Monday 21 March 2016

#AstroAirport Prize Winners

For four consecutive days, Monday 15th – Thursday 18th February 2016 a group of four astronomy researchers from the University of Southampton engaged passengers waiting in the departure lounge at Southampton Airport with their world leading astronomy research on supernovae. To start up a conversation with passengers waiting in the lounge the astronomers were handed out compressed towels with supernova printed on them. 

The scientists then used various hands-on demos to explain what a supernova is and why the research they do at the University of Southampton is so important and exciting. The astronomers hope had conversations with over 1,450 passengers about their scientific research across the four days of the activity.

There were a variety of other freebies available to passengers such as pens, cloth bags and colouring in sets. 

The activity was funded by a Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) public engagement small award to see how members of the public who wouldn’t normally choose to attend science events respond to discussion about astronomy research in an environment where they would not be expect it. This is also one of the first attempts to communicate science in an airport departure lounge (beyond the security gates).

The Southampton airport astronomers were engaging the public with the research of the University of Southampton Supernova Group. More information about the members of the group and their astronomy research can be found here:

Solomon checking out the new planets on the ceiling.

Passengers we spoke to were encouraged to tweet pictures with their freebies using the hashtag #AstroAirport and fill out a paper evaluation form. For those people who tweeted or instagramed we entered them into a prize draw to win glow in the dark planets and for those who filled out the paper form they were entered into a prize draw to win a Lottie Stargazer Doll and/or a Lego Research Insititute set. Photos of the prize winners can be seen below: 

Emily & Shannon complete with solar system earrings
Amy looking up at her own room solar system 

James & Olivia arrive home from school to their prizes!

The Wearn Children

        “A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.”

Douglas Adams - The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Zak is very happy with his prize

Monday 14 March 2016

Stargazing Resources for Princes Trust RAS2020 Project

Apps for #Stargazing

Planets – Free – tells you which planets are visible on the night of observing and you can find their position in the sky by holding up your phone to the planets i.e. the bright non-twinkling objects.

SkyView – Free –Shows the constellations and planets, but shows you it in an Augmented reality platform (uses the camera to show you the planets and constellations on the background your camera sees live) & you can search for objects by typing them in and then an arrow will point you toward them.

Star Chart – Free - app that shows the constellations, planets, and constellation art and gives information on interesting objects in the field of view

Star Walk 1 or 2 - £2.99 – More powerful than Star Chart and has more features and more info on objects.

Sputnik! – Free - tell you when the ISS and other satellites are visible from your location

GoISSWatch – Free – As above but just for the ISS and has cool map showing you where the ISS is live and will send you notifications when it is overhead.

Night Cap - £0.79 – (low light) Astrophotography app allows you to take photos of stars, planets and do stair trails etc but you need to experiment with exposure times and ISO sensitivity within the app. Can use the iPhone headphone mic as a camera shutter so you don’t shake the camera when you take long exposures.

Night Cap Pro- £1.49 -  As above but has ‘stair trail’ and ‘iss’ options so it picks the correct exposure and ISO settings for taking pictures of certain things. Also does video recording.

Free Software for PCs/Macs
Just ‘Google’ the names of these programs and download them to your computer for free.

Stellarium – Like SkyView and other apps above but very easy to use and you can type in the date you want to go observing and it will tell you exactly what the sky is like on that date. So perfect for using to plan a stargazing evening event and knowing what is visible at what time. It is best to view/photograph objects when they are directly over head so this is a great way to view this.

World Wide Telescope – this software can be downloaded or just the webclient. Shows how the universe is looks when observed by different telescopes looking at radio through to gamma waves. It has lots of amazing images from Hubble in the locations of the objects on the sky.

StarStax –for making star trails or timelapse videos from multiple/burst of images. Just select all the images you want to use and the software does the rest!

Useful links
Zooniverse -
 - Many different citizen science projects for YP to contribute to scientific research online. These include several astronomy-focused projects like analysing galaxy shapes and finding exoplanets but also many other projects like observing penguins and plankton.

