Twitter Facebook Flickr YouTube

May 2011: Conferring

May 2011

In the show this time we have interviews from two conferences - .astronomy and the National Astronomy Meeting. Megan rounds up the latest news and we hear what we can see in the May night sky from Ian Morison and John Field.

The News

In the news this month: a round up of some stories from the 2011 National Astronomy Meeting, held in the town of Llandudno in North Wales during April where almost 500 astronomers from around the UK came together for a week to present and discuss their latest results.


Stuart brings us a round-up of some of the topics discussed at this year's .Astronomy conference which was held at New College in Oxford.

Interview with Dr Jill Tarter

Dr Jill Tarter is the Director of the Centre for SETI Research. Jill talks about SETI Quest - a new project that aims to get the world's software developers, signal engineers and anyone else to help look for patterns in the data the SETI Institute are collecting with the Allen Telescope Array. Unfortunately the array is being closed down due to funding issues although members of the public can donate to help keep it going. You can also help look for patterns in the data or help improve their software.

Interview with Professor David Hogg

Dr David Hogg (NYU) is a cosmologist who is also one of the people behind The project consists of software that can analyse optical astronomical images and identify where on the sky they are. David tells us about the robot that analyses images in the Flickr astrometry group as well as a recent project that automatically recovered the orbit of Comet Holmes by using results from a Yahoo! image search.

Interview with Dr Megan Schwamb

Dr Megan Schwamb (Yale University) is the Project Scientist for one of the latest Zooniverse projects - Planet Hunters. The project uses data from NASA's Kepler spacecraft to allow the public to search for planets around other stars that nobody has yet discovered.

Interview with Rob Hollow

Rob Hollow (CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science) talked about "Eavesdropping from Parkes" - a project created during the .Astronomy hack day. The project turned some of the data from the Parkes radio telescope into sounds as an alternative way to investigate data. Other projects from hack day included Chromotone which converts multiwavelength astronomical images into sound, as well as the Pluto the Previous Planet song and website.

Interview with Jonathan Fay

Jonathan Fay (Microsoft Research) demonstrated the increasing capabilities of Microsoft's World Wide Telescope. Jonathan also showed how it is possible to control World Wide Telescope using a Kinect controller.

National Astronomy Meeting

The annual National Astronomy Meeting was held in mid-April in Llandudno in north Wales. In this show we have the first of many interviews recorded there.

Interview with John Womersley

John Womersley is the STFC Director of Science Programmes and was recently appointed chair of the SKA Founding Board. In this interview, John gives us an update on the status of the Square Kilometer Array, including the decision to host the SKA Project Office at the Jodrell Bank Observatory and the status of the pathfinder instruments at the two candidate sites - ASKAP in Australia and MeerKAT in South Africa.

Interview with Dr Bob Forsyth

Dr Bob Forsyth is part of the Space and Atmospheric Physics group at Imperial College in London. In this interview, he tells us about the solar cycle and how counting sunspots tells us how active the Sun is. He also explains how looking at the amounts of radioactive isotopes in ice from cosmic rays can help us to study solar cycles looking back over 9000 years. Solar cycle 23 has recently ended and was unusual because it lasted for 13 years, not 11 and also because the overall activity levels were lower than average. Bob tells us that there have been similar low levels of activity in the 1800s known as the Dalton minimum and in the 1700s (Maunder minimum) where sunspots disappeared altogether, so it is possible that there is an overlying long term trend in solar activity.

The Night Sky

Northern Hemisphere

Ian Morison tells us what we can see in the northern hemisphere night sky during May 2011.

Gemini sets in the south-west after sunset, while Leo rules the southern sky with its bright star, Regulus. Between these two constellations, the Beehive Cluster resides near the centre of Cancer. Below Gemini lies Canis Minor, the Smaller Dog, with its bright star, Procyon. Virgo rises in the south-east in the evening, containing its bright star, Spica, and currently playing host to the planet Saturn. `The Realm of the Galaxies', between Virgo and Leo, is home to many galaxies that are visible through a small telescope. The high density of galaxies is due to the Virgo Supercluster, a vast collection of galaxy clusters including the Virgo Cluster and our own Local Group. Ursa Major is high in the north, with the asterism of the Plough as part of it. The middle star in the handle of the Plough is a double star, Mizar and Alcor; a telescope shows that Mizar is itself a double.

The Planets


Southern Hemisphere

John Field from the Carter Observatory in New Zealand speaks about the southern hemisphere night sky during April 2011.

