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Tag archives: astronomy

Bristol marvels at awe-inspiring solar eclipse


By Tushna Commissariat and James Dacey

The south-west of England is not exactly known for its sunny skies at this time of year, so many of us in Bristol – home to Physics World HQ – had steeled ourselves to miss out on today’s solar eclipse, which coincidently is on the first day of spring. So, we were rather overjoyed when the Sun shone through the sparse cloud cover for nearly an hour of the celestial treat. While today’s eclipse was technically visible to anyone in North Africa and Europe, totality was only visible to those lucky few who happened to be on the Faroe Islands (where it was actually cloudy for most of the time) and in Svalbard in northern Norway. Here in Bristol, the eclipse peaked at about 9.30 a.m., when 87% of the Sun’s light was blocked by the Moon.


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Guide to the solar eclipse

Solar eclipse captured by Hinode craft

Solar eclipse of 2012, which darkened parts of the US and south-east Asia. (Courtesy: JAXA/Hinode)

By James Dacey

On Friday, our old friend the Moon will swing by to remind us that she’s not just there to reflect the Sun’s light; she can sometimes block it out too. A total solar eclipse will be visible to those lucky few people living in the Faroe Islands or the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. Many others across Europe, North Africa and Russia will be treated to the (almost as good) spectacle of a partial solar eclipse.


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Decoding the dark arts of Interstellar's black hole

moderately realistic, gravitationally lensed accretion disk

A moderately realistic, gravitationally lensed accretion disc around a black hole, created by Double Negative artists. (Courtesy: Classical and Quantum Gravity)

By Tushna Commissariat

In recent years, science and science fiction have come together in cinema to produce a host of rather spectacular visual treats, the best of the lot being Christopher Nolan’s epic Oscar-nominated film Interstellar. That actual science has played a major role in film is pretty well known, thanks to the involvement of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, who was an executive producer for the project. But in a near-cinematic plot twist, it has emerged that Thorne’s work on trying to develop the most accurate and realistic view of a supermassive black hole “Gargantua” has provided unprecedented insights into the immense gravitational-lensing effects that would emerge if we were to view such a stellar behemoth.


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Flying high in Baltimore


By Susan Curtis in Baltimore, US

After two days of getting to grips with biophysics – see here and here for my experiences –  I was ready for a change of scene. And a visit to the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), co-located with the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore but operated on behalf of NASA, was just what I needed.

The STScI is home to many of the scientists and engineers who made the Hubble Space Telescope possible, and who have been working for many years to design the optics and instrumentation for its successor – the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is due to be launched in 2018. The institute also runs the science operations for Hubble and soon will for the JWST, providing software tools for astronomers to make their observations and processing the raw data acquired by the onboard instruments to make it ready for scientific analysis.


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UK to open its first ‘pub observatory’

By Michael Banks

Fancy having a few pints while gazing at the stars? Well soon you will be able to, thanks to a new initiative at the Barge Inn at Honeystreet on the banks of the Kennet and Avon canal in Wiltshire, UK.

The Barge Inn

The Barge Inn. (Courtesy: The Barge Inn)

Known as “the most famous pub in the universe”, the boozer is already a favourite among UFO aficionados and crop-circle hunters.

But now the free house, which has its own brewery making beers such as Alien Abduction and Roswell, is turning to the stars by creating the UK’s first pub observatory.

The 205-year-old rural pub recently had planning permission accepted by Wiltshire county council for a 6 m-tall domed observatory to be constructed in the pub’s neighbouring campsite.

Dubbed the Honeystreet Observatory, it will be able to accommodate groups of about twenty people and will feature a Celestron 14″ 1400 Pro telescope. The images from the telescope will also be relayed onto screens in the pub.

It is hoped that the observatory will boost visitors, particularly in the winter months when there is less daylight and more time for observations – and drinking, of course.

“We had originally intended to build the observatory next year but due to the great
response since gaining planning consent, construction will commence next
month.” pub landlord Ian McIvor told

And will it be a good idea to mix alcohol with astronomy, particularly with the tricky ascent to the telescope? “You would be amazed at what some of the pub’s customers can accomplish after a few pints,” adds McIvor. “Gazing at the stars and falling down the stairs is a regular activity, so we think it will be business as usual!”

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Louise Mayor bags European astronomy journalism prize

Andrew Taylor, Executive Director of the National Laboratories at STFC congratulates the winner of the European Astronomy Journalism Prize 2014. (Courtesy: ESO/STFC)

Andrew Taylor of the Science and Technology Facilities Council congratulates Louise Mayor on winning the European Astronomy Journalism Prize 2014. (Courtesy: ESO/STFC)

By Matin Durrani

If you think that writing a great feature article about physics is easy, think again. You want something that’s pitched at the right level for the audience. You’ve got to avoid jargon and explain technical terms where necessary. You can’t go on and on – you’re not trying to rewrite Wikipedia.

