Category: Astronomy

Supermoon Lunar Eclipse

Supermoon Lunar Eclipse

As astronomy is a hobby & keen interest of mine, I eagerly awaited the lunar eclipse. This lunar eclipse had more publicity due to the fact that it coincided with the appearance of the so-called Supermoon.

Lunar Eclipse

Astronomers don’t really prefer to call it a supermoon.

 

The term would be perigee new moon or perigee full moon.

When the moon change in its orbit and is closest to earth, this is called a perigee (within 98 per cent closest to the earth).

When it is a full moon and it is 98 per cent of its closest orbit (perigee) to the earth this is commonly called a supermoon. There can be 4-6 supermoons in a year.

There won’t be a perigee full moon in 2017 because the full moon and perigee won’t realign again (after November 14, 2016) until January 2, 2018. The next supermoon lunar eclipse will be in 2033.

As I have just retired from my work career,  I could fortunately stay up Sunday evening to the early hours of Monday morning. 🙂 I had my trusty camera ready and waited in the garden. weather conditions were ideal, as not too cold after midnight with some wisps of white cloud that conveniently disappeared; so a clear dark sky for the show to begin!

Around 2am, the top left of the moon was starting to be covered by earth’s shadow as it crept across the moon’s surface.

Lunar Eclipse begins - Photo by PH Morton

Lunar Eclipse begins – Photo by PH Morton

 

Totality and complete earth cover happened at around 3 am.

Total Lunar Eclipse (Totality) - Photo by PH Morton

Total Lunar Eclipse (Totality) – Photo by PH Morton

totality

A lunar eclipse totality lasts much longer than the spectacular  solar eclipse that is over in a few minutes. I watched the eclipse for 3 hours. The moon’s surface facing the earth becomes an amazing  coppery colour. Some cultures call it a ‘Blood Moon’ because of the reddish hue and regard it as a bad omen.

Of course the colour is caused by the sunlight being scattered through the earth’s thick atmosphere so the moon is never blacked out like the sun becomes briefly  in a solar eclipse at totality. The moon does not have an atmosphere anywhere as thick as the earths to scatter any light.

At sea level on Earth, we breathe in an atmosphere where each cubic centimetre contains 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules; by comparison the lunar atmosphere has less than 1,000,000 molecules in the same volume.

It’s faint trace of atmosphere contains molecules including helium, argon, and possibly neon, ammonia, methane and carbon dioxide. There is no oxygen as abundant on earth.

I managed to get some reasonable photographs as  the eclipse was finishing  around 5am.

Lunar Eclipse ending - Photo by PH Morton

Lunar Eclipse ending – Photo by PH Morton

During my eclipse vigil in our back garden into the small wee hours as we say, a curious urban fox came close to me to see what I was up to then wandered off!

I could hear an owl hooting in the distance and field mice moving in our Blackberry bush/tree. The garden is indeed a fascinating place at night 🙂

Second Full Moon of the Month

Yesterday on Friday 31  July there was a rare astronomical event close to home that many might not have noticed, a second full moon of the month.

They sky over London last night was generally clear and where I live in NW London was exceptional with few clouds.

I gazed up and saw a full moon. what was unusual is that it was the second full moon in a calendar month.

 Second Full Moon of the Month

I took this photo of it at around 1 am (Saturday morning) from our back garden.

Second Full moon July AKA a 'blue moon'

Second Full moon July AKA a ‘blue moon’

 

Normally  there are 29.5 days between full moons and therefore a full moon once a month. Such moons are known as a ‘blue moon’

A blue moon is defined  as the second full moon in a calendar month.  We have a saying that a rare event or happening occurs ‘once in a blue moon.’

The next Blue Moon will be in May 2016.

Even rarer, are have two blue moons in a  calendar year this last  happened in 1999. There were two full moons in January and two full moons in March and no full moon in February. So both January and March had Blue Moons.

The  full moon is given a name for each month of the year it appears.