-Google ‘ keplers tally of planets’ – shows exoplanets that the Kepler telescope has found and their orbits.

Star Size comparison YouTube video -
starts with moon and then scales up to largest star (VY Canis Majoris) then back to Earth

Google ‘nasa retro posters’ – Put up these posters in your centre & use to start up discussion about planets around other stars, and life on other planets, maybe get the YP to design their own poster for a newly discovered exoplanet.

Tuesday 17 March 2015

Why does everyone have eclipse fever?

As the 'Outreach Leader in Astronomy' at the University of Southampton I have been tasked with organising a Stargazing Live event the day before the solar eclipse visible on the morning of the 20th March 2015. At this event we will hand out several hundred eclipse glasses. Suddenly, I am really popular, I'm getting emails and tweets from many of my friends, the general public, teachers and academics asking if they can have some glasses. Now I know that I am biased, what with astronomy being my job and all, but still, I was shocked at the sheer demand for these solar filters. So I asked myself 'why is everyone so excited?' and then I pondered on it, and then I wrote down my thoughts into this here blog.

Solar eclipses are cool because they are an astronomical phenomenon that you can see in the daytime! Now, actually, everyone can 'stargaze' every day, you don't need to wait for an eclipse, because the Sun is a 'star', however, most people forget this (even if its subconscious) and PLEASE DO NOT LOOK AT THE SUN without your eclipse glasses! So, I think what I am saying, is that the solar eclipse reminds us that the Sun is a STAR! This eerie darkness we experience during a solar eclipse is because our star has suddenly become obscured by a black disc (the Moon) which just so happens to be exactly the same size as the Sun on the sky! This size thing in itself is very bizarre. By some sheer coincidence the moon is 1/400th the size of the Sun, and the Sun just so happens to be 400 times further away than the moon, therefore they have the same angular size on the sky as seen from our place on the Earth! Wow!

And, I think, I can understand why the Sun suddenly going from being very bright to totally black must have driven fear into the ancient people. The Sun, would have been a true constant in their daily lives, constantly giving them light, on a daily basis (and hopefully it will continue to be constant for billions of years!) Assuming that these ancient people stayed in one location on Earth they would only see a total eclipse every 360 years (so it really is a once in a lifetime experience unless you know where on Earth they are happening and can 'chase' them, this would require use of a plane or boat!)

So, when I pondered on this further, and asked people on Twitter for their thoughts,  I came to the conclusion that watching an eclipse doesn't just remind you sun is a star but also reminds you are part of the solar system, and the solar system is 3D. I think most of the time, without realising, we think of the sky above us as some two dimensional blanket of stars, just like how Timone described the ‘sparkly dots up there’ as ‘Fireflies that got stuck up on that bluish-black thing’ in the Lion King. An eclipse (solar or lunar) reminds us that the Sun, Earth and Moon are all spherical objects orbiting each other in a circular dance in three dimensions. They aren’t orbiting each other all in one plane either, the angle of the Moon’s orbit is at 5 degrees to plane in which the Earth orbits the Sun (known as the plane of the ecliptic). This means that we do not see eclipses very often (the last total eclipse in the UK was in 1999 and the next one in 2090). 

Viewing an eclipse reminds us of the bigger system, reminds us that we are part of the vast expanse of ‘Space’, in fact, we are actually all just passengers on a ball of rock called the Earth hurtling through space at 30 km/s around a perfect sphere of burning Hydrogen! Woah!

Because this eclipse is visible from the UK it is particularly exciting (and stressful) for me because the BBC Stargazing Live! TV shows have moved from their regular time in January to March to celebrate this. Shows like Stargazing Live are really great for reminding everyone that they can be astronomers. Like I said earlier, we can all see the sky but sometimes we need to be reminded to look at it. Astronomy can actually be quite thought provoking and therapeutic. Sometimes all of us just need to take a moment and stop what we are doing. Stop rushing about and have a moment of calm, look up and remember that  “We are star stuff which has taken its destiny into its own hands.” ― Carl SaganCosmos

Everyone can do astronomy and astronomy is happening all time and you can't do anything about it, it isn't influenced by you or your actions on the Earth, but you can learn about it and try and understand it :) So I hope everyone remembers to bring their eclipse glasses, cereal boxes and colanders to work or to school on the morning of Friday 20th March before 9.30am! Happy eclipse viewing everyone #eclipse2015

If you do miss this eclipse then the next total eclipse (which should be easier to see as it goes across so much land) is across the middle states in the USA on 21st August 2017 and the next partial eclipse visible from the UK which is at more than 80% is on 12th August 2026!

