It's late summer and astronomically dark skies return to Northumberland for the first time since May. Here's a map of the sky for August showing the moon, stars and planets in the evening sky.
Arcturus and Vega are the first stars to appear after sunset; they are the brightest stars in the northern hemisphere of the sky. Arcturus is a shade brighter than Vega and has an orange hue compared to the pure white of Vega. As the twilight goes on the constellations between those two bright markers - Corona Borealis and Hercules will eventually appear.
The Milky Way runs from northeast to southwest in the sky and is particularly striking as it passes overhead through Cygnus. The three stars marking the Summer Triangle (Vega, Deneb and Altair) are embedded in the Milky Way's faint band of light. Evenings in the second half of August will provide the best chance of seeing the Milky Way before the moon rises. The best views of the Milky Way are obtained with binoculars; try sweeping south from Deneb in Cygnus and south towards Aquila. So many rich fields of stars and star clusters are visible!
Well, now I can add Uranography to the CV! Before there's any confusion - that just means I can make star maps:
This was generated after a day of messing around with PP3 as I described previously. PP3 does most of the work but I can add bits and pieces (the large circle, planets, the compass points and magnitude scale) and the program gives me complete control over which star labels are displayed and where they go. The Milky Way runs from northeast to southwest and is rendered very nicely too.
About 8 years ago I discovered a brilliant little program for generating high quality printed star charts called PP3. Basically, it reads star, deepsky and constellation data from installed catalogues and builds a LaTeX file which can be compiled to give superb and highly customisable PDF output. And everything had to be done from the command line. I was in geek heaven using it!
Development of the PP3 software seems to have stopped around 2003. The version of PP3 which worked on my old Windows XP laptop no longer functions under Windows 7. I found various workarounds in the last year, including installing XP as Virtual Machine using Oracle VM VirtualBox. The results were hit and miss; sometimes the thing worked and sometimes it would crash with memory problems while compiling.
So today a bit of a victory; I downloaded the PP3 source and learned how to convert it to C++ and compile a new version of the software that runs on Windows 7. If anyone wants it this executable, just drop me a line. Yes, I'm aware that 99.99% of the human race will not. Next step...make star charts for my work in progress astronomy book.
I've been following the Rosetta mission for almost two decades....back in the mid 90s when it was known by the clumsy name Comet Nucleus Sample Return mission and updates didn't come from the internet but via Astronomy Now or The Sky at Night. Now it's on the final leg of a very, very long journey.
Not many people outside the astronomy community ("norms", I believe they're called) have heard of Rosetta. It was launched into space by the European Space Agency 10 years ago with the eventual goal of orbiting a comet and deploying a lander to its surface. I remember when it was launched: nearing the end of my PhD and wondering* what life would be like in 2014.
The Rosetta spacecraft is now just weeks away from its destination and the comet (named 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko) is in sight.
Last week the ESA released some pixelated images of comet as seen from 37,000 km away. The pictures appeared to show a lobed nucleus measuring 3x4x5 km and spinning on an axis once every 12.4 hours.
Pictures taken a few days later resolve the shape more clearly. It's a giant rubber duck.
Well obviously not a rubber duck. The pictures show the comet is a contact binary. Two distinct lumps in physical contact. Perhaps the result of a gentle collision between two previously distinct comets, or the coming together of two fragments of an originally larger comet. Either way, this is going to present new challenges to the mission controllers over the next couple of weeks as they refine their plans about where to locate the landing site on the comet.
* Still no jet-packs.
I was introduced to the joys of LaTeX (and TeX) by my PhD supervisor about 13 years ago. When it came to writing up scientific reports and documents Microsoft Word just didn't cut it; documents with inline equations in Word just looked bad. Things may have improved since then (I'm not convinced) but polished, beautifully typeset documents come from LaTeX.
However, LaTeX has a steep learning curve. You have to write code in LaTeX (to produce everything from headers, footnotes, bold text, equations, etc) and then compile the document to see how it looks. LaTeX is best described as WYSIWYM (What You See Is What You Mean). LaTeX's internal algorithms deal with the best places for page breaks, positioning diagrams, equations, footnotes and so on. This is not the same as Word (or equivalent), with its WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) interface and bewildering choices of styles for everything.
Now to the point.
LaTeX has a steep learning curve - no doubt about it. In recent years there have been attempts to put a nice front end on it. Something between Word (with it's shortcuts and buttons) and raw LaTeX (with the actual coding hidden from view but not inaccessible and still easily customisable).
My favourite editor - by a mile - is called LyX. I like it because it's free and easy to use. I wrote my mathematics textbook using LyX. All of my course notes were produced with it. Any time I need a diagram or figure for an exam paper....I write the code to produce it. Just to give you an idea how I use it, here's an example: a slab of graph paper with an irregular shaded region. This was part of a question about using Simpson's rule to compute areas.
To produce this diagram I called the package "pst-plot" in the LaTeX preamble within LyX:
and in the document window I placed some ERT (evil red text - raw LaTeX!)
...and LyX outputs a hires plot to the exact specifications I need.
It's easy to get started - just go to the LyX website and download the latest stable version (currently 2.10).
Noctilucent cloud season for the northern hemisphere kicked off in the first week of June. But poor weather and travelling meant that I only saw my first display of the year last night.
Here are a few pictures taken from Amble and Warkworth.
Noctilucent clouds (NLCs) might have a passing similarity to cirrus clouds but they are very different. They form about fifty miles above the ground in the mesosphere and are seeded by meteor smoke. I've written in more detail about them previously. The display last night was terrific and was still going when I got to bed at 1.30am.
It's been quite a few weeks since I did a talk at NASTRO. Real life stuff and travelling to Malaysia and Singapore got in the way. The astronomy part of me never switches off though. Standing at the top of Marina Bay Sands with the stunning vista of the Singapore skyline around me....I was the only idiot looking up at the sky for my first view of alpha Centauri and hoping the cloud in front of the Southern Cross would hurry up and shift. And all the while wishing they'd switch the bloody laser show off. They really haven't heard of light pollution in Singapore.
Next Thursday (July 10th) I'm back at NASTRO and doing another part of my introduction to astronomy course. This time it's cosmology. Much of modern cosmology is entirely uncontroversial: that the universe has a finite age and that the Big Bang model accounts for the expansion, composition and structure we see today. Detailed analysis of the cosmological data suggests that much of the mass in the universe is in a form which doesn't shine or interact with normal matter (so-called dark matter) and that the universe expansion is actually accelerating, driven by a so-called dark energy whose origin and precise nature is not understood. A minority of scientists think the problems of not yet finding direct evidence of dark matter or having to introduce dark energy into cosmological equations can be resolved if we accept that gravity begins to behave differently on the largest scales imaginable.
I hope to touch on all of these issues during the lecture on Thursday. I'm going with the evocative title "In the beginning..." because religious texts often try to explain the origin of the universe (or the world) but fail because their authors didn't have access to the full range of evidence that modern day scientists do. Most people I've met - religious and secular - want to know about why the universe looks the way it does. Maybe it comes down to a basic human curiosity to know the answer or a deeper need to understand one's place in the universe during the short span of our lives. Either way, we are all fortunate to be living in a golden age of cosmology where not only can we ask the big questions, but there is hope we can finally learn the answers.
Dr Adrian Jannetta
Guitar strummin' explorer of the universe. Mild mannered maths teacher by day and astronomer by night.