January: the Wolf Moon, February: the Snow Moon, March: the Worm Moon, April: the Pink Moon, May: the Flower Moon, June: the Strawberry Moon, July: the Buck Moon, August: the Sturgeon Moon, September: the Harvest Moon, October: the Hunter’s Moon, November: the Beaver Moon, December: the Cold Moon.

More well-known here are the Harvest Moon in September as centuries ago, this full moon helped farmers gather their harvest in at night. The Hunter’s Moon appears brighter and larger, which aided hunters at night in fields and forests.

Enjoy gazing at our constant,  closest, changeless, celestial neighbour 🙂

Brief Encounter With Pluto

Brief Encounter With Pluto

A brief encounter with Pluto.  On July 14 2015,  the New Horizons Spacecraft flew past our most distant planet, Pluto.  A truly historic moment in space travel.

Pluto is an a staggering 4.67 million miles (7.5 billion kilometres) from our home planet  earth.

Light & the signals from  New Horizons speeding to us  at  186,000(approx 3000 kms) per second  take over four hours to reach earth!

Here are some of the amazing photos…

pluto-charonPluto and it’s major moon Charon

pluto-mountain-range Close up of Pluto’s ice plain & mountainsPluto-REX-v3 near fly by of Pluto

 

Pluto was regarded as the most distant planet in our solar system after its discovery in 1930 at the Percival Lowell observatory. Urbain Le Verrier in the 1840s, using celestial  mechanics produced by Isaac Newton,   predicted the position of the then-undiscovered planet Neptune  after he had  analysed perturbations in the orbit of Uranus. Further observations of Neptune in the late 19th century made  astronomers speculate that Uranus’ orbit was being disturbed by another planet besides Neptune. In 1906,  a wealthy Bostonian Percival Lowell who had  founded the Lowell  Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona later becoming famous for early detailed observations of Mars. From the observatory  Lowell began an extensive project in search of what was causing the perturbation, a possible ninth planet, which he termed ” Planet X“.

A young astronomer/researcher at the observatory,  Clyde Tombaugh  had the task  to systematically image the night sky in pairs of photographs taken two weeks apart, then examine each pair and determine whether any objects had shifted position. He  used a blink comparator,  a viewing apparatus used by astronomers to find differences between two wide field  photographs  of the night sky taken through optical telescopes. The blink comparator permitted rapidly switching from viewing one photograph to viewing the other, “blinking” back and forth between the two taken of the same area of the sky at different times. This allowed the user to easily spot objects in the night sky that had changed position.  On 23 January 1930, using the comparator on two photo plates, Clyde discovered the illusive planet X. As discoverer  the Lowell observatory could name this new planet  but as the discovery was world-wide news , suggested names were submitted.

A 11 year old English schoolgirl Venetia Burney from Oxford proposed the  name Pluto. She  was interested in classical mythology as well as astronomy and thought that the god of the underworld was an appropriate name for such a remote, dark and cold world.  This name was submitted to  Lowell. The object was officially named on March 24, 1930 Each member of the Lowell Observatory was allowed to vote on a short-list of three: Minerva (which was already the name for an asteroid), Cronus  and Pluto. Pluto received every vote.  The name was announced on May 1, 1930.Upon the announcement, Venetia received  five pounds (£5) (£234 as of 2012), as a reward. The choice of name was partly inspired by the fact that the first two letters of Pluto are the initials of Percival Lowell, and Pluto’s astronomical symbol (♇) is a monogram constructed from the letters ‘PL’.

Science history books have been recently amended with Pluto being ( I think unfairly) downgraded  to a minor planet and  just one member of the Kuiper Belt objects, a  field containing  primordial  debris  that are remnants from the creation of the solar system. The Kuiper Belt circles the outer solar system. This debris varies in size and  as telescope power improved,  objects as large as Pluto have been discovered within the belt and the  question of Pluto being classed as proper planet has been raised by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) .  This meant instead of the 9 planets in our solar system, we have now only the 8 ones being Mercury, Venus Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Neptune, Uranus and Saturn.

