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.Astronomy 5: What’s Next?

September 20, 2013 — 3 Comments

The .Astronomy 5 Unphoto – Credit: Demitri Muna

As the fifth .Astronomy came to a close on Wednesday, I felt as I always do at the end of these meetings: tired, emotional and super-excited. It’s hard to explain the energy at these events. There is something almost magical in the air as the participants ‘click’ (usually about an hour in) and then begin talking, making and doing great work.

.Astronomy is about actually doing something. As Kelle Cruz and I remarked yesterday – we like ‘people that do shit’. At .Astronomy you feel that if someone has an idea we should just all try and make it happen. It could be the best thing ever, and failure is just a chance to learn. It’s not a common attitude in astronomy and it’s certainly difficult for many early-career people to think that way.

I’ve always been lucky. My PhD supervisor was very willing to let me try crazy things (he let me get distracted by creating .Astronomy for a start!). At the Zooniverse we have spent years now, just pushing code live and making new things. They’re not always perfect, but we learn every time and we have left a trail of marvellous creations on the way. Each new thing learns from the last.

We also absorb the ideas of others quickly, and encourage collaboration with new people. It’s this approach that led to the creations of some of our most interesting projects recently, such as Snapshot Serengeti, the Andromeda Project and Space Warps.

During his Keynote talk Tony Hey (Microsoft Research) showed a quote I’ve not seen before.

“If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.” – General Eric Shinseki, retired Chief of Staff, U. S. Army

I think I might put this on my wall. It sums up perfectly how I see much of science and could easily be the motto of .Astronomy. Tony’s keynote was brilliant BTW and you can see it here. Tony spoke about the Fourth Paradigm and told the tale of how the availability of astronomical data led to the SDSS SkyServer, which sparked the creation of Galaxy Zoo, which sparked the Zooniverse. In a way, .Astronomy was partly sparked by Galaxy Zoo too.

The folks at .Astronomy have built many projects that embrace the web fully, with an ethos of sharing and participation. These projects are changing the way astronomy and outreach are done: Chromoscope, 365 Days of Astronomy, AstroBetter, Astropy, astro,js, and the Seamless Astronomy groups ‘Bones of the Milky Way‘ paper; there are more but these are excellent examples.

So after .Astronomy 5 I’m left wondering where to take it next in order to facilitate more of these projects. There were 40 hack day pitches at this year’s event. There were so many hack day reports the follow day (the 2-3 minute slots where people show off their results) that we had to over run into coffee and use up most of lunch time too. Many of those hacks will, I hope, soon be appearing on the .Astronomy blog when people have time to write them up. Some of them are already popping up on GitHub (e.g. d3po).

The other wonderful thing about the meeting was how it once again encouraged genuine debates and discussions that sound like they might actually lead to change. The unconference sessions on diversity in astronomy went beyond the usual format and did not fall in to the trap of collectively preaching to the choir. A document has been drafted with actionable ideas. I hope it is revisited soon. Similarly sessions of the future of academic publishing were not bogged-down in the usual complaints but actually became a real debate about practical things we could do differently.

There were also highly informative unconference sessions that would not have happened elsewhere; enthusiastic tutorials of Astropy, Authorea and the merits of combining noisy classifiers are all jumping to mind. These meetings organically emerge from the crowd at .Astronomy and they’re, interactive, productive, and brilliant.

So as I ponder on the future of .Astronomy (I’d love your thoughts) I’ll leave you with some of the wonderful video hacks that were produced at this year’s event. Don’t Call Me Colin is a song about a sad exoplanet from Niall Deacon, Emily Rice, Ruth Angus and others. There is also a timelapse of .Astronomy itself in action from Amanda Bauer.

Thank you to everybody who took part, gave their time to talk, help organise the event; and who followed along online. It was a great meeting and I’m already looking forward to the next one. Long live #dotastro!

The Real Orbiting Frogs

September 13, 2013 — Leave a comment

Don’t worry I’m not about to start a reality show. You might have seen the picture that’s been circulating of a frog being catapulted from the launchpad of LADEE, the spacecraft is making its way to the Moon now to study dust in the lunar exosphere.


This amazing image has prompted several people to suggest that perhaps he’s the real ‘orbiting frog’? I’m afraid not.