Monday 24 November 2014

The Rosetta Mission – This generation’s Moon landings?

The thing everyone seems to talk about with the moon landings is the idea of the whole world stopping to watch. It was a mission that overcame nationalism, it wasn't "America" putting a man on the moon, it was "Us", humankind. With Rosetta, the whole world not only watched but they were part of a real time conversation with mission control. Over the next few months as the scientists analyse the Rosetta data it might tell us many new things about our early solar system. The extremely detailed pictures of the comet are our first look at this strange world. The science data and pictures definitely have a place in inspiring people to become more interested in space/science subjects, but there will always be something incredible (even unbelievable) about humans beings, or robots that humans have engineered, going out into space and actually touching down on worlds beyond our Earth!

Now, I am too young to have personally witnessed the Moon landings, but despite that there has always been something about the subject of space that has totally entranced me. Back in the nineties I personally felt the afterglow of excitement left by moon landings and I am sure they have inspired many of the public young and old to take an interest in science. In fact, I was so inspired during my primary education that when my teacher informed the class that for the last week of term we could do our own project, which could be on any subject, it was our own choice! I chose, what I assumed to be, the most exciting and obvious choice: a project on ‘space’. I remember researching as much as I could find in all the books my school library had to offer on the subject and then writing out my discoveries about the planets, the moon and astronauts onto multi-coloured A4 pages with a pencil, in my neatest handwriting and sticking them together to make a book. I even remember doing an elaborate drawing of an astronaut, which included a cutaway into his astronaut suit so you could see all the tubes inside the suit that helped him breathe and go to the toilet. In fact, I had researched so much information on space that my project workbook was one of the thickest in the class! I really think the buzz surrounding the Rosetta mission will regenerate this excitement and I think it has actually provided us with a greater awareness of possible space/science careers, and now after watching interviews with many of the scientists, engineers and control room operatives it’s not just the astronauts or the landers that are the stars of the show!

All these years later, I work for the University of Southampton doing public outreach for the astronomy department, so space has dominated my career choices. And before I started my current job in communicating science I did a PhD on the subject of black holes. Now, after dedicating four years of my life to one single object, I’m pretty excited to talk about it, and as soon as the students hear that you know about black holes they too get pretty excited and ask many questions! The most common questions I get asked about my black hole research is ‘Has anyone ever been to a black hole?’ or ‘What would happen to me if I fell into one?’ I can tell them about my research on the radiation from the edge of the black hole ‘til I’m blue in the face, but, what I have learned in these past 3 years of trying to communicate astronomy research is that what the students want to know most is not the complex science of these objects but what it would actually be like to go to a black hole and touch it!

The Rosetta mission gave the public an insight into something that was happening right now! They could feel the emotions of every minute and track the spacecraft in real time from wherever they were. They could put themselves in the place of the scientists in the control room, who were nervously waiting for news from Philae, they even had up to date information on what little Philae was ‘feeling’ as he descended to the comet surface. They could see that the scientists and engineers all just looked like normal people, they weren’t superhero-genius types with crazy hair; they even made mistakes! The public became part of this enormous community and through social media they could talk with people all over the world about the next stage in the mission and the science that would come out of it.

The Rosetta mission is no longer breaking news and certainly some people will now focus on the parts of the comet landing that went wrong. Some will argue that we have missed out on much science data from Philae. But, there is something about this mission that overrides all that and that is the fact that, for the first time, humans landed a probe on a comet! And to quote my mother ‘they landed on the moon, and that’s big! But a comet, well, that’s mind blowing! That’s just a bit of rock flying through space!’