In 2002, the KBO 5000 Quaor was discovered, with a diameter then thought to be roughly 1280 kilometres, about half that of Pluto. In 2004, the discoverers of 90377 Sedna placed an upper limit of 1800 km on its diameter, nearer to Pluto’s diameter of 2320 km,  although Sedna’s diameter was revised downward to less than 1600 km by 2007. , it was argued, Pluto should be reclassified as one of the Kuiper belt objects. On July 29, 2005, the discovery of a new trans-Neptunian object named Eris was found  be approximately the same size as Pluto. This was the largest object discovered in the Solar System since Neptune’s giant moon Triton in 1846. Its discoverers and the press initially called it the tenth planet , although there was no official consensus at the time on whether to call it a planet.  Others in the astronomical community considered the discovery the strongest argument for reclassifying Pluto as a minor planet. The debate on Pluto’s came to a head in 2006 with an IAU resolution that created an official definition for the term “planet”. According to this resolution, there are three main conditions for an object to be considered a ‘planet’:

  1. The object must be in orbit around the Sun.
  2. The object must be massive enough to be a sphere by its own gravitational force. More specifically, its own gravity should pull it into a shape of hydrostatic equilibrium (the condition in fluid mechanics where a volume of a fluid is at rest or at constant velocity. This occurs when compression due to gravity y is balanced by a pressure gradient force] e.g.  the pressure gradient force prevents gravity from collapsing the Earth;s atmosphere into a thin, dense shell, while gravity prevents the pressure gradient force from diffusing the atmosphere into space).
  3. It must have cleared the neighbourhood  around its orbit, that there are no comparable objects within the planet’s orbit.

Pluto fails to meet the third condition, since its mass is only 0.07 times that of the mass of the other objects in its orbit (Earth’s mass, by contrast, is 1.7 million times the remaining mass in its own orbit Controversy still rages at Pluto’s demotion to minor planet and reclassified in the new dwarf planet  Plutoid category of trans-Neptunian objects. In 2006, NASA launched the New Horizons spacecraft to visit Pluto, it is now past  halfway between Earth and Pluto, on approach for a dramatic flight past the icy planet and its moons in July 2015. Fittingly,  the spacecraft contains ashes from the cremated remains of Clyde Tombaugh who passed away in 1997.

Photo plates used in the blink comparator  showing an object  shown
with a pointer (Planet X) that moved over six nights against the  background of more fixed stars  and confirmed as a new planet later named Pluto.


Pluto and its moons: Hubble Space Telescope.

NewHorizonsspacecraftenroutetoPlutowithsevenonboardinstruments-

Ralph: Visible and infrared imager/spectrometer; provides color, composition and thermal maps.

 

Alice: Ultraviolet imaging spectrometer; analyzes composition and structure of Pluto’s atmosphere and looks for atmospheres around Charon and Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs).

 

REX: (Radio Science EXperiment) Measures atmospheric composition and temperature; passive radiometer.

 

LORRI: (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager) telescopic camera; obtains encounter data at long distances, maps Pluto’s far side and provides high resolution geologic data.

 

SWAP: (Solar Wind Around Pluto) Solar wind and plasma spectrometer; measures atmospheric “escape rate” and observes Pluto’s interaction with solar wind.

 

PEPSSI: (Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation) Energetic particle spectrometer; measures the composition and density of plasma (ions) escaping from Pluto’s atmosphere.

 

SDC: (Student Dust Counter) Built and operated by students; measures the space dust peppering New Horizons during its voyage across the solar system.

New Horizons is powered a single radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), which transforms the heat from the natural radioactive decay of plutonium dioxide into electricity. The compact, rugged General Purpose Heat Source  developed and provided by the U.S. Department of Energy, carries approximately 11 kilograms (24 pounds) of plutonium dioxide fuel. It provides about 200 watts of power.

Assembly of New Horizons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE 25 BIGGEST TURNING POINTS IN EARTH’S HISTORY

Hmmm ;)

Hmmm 😉

Yes they are big and fundamental in how we became and what were are today.

Below is a link to the 25 biggest turning points in earth’s history. Science is continually  shining an almost celestial light to illuminate the path out of  the darkness of our ignorance  in understanding our  existence. Exciting discoveries are being made. It is now thought that life on our planet  began in deep space.