My blog/twitter name is inspired by a tragicomic 1970 NASA space program called the Orbiting Frog Otolith (OFO). The poor frog who (presumably) lost his life during the LADEE launch had it easy in compared to the OFO bullfrogs that were launched into orbit and later left there to perish whilst sitting in a comical iron-lung-esque device. You can read all about it – and the two frogs – on the OFO Wikipedia page.

I say the LADEE frog ‘presumably’ lost his life. but I suppose we’ll never really know. If he was survived then I think a reality show may be entirely justified.


ALMA’s view of Herbig-Haro object HH 46/47. This image interweaves optical data (pink and purple; from ESO’s New Technology Telescope) with radio observations (orange and green; from the Atacama Large Millimete Array). A newly-formed star is spewing out a large jet at each end, which are seen moving away from us in the optical (left-hand-side). When using optical data alone, the second jet and the jet’s source are obscured. This multi-wavelength view shows us much more about the whole system.

ALMA is a growing array of submillimetre telescopes in Chile. This data comes from the science verification stage of ALMA’s existence – proof of concept observations that still yield cutting-edge research. The fact that images will ultimately be better than this, as the array grows, is astonishing. When I began my PhD in 2006 observations like this were a pipe dream for anything but the largest, closest objects in the night sky.

[Source: ESO]

The Large Magellanic Cloud is a dwarf galaxy orbiting around our own Milky Way. You can see it from the Southern Hemisphere but not like this! This image combines Spitzer and Herschel data to show up some of this object’s amazing star formation activity. Just wonderful!

[via Large Magellanic Cloud | Herschel Space Observatory]

Summer Sights

August 1, 2013 — Leave a comment

Once you have a Meade ETX-90 Telescope aligned and ready to go (no small feat, at times) you can see some pretty cool objects in the Summer sky. Saturn is currently riding high, and the rings are at a lovely angle – but that’s about it for the Solar System as I’m not willing to wake early for Jupiter. There’s also Andromeda (and M32 if it pleases), but for the ETX-90 most extra-galactic sources are too faint. Instead I’ve been systematically observing the star clusters and nebulae of the Milky Way. It’s been fun!

The ETX-90 is equipped with Meade’s Autostar system, which can take you on a tour of the sky once it’s set going. It will tell you that you’re off to M11, and then M22 and maybe M5. If you’re like me and don’t have the Messier and NGC catalogues memorised, this is basically a lucky dip of galactic sources. You might find a perfect globular cluster or a dizzyingly faint star-forming nebulae – it’s down to the whim of the Autostar. It’s a lovely way to spend an hour or two on a warm evening.

I’m not much of an astrophotographer so instead I’ve been starting to use up my SLOOH credits and have been recording the same objects using the ‘online space camera’ that I am seeing through the ETX-90. Above you can see my SLOOH views of Saturn, the Wild Duck Cluster (M11) and the Lagoon Nebula (M8).

SLOOH have an iPad app out that lets you buy access on a per-picture basis. It’s expensive (£1.99/image) and not as much fun as controlling the telescope using their usual online interface. However the iPad app is free and pretty easy to use.

The Wild Duck Cluster is my favourite of these images. I’ve not seen it before the other night and it looks most like what I saw through the telescope. The cluster is a very compact open cluster that contains thousands of stars. It’s about 6,000 light years away, and it always humbles me to be able to see so deep into the Galaxy on a night when the Galaxy itself is so clear in the dark night sky. Lovely.

In a word: this. A great blog post that totally sums up my annoyance with a growing number of websites and apps, and the ‘digital’ movement in general.

martha henson: blog

I’ve felt a little rant bubbling up in me over the last few months: a sense of disquiet about digital, a jaded annoyance about wasted time and resources and opportunities squandered. Today I was reminded about an old project that was the epitome of digital idiocy, one of those thoughtless knee-jerk “we must have an app!” projects that make me want to throw a toddler tantrum, kicking and screaming “but who is it for?” until someone agrees to at least do a bit of audience research or string together a minimally viable set of objectives. And that reminder seems to have brought it all to the surface, so here goes.

I am fed up of seeing people and organisations produce digital rubbish: poor apps, clunky games, badly designed microsites and other half-arsed online, mobile and technological systems and whatnots. I am fed up of people who are smart about digital…

View original post 892 more words


NASA have released the raw version of Friday’s #WaveAtSaturn photograph of the Earth from Cassini. This image shows the Earth and the Moon as two bright stars; it was received on Earth yesterday, July 20th.

