t the way ESA thinks; Gaia is about to get launched; and Euclid and Solar Orbiter have just been selected as M-class missions. ESA-think is that it must be the turn of planetary astronomy. Furthermore SPICA (joint IR mission with JAXA) is underway, and LOFT (another X-ray concept) is still in contention for another M-class mission.

Still… the point is that Athena is the Big Hope for X-ray astronomy for many many years to come. Not running with it feels like closing down X-ray astronomy. So at minimum, it seems the right thing to do to register one’s distress.

Personally I would rather go for a smaller monitoring / transient projects like Lobster or EXIST but they seem to have failed to get a foot in the door too.

Fundamentally, the problem is that X-ray astronomy has hit the funding wall. Everything gets inexorably bigger and more ambitious. Eventually its all or nothing… so when the answer is nothing … ah.


Hubble versus Peach

November 29, 2009

Last weekend I talked at a special meeting of the British Astronomical Association, celebrating 75 years since Patrick Moore joined. It was a fun day. I’d never been to the Royal Institution before. It has nice looking but horribly uncomfortable seats, and is very atmospheric. Paul Murdin and myself were the token professionals in a vast sea of keen amateurs. Some of them really do wear anoraks, but golly gosh they do some impressive stuff these days. Not only do they use CCD cameras, but they employ what IOA wizard Craig Mackay calls Lucky Imaging; they take thousands of short images, keep the best ones, and re-align them with Regi-Stax software.

The results, from small telescopes in people’s back gardens in the UK, are stunning. Possibly the two best known practitioners are Damian Peach and Nick Szymanek.

So … which of these pictures was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, and which from Damian Peach’s telescope in Buckinghamshire ? Vote now. Results later.



Astro Blunders

February 9, 2009

Hmm. Seems Telescoper is assuming the mantle of dissecter of STFC politics. And as ever there are about eight hundred people quicker than me at feeding you the hot new piccies .  Better go for good ole astro-trivia….

In Bertie and the Aliens I told the story of a distinguished astronomer who didn’t know his constellations. This prompted an embarrassed confession by one “Perry Petia” caught out not knowing how to use his/her own Department’s telescope. I thought more of this sort of thing would be rather fun. So …. I would welcome entries in three categories :

(A) Personal confessions

(B) Blunders you have heard about, especially by well known astronomers

(C) Votes for best historical dead ends.

You may wish to post anonymously in this instance, and also may wish to protect the identity of the actors in Category B, as I did with Bertie. I leave this to your judgement. In Category B, well testified stories are best of course, but urban myths will do too as long as clearly marked as such.

I’ll kick off in reverse order.

(C) My favourite is the sad history of nebulium. For sixty years people thought the bright nebular emission lines came from a new element, but nobody could find it, after years of fruitless searching.

(B) I was once observing on the 24 inch on Mount Hopkins with John Huchra. We were manually moving the guider-TV around (ahh ! the good old days !) when the star disappeared in a kind of fat blank patch somewhere near the middle of the field. “What happened ?” says I. “Oh that.” says John. “Somebody I know kinda maybe pointed the guider at Jupiter. Hasn’t been the same since.”

(A) Not saying. Far too embarrassing. If a good stream gets going, will slip this in anonymously.

Right. Who’s up ?