The cloud of gas and dust that eventually formed our sun and solar system was created over 5 billion years ago  by the massive  death throes  and explosion of a massive star over 10-100 times the size of our sun in an event known as a supernova. This cloud  contained all the elements we know of today and make us up.

So we are literally  star born!

Chemical precursors  to life have been found in comets and asteroids that were and still are  around  from 5 billion years ago at the birth of our solar system, from this cloud.

Some of these objects  were very many at the beginning  and  their close orbits meant that they  regularly collided with the  forming earth.  Some of these comets and meteorites  seeded our planet  with chemicals and materials which over millions of years evolved into multi cellar life, primitive bacteria and thenceforth to us billions of years later.

Please click below to link to an interesting BBC science article graphically portraying those key points &  milestones in hour history

THE 25 BIGGEST TURNING POINTS IN EARTH’S HISTORY 

 

 

Full Moon on 8 October 2014

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Love lights the sun: love through the dark
Lights the moon’s evanescent arc:
Same love lights up the glow/worm’s spark.
– Christina Rossetti

Last night’s moon was particularly beautiful as Peter and I took our dog, Ben Diesel for a walk. Peter and I just stood for a moment in our front garden admiring the bright moon which was beautifully framed by branches of one of the trees in the avenue of elm trees in our road.

As can be expected, Peter can’t help himself but try to record that sight through his faithful camera. His photos are beautiful; some are really clear which will make me remember that moment in time.

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There was a Filipino legend why there were many craters on the moon. I found the written tale in Project Gutenberg.

The Sun and the Moon

Tinguian

Once the Sun and the Moon quarreled with each other, and the Sun said:

“You are only the Moon and are not much good. If I did not give you light, you would be no good at all.”

But the Moon answered:

“You are only the Sun, and you are very hot. The women like me better, for when I shine at night, they go out doors and spin.”

These words of the Moon made the Sun so angry that he threw sand in her face, and you can still see the dark spots on the face of the Moon.

From Philippine Folktales
compiled by Mabel Cook Cole

The Case For Multiverses

The Case for Multiverses

The  case for multiverses co-existing with our own is gathering more belief, indeed recently  The presenter, author and physicist Brian Cox says he supports the idea that many universes can exist at the same time.

The idea may sound far-fetched but the “many worlds” concept is the subject of serious debate among physicists.

It is a particular interpretation of quantum mechanics – which describes the often counter-intuitive behaviour of energy and matter at small scales.

In a famous thought experiment devised by the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger, a cat sealed inside a box can be both alive and dead at the same time. Or any combination of different probabilities of being both dead and alive.

This is at odds with most common perceptions of the way the world is. And Schrodinger’s experiment was designed to illustrate the problems presented by one version of quantum mechanics known as the Copenhagen interpretation.

This proposes that when we observe a system, we force it to make a choice. So, for example, when you open the box with Schrodinger’s cat inside, it emerges dead or alive, not both.

But Prof Cox says the many worlds idea offers a sensible alternative.

“That there’s an infinite number of universes sounds more complicated than there being one,” Prof Cox told the programme.

“But actually, it’s a simpler version of quantum mechanics. It’s quantum mechanics without wave function collapse… the idea that by observing something you force a system to make a choice.”

Accepting the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics means also having to accept that things can exist in several states a the same time.

But this leads to a another question: Why do we perceive only one world, not many?

Schrodinger's cat - illustrationSchrodinger’s thought experiment was designed to illustrate problems with one interpretation of quantum physics

A single digital photograph can be made from many different images superimposed on one another. Perhaps the single reality that we perceive is also multi-layered.

The laws of quantum mechanics describe what happens inside the nucleus of every atom, right down at the level of elementary particles such as quarks, gluons. leptons, charm, muon et al with the now discovered Higgs Boson holding them all.

The weird and wonderful world of quantum mechanics reveals that nature is at heart probabilistic. Nothing can be predicted with any certainty.

“Everybody agrees about that” says Prof Cox. But where physicists don’t agree is about how these facts should be interpreted.

For decades, the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, which allows for only one universe, dominated particle physics.