Most importantly, you need to tell a good story and say something new, different and intriguing. And remember, your readers could switch off at any point, so the article has to be well written, flow well from point to point, have plenty of colour and, ideally, have some pay-off or punch-line at the end. No point just trailing off into nothingness. Oh, and good pictures, headlines and captions are a must.

So I’m sure you’ll join me in congratulating my colleague Louise Mayor – features editor of Physics World magazine – who has won this year’s European Astronomy Journalism Prize for an article she wrote for the October 2014 edition of the magazine. Her winning article is entitled “Hunting gravitational waves using pulsars” and looks at efforts to detect gravitational waves using radio telescopes to observe distant pulsars.


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Space bonanza to land in Manchester

Starlight graphic

The Age of Starlight will catch both the eyes and the minds of the audience. (Courtesy: ESO/P D Barthel)

By James Dacey

Whatever punters make of the Manchester International Festival (MIF) next year, they certainly won’t be able to accuse it of thinking small. Among the first commissions announced today is a “world-first show about the origin of the universe and everything within and without it”.

The Age of Starlight will be presented by the physicist and TV personality Brian Cox, who will tell the story of the unlikely events that have led to our existence. Details of the show are still scarce but we do know that the space bonanza will feature computer-generated imagery created by the Oscar-winner Tim Webber and the special-effects team behind the film Gravity. The event will be brought to life with technologies developed by Magic Leap, a Florida-based IT company that specializes in “magical” computing solutions.


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Last chapter in Rosetta’s Philae lander story…for now

Strange new world: Image of comet 67P taken by Rosetta's NAVCAM from 10 km away. (Courtesy: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

Strange new world: Image of comet 67P taken by Rosetta’s NAVCAM from 10km away.
(Courtesy: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

By Tushna Commissariat

Last week was exciting and exhausting for anyone involved in space exploration and astronomy, after scientists working on the Rosetta mission of the European Space Agency (ESA) made history when their “Philae” module touched down safely on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. But soon after celebrating Philae’s successful landing, a dramatic story unfolded. With a bumpy triple landing, harpoons that did not fire and tether the probe, as well as a final resting spot that lay in the shadows, which meant its solar panels received very little sunlight, Philae’s tumultuous story captivated the interest of thousands of people across the globe.

In the early hours of Saturday morning, as Philae’s batteries slowly drained of power, thousands mourned. “So much hard work..getting tired…my battery voltage is approaching the limit soon now,” Tweeted the Philae crew, and yet, the lander’s story was ultimately happy and successful. Although it spent only 57 “active” hours on the comet, ESA mission scientists were happy to report that the lander had indeed completed the entirety of its primary science mission.


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Rosetta’s Philae starts drilling into comet surface

The view from Philae’s final landing spot

View of a lifetime: Philae safely on the surface of Comet 67P.
(Courtesy: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA)

By Tushna Commissariat

It had clearly been a long and busy 24 hours for members of the Rosetta mission at the European Space Agency (ESA) as they gave the latest updates in today’s Google+ Hangout. On Wednesday the mission made history as its “Philae” module touched down safely on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. But there has been a great deal of drama and uncertainty since then, as it emerged yesterday that the lander’s final resting spot was more than 1 km away from where it was meant to arrive. Also, Philae is thought to be precariously positioned in the shadows on the far side of a large crater, where its solar panels cannot get enough light to operate as planned. Despite these hurdles, the lander’s many instruments have been functioning well and sending data back to Earth, via the Rosetta orbiter.


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Blockbuster physics, bowling balls and feathers in a vacuum, and more


By Tushna Commissariat

The results of a successful scientific experiment can make scientists very happy. Indeed, in the clip above, taken from the BBC TV series Human Universe, one scientist exclaims “holy mackarel!” when he sees the outcome he was hoping for. In the video, everybody’s favourite physicist Brian Cox carries out an experiment similar to Galileo’s Leaning Tower of Pisa experiment, where he tested that no matter the mass of objects, they fall at the same rate under gravity. In the video above, Cox drops a bunch of feathers and a bowling ball in the world’s biggest vacuum chamber – the Space Simulation Vacuum Chamber at NASA’s Space Power Facility in Ohio, US. In the slow-motion video, you can see with exquisite clarity just how accurate Galileo’s prediction was, as the feathers and ball land at precisely the same time. We came across this video on the Dot Physics blog on the Wired Science network, written by physicist Rhett Allain, where he has worked out some of the maths and pointed out some of the nuances of the above experiment, so make sure you take a look.


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