I wrote this piece because I was asked by the University media team to write a short article for The Conversation website on the #CometLanding. What you have just read is the original unedited version which I sent to them :) - to see the shorted edited version which ended up on the website click here.

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Rosetta and Philae #CometLanding

The Philae Lander has left the Rosetta spacecraft and is moving at normal walking place to the comet right now. It should,we hope, touch down successfully on Comet 67P Churyumov- Gerasimenko at 335pm today – however, because we on Earth are 300 million miles away from the comet we won't receive the signal from the lander till 4pm.

NASA and ESA are live streaming the mission control room.

The controllers received radio contact with Philae at 11am today – and at 125pm today they have said that they have received pictures from it on its descent and have all the data they were expecting at this stage.

The surface of the comet is unknown it could be anything from rock hard to powder soft.

Why this mission is important?

Well firstly, if successful, this will be the first ever soft landing of a robotic probe on a comet. Past exploration has only involved flying past comets and taking pictures so actually landing on one will be an amazing achievement given its equivalent to transferring an object from one speeding bullet to another. It's going to require some incredible parking skills that's for sure!

The comet is moving at  33,000 mph and it's gravity is 100,000 times weaker than Earth's, because of this lack of  gravity this means that the Philae probe will have to attach itself firmly to the comet on impact. The probe will need to use landing leg screws and 2 harpoons to lock onto the surface and not bounce back into space! It also has some thrusters to stop it rebounding but whether they are working can not be confirmed.

Even if the landing attempt should fail, all is not lost however, as Rosetta has been taken many pictures and measurements of the comet in recent weeks and all this new data on comet is new science!

What do we hope to find?
Comets are bits of rock and ice left over from the creation of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago. They are literally bits of the past that have been frozen in time. So understanding what they are made of is important. There are also some scientific theories that comets may have played a part seeding the Earth with water and the other basic ingredients for life and all the science data from this mission will help to  understand these theories.

What the lander will do on the comet?

If the Philae probe successfully attaches to the surface then it will begin a series of experiments to analyse the composition and structure of the comet. It will drill into the soil, take pictures with its onboard cameras and detect a radar signal sent through the comet from Rosetta.

Wednesday 29 January 2014

Meet...Dr Sadie Jones

I appeared in the University of Southampton, Faculty of Physical Sciences and Engineering Newsletter this month :)

Meet...Dr Sadie Jones

Can you tell us about yourself and your role within Physics and Astronomy?
I work as the Outreach Leader in Astronomy. My job involves managing a group of PhD and Undergraduate Astronomy students who work with the mobile planetarium. We go out into schools to do shows for Primary - A–level student groups, and also do shows on campus for events like Open Days and BBC Stargazing Live.
What do you think are the benefits of the outreach work carried out in the department?
I think its important to show students of all ages in local schools what real scientists in the UoS look like and also it's important for the students to realise that scientists are just normal people and that science is a realistic job prospect for them. There are still so many questions we don't know the answer to so it is important we inspire the next generation of physicists and astronomers to further our understanding of the Universe.
Can you tell us about some of the activities you carry out in the outreach team?
We go out into schools twice a week during term time with the mobile planetarium. I also give a talks on aliens for primary level which features inflatable planets and I give a talk on Supermassive Black holes for GCSE, A-level and Astronomy societies, which focuses on my PhD research. I am especially excited because I will be joining the UoS Roadshow at Bestival talking about the INTEGRAL gamma ray telescope and other UoS astrophysics  research to the festival goers.
Are you enjoying being a science correspondent on BBC Radio Solent?
Yes, It's really fun. I enjoy doing the background research on the 3 science stories and it's an adrenaline rush to explain them live on radio when I don't know what questions I will be asked about the stories.  I am learning so much more about recent UK science news as a result and I hope the listeners learn more too.
If you want to keep up to date on all the latest news from the Astronomy Outreach team your can follow them on Twitter @SotonAstrodome