But Brian Cox supports the many worlds interpretation and, he believes, more and more physicists are now subscribing to this view.

Supermoon Full Moon

The full moon last night was rather special, quite extra-ordinary in fact.  It is not one of those  ordinary full moons that occur monthly.  This August 2014 full moon is called a supermoon.  This is because it is apparently 30 percent brighter and 14 per cent much nearer the earth than the average full moon. This is due to the fact that this particular full moon is in perigee, when the moon is at its closest to the earth. By the way the term used for when the moon is at its farthest is apogee (learnt this at my Earth Science in high school 😉 lol). I heard that this occurrence does not happen often. The next time will be in 20 years!!!

Last night Peter, our super photographer, was able to capture this phenomenal wonder in celluloid.

If you want to see what the fuss is all about, lol, there is still a chance tonight. If you are in London, the sky at night tonight will be clear, apparently.

Supermoon Full Moon

Supermoon on 11 August 2014 Photo by PH Morton

Supermoon on 11 August 2014
Photo by PH Morton

Supermoon on 11 August 2014 Photo by PH Morton

Supermoon on 11 August 2014
Photo by PH Morton


If your heart is pure, then all things in your world are pure…
Then the moon and flowers will guide you along the way.
– Ryokan

Supermoon on 11 August 2014 Photo by PH Morton

Supermoon on 11 August 2014
Photo by PH Morton

Gravity Power

 

newtonThe genius of Isaac Newton, who in the 17th  century defined gravity and produced a universal law of gravitation laid down the foundations for scientists, theoretical physicists such as Einstein.

Gravity Power

Gravity is pervasive, it affects and influences us all on our planet, in our solar system  and in our universe.

einstein1Astronomy is a hobby/interest of mine I like to learn all about what happens in the cosmos and how our space probes/telescopes are unlocking secrets preciously hidden to us.   Below Ben Gilliland excellently explains how gravity helps  push back the frontiers of space

WE ARE USED TO THINKING OF SPACE FLIGHT as a struggle against gravity. After all, it takes vast, towering rockets filled with hundreds of tonnes of explosive liquids and gases just to give a light-aircraft-sized vehicle enough thrust to break free of the bonds of Earth’s gravity.

Even if you are lucky enough make it into space, there are still endless gravitational hurdles to overcome. Contrary to what Sir Isaac Newton believed, gravity isn’t caused by two massive objects pulling on one-another. Instead, gravity is a by-product of the dents and distortions made by massive objects in the fabric of the Universe. A truly massive object, like a planet, makes a pretty big dent and, when a less massive object, like a spacecraft, strays too close it finds itself ‘falling’ into that dent – it might look as if the spacecraft is being ‘pulled’ towards the planet, but really it is ‘falling’ towards it.

The Solar System is littered with these gravitational pitfalls – a satellite falls towards the Earth, the Earth falls towards the Sun and, in turn, the Sun falls towards the centre of the Milky Way. The only way to stop this fall from becoming a direct plunge is to move through space fast enough to ensure your momentum keeps you aloft.

You can think of the Sun’s gravity as being a little like a wine glass. If you drop an olive into the glass, it will fall straight to the bottom, but, if you spin the glass, you can give the olive enough momentum to roll around the sides without falling in (like a planet orbiting the Sun). Decrease the momentum and its orbit will fall closer; increase it and its orbit moves further away. If you continue to increase the speed, eventually the olive will move so fast that it will achieve ‘escape velocity’ and fly from the glass.

A spacecraft leaving Earth has been given enough momentum to escape Earth’s gravity wine glass, but, if it wants to travel into deep space, it has to find enough momentum to escape the Sun’s gravitational dent. Using rockets isn’t practical because they’d need so much heavy fuel it would be prohibitively expensive to just leave the Earth –so scientists came up with a clever trick called a ‘gravity assist’ manoeuvre,

Also known as the ‘slingshot’ manoeuvre, the technique was first used successfully 40 years ago this week, by Nasa’s Mariner 10 Mercury probe. Instead of struggling against the gravitational pull of the planets, during a gravity assist, a spacecraft uses a planet’s gravity (or a series of planets) to give it a speed boost. By falling towards a planet that is falling towards the Sun, a spacecraft can ‘steal’ enough momentum to travel against the Sun’s gravitational pull.

