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July 2011 Extra: Interesting

July 2011 Extra

In this Extra show, Dr Pierre Maxted tells us about the progress of the SuperWASP exoplanet search and Professor Glenn White discusses how observations at far infra-red and submillimetre wavelength can literally shed new light on our understanding of the Milky Way. Dr Tim O'Brien returns to answer your astronomical questions, and we report on some odds and ends from the world of Astronomy.

Interview with Dr Pierre Maxted

Dr Pierre Maxted of Keele University is involved in the SuperWASP project that searches for extrasolar planets, a burgeoning field of Astronomy. In this interview, he talks about using the transit method to find 'Hot Jupiters' - large planets orbiting close to their parent stars that move across the face of the star from our point of view. SuperWASP tracks millons of stars using a telescope with multiple CCDs (digital camera chips) attached to look for the small, periodic dips in brightness that would indicate a transiting planet. This relatively inexpensive method has yielded around 50 new planets so far, many of which can then be monitored by amateur astronomers with good equipment. Dr Maxted goes on to explain how infra-red measurements can allow us to observe the 'day side' of a planet as it passes behind a star, and describes how spectral measurements can reveal the chemical make-up of the planet's atmosphere and provide information about its internal composition. He discusses other ways to find and observe planets outside our Solar System, which together tell us about the mass, size and structure of each planet, and talks about how the growing list of known planets is revealing that there may be more habitable worlds in the Galaxy than was previously thought.

Interview with Professor Glenn White

Professor Glenn White of the Open University and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory studies the Universe using the far infra-red and submillimetre light (including microwaves) that lies between the near infra-red and longer radio frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum. Here he explains how this light allows us to see through the haze of dust in our Galaxy, and also to observe the heat emission of the same dust to reveal the temperatures of regions of the Milky Way. The telescopes that see at these frequencies must be in space to avoid the absorption of the Earth's atmosphere, and their detectors are ultra-cold to ensure that they generate very little heat radiation, which would swamp the signal. Professor White tells us about recent observations from the Herschel Space Observatory, which reveal that star formation often occurs in long, turbulent filaments of dust and gas, and he discusses how filaments appear to be a fundamental structure in the Universe on all scales.

Ask an Astronomer

Dr Tim O'Brien answers your astronomical questions:

Odds and Ends

Atlantis set off on the 135th and final NASA space shuttle mission on the 8th of July. It took the Raffaello Multi-purpose Logistics Module and several tonnes of supplies to the International Space Station. The 30-year shuttle era will end when Atlantis lands on the 21st of July (not the 20th as stated in the show; the date was moved back after the time of recording). The five shuttles (excluding the test shuttle Enterprise) are the only spacecraft to have been reused in orbital flights around the Earth. Their replacements are likely to be privately built craft, produced by companies that are supported by NASA.

On the 11th of July (or the 12th!) Neptune completed its first orbit of the Sun since it was discovered in 1846. The precise time of Neptune's "birthday" has been calculated by one blogger to be 21:48 UT (Universal Time) on the 11th.

On the forum, RapidEye posted a link to a BBC webpage displaying the current positions of the Hubble Space Telescope, the Atlantis Shuttle and the International Space Station over the Earth.

On Facebook, David White posted a link to a spectacular photograph of the Lovell Telescope.

The US House Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee has proposed to cut the funding for the James Webb Space Telescope.

Following his appearance on stage at the first Jodrell Bank Live, Dr Tim O'Brien now has his own facebook fan page!

Show Credits

Interview:Dr Pierre Maxted and Mark Purver
Interview:Professor Glenn White and Mark Purver
Ask An Astronomer:Dr Tim O'Brien
Presenters:Jen Gupta and Mark Purver
Editors:Adam Avison, Tim O'Brien and Mark Purver
Producer:Mark Purver
Segment Voice:Liz Guzman
Website:Stuart Lowe and Mark Purver
Cover art:NASA's Atlantis begins the last ever space shuttle flight, launching from Cape Canaveral in Florida on the 8th of July, 2011. CREDIT:: NASA/Tony Gray and Tom Farrar

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