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

Letter to a local Primary school in response to their astronomy questions...

I will try to answer all your questions in one letter, please email me if you have any future questions or tweet me @SotonAstrodome

What are black holes? How are black holes formed? Are they really black?
When a massive star, about 8 times bigger than our sun dies the star explodes, this is called a Supernova. The core that was at the centre of the star gets left behind, this core is so massive that it can’t hold itself up anymore, the massive gravity forces on it squash it down so much that it gets squashed into a very small invisible point known as a black hole. Black holes are actually more ‘invisible’ than black, but because space is black then this makes sense. They are invisible because they don’t give out light (like the Sun) or reflect it (like the Moon).

Are there any black holes in space? If so, how many are there? Is there a black hole in the Milky Way?
Yes! There are loads of black holes in our Universe; in fact there may be as much as 100 million black holes (which are each about the size of 8 suns, squashed into a very small volume) inside our own Milky way galaxy.
There is also a supermassive black hole in the center of our Milky way galaxy, which has a mass as big as 400 million suns. We know how big it is by looking at the speeds of stars moving around this invisible object at the center of our galaxy.
We don’t know the exact value for the number of black holes in our galaxy (or the Universe) because black holes are black, they don’t give out light like stars, or reflect it like planets, so we only know they are there when we can see stars orbiting the black hole, or being eaten by a nearby black hole.

Did any spaceships go into any blackholes?
No, we have not sent any spaceships to any black holes. Firstly they are all extremely far away and it would take many hundreds of years to get to the nearest black holes with the current technology. Also from using Mathematics and Physics formulas we can predict that any spaceship would get ripped apart by the strong gravity forces before it go to the black hole. Even if the spaceship was able to enter the black hole the signals it would send back to Earth, to tell us what was going on as it fell into the black hole, would also get sucked into the black hole. No information (not even light which is the fastest thing ever) can leave a black hole when it goes in. So basically, we will never known what goes on inside black holes exactly. They are very bizarre environments where our science theories fall apart, but we will keep trying to understand them.

Is there life on Mars? Is there life in the Andromeda galaxy and the rest of the Universe?
We have found water on Mars (mainly as ice or vapour) but at the moment we have not found any life, on Mars or anywhere else in the Universe. I personally believe that there IS such a thing as ‘Life on other planets’ or Aliens because from using the Kepler telescope to look at stars inside the Milky way we have found over 2,000 planets orbiting these stars.
You can actually help us find planets from this Kepler data by going on the website

Current scientific research tells us that at least 1 in 5 stars that exist, have at least one planet. And there are 100,000,000,000 stars in the Milky way and 100,000,000,000 galaxies in the Universe, so there are a lot of places for Aliens to live. The Universe is SO big I think there has to be life out there somewhere.

What planets are we most likely to find life on?
If we assume that ‘Aliens’ are like us humans then we are more likely to find them on planets like our own Earth. This means the planets should have liquid water on them, and their distance from their star (which is probably like our Sun) is in what we call the ‘Habitable Zone’ or ‘Goldilocks Zone’ where the temperature is such that water is liquid on that planet.  Although, if these ‘Aliens’ don’t need liquid water then it is quite possible they could live on any kind of planet, hot or cold and their planet could orbit a star which is nothing like our Sun.

Did any things fall on the Earth? What are the things?
Rocks from space land on Earth all the time. When the rocks fall through our atmosphere they burn up and we see them as shooting stars, these are called Meteors. When these rocks actually land on the Earth they are called Meteorites. Meteorites are usually made of stones or iron and we think most of them come from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
A famous meteorite called ‘Alan Hills 84001’ fell to Earth in 1984 and landed in Antarctica, it came from the planet Mars. It was thought to show evidence of fossilised life from Mars inside the rock. After further investigation from the scientists it was decided that the fossils were not proof of life on Mars and possibly a result of contamination from Earth life.

What is negative energy and is it real?
I think you mean ‘Dark Energy’. This energy is very real, and is responsible for giving the Universe the energy to expand outwards at a higher rate than expected.

Is it true that in space your spine grows in length?

Yes, astronauts on the International Space Station who spend time living in microgravity have been known to grow taller in space, for example, someone 6 feet tall can grow by as much as 2 inches.