So you could say that spaceflight isn’t flying at all: it’s just falling, with style.

 

 

A spacecraft leaving Earth has been given enough momentum to escape Earth’s gravity wine glass, but, if it wants to travel into deep space, it has to find enough momentum to escape the Sun’s gravitational dent. Using rockets isn’t practical because they’d need so much heavy fuel it would be prohibitively expensive to just leave the Earth –so scientists came up with a clever trick called a ‘gravity assist’ manoeuvre,

Also known as the ‘slingshot’ manoeuvre, the technique was first used successfully 40 years ago this week, by Nasa’s Mariner 10 Mercury probe. Instead of struggling against the gravitational pull of the planets, during a gravity assist, a spacecraft uses a planet’s gravity (or a series of planets) to give it a speed boost. By falling towards a planet that is falling towards the Sun, a spacecraft can ‘steal’ enough momentum to travel against the Sun’s gravitational pull.

So you could say that spaceflight isn’t flying at all: it’s just falling, with style.

Planet-hunter Plato the choice

With the exciting prospect of many new planets out side of our own home solar system  being found, we need more probes to zero in extra solar  planets (exoplanets) that orbit their parent sun in the habitable zone (also known as the Goldilocks Zone-not too hot, not too cold) where liquid water may exists  and being the main precursor  to life.

The BBC science news reports:

A telescope to find thousands of planets beyond our Solar System is the hot favourite for selection as Europe’s next medium-class science mission.

Known as Plato, the concept was chosen by an expert panel as the standout candidate in a competition run by the European Space Agency (Esa).

Impression of Plato concept by Thales Alenia Space

  • Design calls for a suite of 34 telescopes to be mounted on one satellite
  • Mission should confirm and characterise hundreds of rocky worlds
  • Would have the sensitivity also to detect the planets’ moons and rings
  • Intricate measurements of the host stars would yield key information
  • To launch from French Guiana on a Soyuz rocket in 2023/2024
  • Plato would be stationed 1.5m km from Earth on its “nightside”

 

The Paris-based organisation’s Science Policy Committee will now have the final say at its meeting in February.

If given the go-ahead, Plato would probably not launch until 2024.

The name of the mission is an acronym that stands for PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars.

It is not really one telescope but rather a suite of 34 telescopes mounted on a single satellite.

The intention is for Plato to sweep about half the sky, to investigate some of its brightest and nearest stars.

It would monitor these stars for the tell-tale tiny dips in light that occur when planets move across their faces.

Critically, Plato would be tuned to seek out rocky worlds orbiting in the “habitable zone” – the region around a star where water can keep a liquid state.

A fundamental part of its quest would be to perform an intricate study of the host stars themselves, using their pulsations to probe their structure and properties.

Such observations, referred to as astroseismology, would provide key, complementary information for the proper characterisation of the rocky worlds.

Although, other missions have pursued this kind of science before, Plato is described as a major leap forward in capability.

The hope is that it could find really promising targets for follow-up by the big ground-based telescopes due to come online in the next decade.

These facilities, which will have primary mirrors measuring tens of metres in diameter, should be able to examine the atmospheres of distant worlds for possible life signatures.

The James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to Hubble, due for launch at the end of this decade, would likely still be working in 2024/2025 and could also pursue Plato’s discoveries.

Artist's impression of an exoplanetThe goal is to find planets like the Earth, not just in terms of their size but in their potential for habitability

Plato has spent the past two years in an assessment process that has pitted it against four other concepts.

All were vying for the third medium-class launch opportunity to be offered under Esa’s so-called Cosmic Vision programme, which defines the organisation’s space science priorities.

“Medium class” means a cost to the agency of no more than about 600m euros (£490m; $820m), although following the practice of previous missions this does not include the budget for instruments.

These are usually provided directly by Esa’s national member agencies and mean the final price tag can approach one billion euros.