The camera that took this image was 898,410,414 miles (1,445,851,410 km) away, on the Cassini probe orbiting the Saturnian system. A better, calibrated photo will be released in 2014.

[Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute]

Plants aren’t something I know very much about, but I remember the concept of turgor pressure from my GCSEs. Plant cells absorb water a different way to the cells in our bodies because they contain ‘vacuoles’ which our cells don’t have. Plant cells also have cell walls, and as the vacuole absorbs more and more water, it presses against the cell wall and creates turgor pressure. This pressure keeps the plant upright – or ‘turgid’. This is how plants stand up and why they wilt without enough water.

This video shows my tomato plant on a very hot day, after I’ve watered it. I’ve noticed that it is able to rapidly recover its turgidity and ‘unwilt’ in a short time, once I’ve watered it of course. I made this timelapse yesterday, after another hot day here in the UK. It was set to capture a frame taken every 3 seconds and it’s played back at 24 fps.

[Read more about turgor pressure here]

A new journal begins today, Astronomy and Computing, covering the intersection of astronomy, computer science and information technology.

This journal is desperately needed in my view and I wish it every success. The timing is interesting as many people at the intersection of these research areas are skeptical of old-style journals and the current state of publishing in general. However, I look forward to reading it and maybe even submitting articles.

You’ll find it at

That’s No Supermoon

June 24, 2013 — 4 Comments

The periodic mention of a ‘supermoon‘ in the news cycle is starting to annoy me. A supermoon is simply not that much bigger than any other Moon!  It’s apparently just perceptible but by no means would you call it ‘super’. Annoyingly though, observation of the so-called supermoon is wrapped up in another effect: the Moon Illusion. This means that people enthusiastically report seeing a really big Moon, but don’t realize that they would likely have thought it big on any other Full Moon night too.

So let me put my rant in some context. The term supermoon was coined by astrologer Richard Nolle about 30 years ago. It refers to a Full Moon or New Moon that occurs when the Moon is in the closest part of its orbit around the Earth. The Moon’s orbit is not perfectly circular and there is a closest point in every cycle (perigee) and a most-distant point too (apogee). At perigee the Moon is closer to the Earth by about 50,000 km (30,000 miles), which is enough to make the Moon appear slightly larger in the night sky. In fact it is about 1.1 times larger in it’s angular diameter on the sky. Expert Moon watchers can see a subtle difference but it’s pretty slight and hardly warrants the title of a ‘super’ moon.

The Moon's motion over one cycle.

The Moon going through one complete orbit as seen from the Earth.

This animated GIF shows a Moon going through one entire orbit (apogee-perigee-apogee) and you can see the changing size (you can also see it undergoing libration, which is the wobbling motion). You can a direct size comparison below. In both these cases you’re seeing it close-up – imaging these things hanging in the sky at a distance. The size change is happening in every cycle, but is most prominent when the Full Moon coincides with perigee, as was the case this week.

Size Comparison for the Moon at Apogee and Perigee

Size Comparison for the Moon at Apogee and Perigee [Source:

So there is a difference in the appearance of the Moon but it is very small and you’re unlikely to be seeing this when you go outside to look at a supermoon. What you’re actually experiencing is most likely the Moon Illusion: the optical illusion that the Moon looks larger when it is near the horizon than when it is high in the sky. The Moon Illusion is not well understood but most astronomers are very familiar with it. It may be partially caused by the Ebbinghaus illusion, which is the one that makes the two central circles in the following image appear to be different sizes when they are, of course, the same. When close to the horizon the Moon is compared to objects like rooftops, hills and clouds. When high in the sky is mostly seen in wide-open space. Another explanation may lie in the processes that govern our binocular vision; it might be that the Moon Illusion does not occur of you stand on your head, for example. This has not (yet) been tested widely.

Ebbinghaus Illusion

So what happened over the weekend was that people heard about a supermoon and so went outside to see it. Given that it any observable supermoon is a Full Moon, this means people went out to see it when it was low down in the sky, because Full Moon’s rise late in the evening. Thus they probably experienced the Moon Illusion and reported that indeed the Moon looked very large.

On a final point: the supermoon is also given silly superpowers by some new outlets too. The natural oscillation of the Moon’s distance does indeed affect tides a little, but it does not cause earthquakes, madness or werewolves.