May is a great month to observe galaxies, the most distant objects to be found in the night sky. The band of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, runs east to west in the evening sky, leaving the north and south comparatively sparsely populated with bright stars. For many years, the Milky Way was believed to encompass the entire Universe. Astronomers tried to plot the shape and size of this universe by measuring the number of stars and estimating their distances using their brightnesses. William Herschel (1738-1822) was one such astrononomer who, along with others, noticed fuzzy shapes that were termed `nebulae'. They believed them to be either unresolved star clusters or, in the case of spiral structures, nascent solar systems. As telescopes became more powerful, many clusters along the Milky Way were found to be star clusters embedded in clouds of luminous material, but other clusters, mostly away from the galactic plane, still could not be resolved into individual stars. In the twentieth century, Edwin Hubble (1889-1953) used the changing luminosities of Cepheid variable stars in the Great Andromeda Nebula to show that it was millions of light years away - a separate galaxy much more distant than the stars of the Milky Way. A large number of amateur astronomers are today involved in long-term observation programmes of variable stars and in supernova hunts, both of which help to refine the measured distances to other galaxies. The two closest galaxies visible in the southern hemisphere sky are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. Both are circumpolar as seen from Aotearoa (New Zealand), and can be seen even where there is moderate light pollution. Galaxies are classified by their shapes. An interesting elliptical galaxy that can be found with a small telescope is Centaurus A, also known as NGC 5128, 15 million light-years away. The fifth-brightest external galaxy in the sky, it lies 4° north of the naked-eye globular cluster Omega Centauri and is itself just visible to the naked eye of a sharp observer. Through a telescope, it appears as an oval with a dark band running lengthways. The galaxy NGC 253, 11 million light-years away, is at 8th magnitude and can be seen with binoculars. A small telescope shows it to be an oval bulge with a bright nucleus, while a larger telescope reveals a disc containing dark bands. Nearby is the globular cluster NGC 288, visible through a telescope. In the northern sky, M104, the Sombrero Galaxy, is in the constellation of Virgo. It is visible with binoculars, while a medium-sized telescope allows you to see the dark lane that makes it resemble a sombrero. Virgo is rich in galaxies, as it contains the Virgo Cluster of 1300 galaxies. The largest of these is M87, which is up to 200 times the mass of the Milky Way and shines at magnitude +10. Long-exposure images reveal jets of material escaping from its core, which are believed to be the ejecta of a supermassive black hole. Virgo is one of the zodiacal constellations through which the Sun moves, and is associated with the goddess of wheat in Greek and Roman mythology. Her brightest star is Spica, the 15th brightest in the night sky, which is a variable blue giant in a binary system 260 light-years away. The constellation of Capricorn, the Goat, rises later in the evening. Vesta, the brightest asteroid in the Solar System, currently resides there. Crux, the Southern Cross, is high overhead in the evening sky. The constellations of Carina, the Keel, and Vela, the Sails, are home to a number of bright stars, clusters and nebulae. Scorpius and Sagittarius rise in the east after sunset.

The Planets


Odds and Ends

The Hubble Space Telescope celebrated its 21st birthday in April. An optical telescope with a mirror 2.4 metres in diameter, Hubble's position orbiting the Earth has allowed it to capture stunning and scientifically valuable images without the hindrance of the Earth's atmosphere. An image of two interacting galaxies forming a rose shape, captured by Hubble in December 2010, was released to mark the anniversary.

At the time of recording this episode, Endeavour's final mission was scheduled for launch on April 29, delayed from April 19. However, it was again delayed and as of May 1 is delayed until at least May 8.

Show Credits

News:Megan Argo
Interview:Dr Jill Tarter and Stuart Lowe
Interview:Dr David Hogg and Stuart Lowe
Interview:Dr Megan Schwamb and Stuart Lowe
Interview:Robert Hollow and Stuart Lowe
Interview:Jonathan Fay and Stuart Lowe
Interview:John Womersley and Megan Argo
Interview:Dr Bob Forsyth and Jen Gupta
Night sky:Ian Morison and John Field
Presenters:Jen Gupta, Melanie Gendre, Cat McGuire and Mark Purver
Editors:Jen Gupta, Megan Argo, Claire Bretherton, Melanie Gendre, Cat McGuire and Mark Purver
Intro/outro:Mark Thompson
Segment Voice:Liz Guzman
Website:Jen Gupta and Stuart Lowe
Producer:Jen Gupta
Cover art:The Jodcast team on Llandudno beach at NAM 2011 CREDIT:: Mike Peel

[an error occurred while processing this directive]

Download Options

Subscribe (It's free)