All the competitors were invited to make a final presentation to representatives of the scientific community, industry, and national member agencies on 21 January. This was followed by closed-session discussions by two working groups, which rated the quality of the missions.

Exoplanets

Artist's impression of an exoplanet
  • Planets beyond our Solar System are often given the term ‘exoplanet’
  • More than 1,000 have been detected to date using several techniques
  • But many of these worlds are large planets believed to resemble Jupiter or Neptune
  • Many gas giants have been found to be orbiting very close to their stars
  • It has prompted new ideas to describe the formation and evolution of solar systems

Their recommendations were then passed to Esa’s top space science advisory committee (SSAC) to make an evaluation.

It proposed that Plato be carried forward as the mission of choice, and this preference has now been sent on by Esa’s executive to the SPC. The committee has the prerogative of “selection” at its 19 February gathering, and could still reject Plato – but this would be a major surprise.

The final green light is known as “adoption” in Esa-speak. This is unlikely to happen until 2015, after member states have made firm commitments on their participation and an industrial team to build the satellite has been identified.

One big industrial contribution from the UK seems assured. This would be the camera detector at the base of the telescope suite.

Supplied by e2v in Chelmsford, the array of more than 130 charge-coupled devices would be 0.9 square metres in area.

This would make it the largest camera system ever flown in space, and twice the size of the array e2v produced for Esa’s recently launched Gaia telescope.

The first two medium-class missions to be selected under Esa’s Cosmic Vision programme in 2011 were Solar Orbiter, a space telescope to study the Sun, to launch in 2017; and Euclid, a telescope to investigate “dark energy”, to fly in 2020.

The American space agency (Nasa) plans a similar mission to Plato calledTess (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) in 2017, but the specifications mean that its rocky worlds will probably be in closer orbits around lower-mass stars than the discoveries made by the European project. In other words, the Plato planets are more likely to be in the habitable zones of more Sun-like stars.

Supernovae Near & Far

A Supernova is the result of a massive star more than 10 times as massive as our sun reaching the end of it’s multi million year life and as it is so massive gravity makes the sun collapse in on itself. The implosion leads to an explosion so incredibly and unimaginably powerful that only the universe creating Big Bang is larger!

These enormous stars typically have a life of tens of millions of years, as opposed to our longer living smaller sedate sun that is middle aged at roughly five billion years old!

The super giant stars burn brightly living their lives in the fast lane. They consume massive amounts of hydrogen and helium gas at their cores. Other elements are formed near the core as the star tries to maintain nuclear fusion. Finally when iron is created at the core, fusion can no longer take place and gravity wins pulling the star’s incredible mass in on itself. The resulting titanic explosion creates most of the elements we know which are thrown deep into space forming vast clouds that will one day form other stars, planets and even life. Our sun, solar system of planets and us owe our existence to a long past supernova that created the elements, atoms etc., which created life billions of years ago.

Below are two articles about two stars that have gone supernova.
The nearest supernova for decades was discovered at an observatory about 3 miles (5 kms)from where we live!

UCL Observatory

Jean and I pass by this observatory regularly.

Supernova The supernova may be visible to stargazers through binoculars – and could grow brighter in coming weeks

An exploding star has been spotted in the night sky – the closest supernova to Earth that has been seen in decades.

The dramatic event happened 12 million light years away in Messier 82 – known as the cigar galaxy for its shape.

It was discovered by undergraduates during a telescope class at the University of London Observatory.

“One minute we’re eating pizza then five minutes later we’ve helped to discover a supernova. I couldn’t believe it,” said student Tom Wright.

“It reminds me why I got interested in astronomy in the first place.”

Supernova before and afterBefore and after: The supernova appears like a ‘new star’ in the lower image

The students from University College London were taking part in a 10-minute lesson with astronomer Dr Steve Fossey when they noticed what appeared to be a “new star”.

“We pointed the telescope at Messier 82 – it’s quite a bright galaxy, quite photogenic. But as soon as it came up on screen, it didn’t look right to me,” Dr Fossey told BBC News.

“We fired up another telescope, we got another frame – and that was when we knew it was a supernova.”

The “fluke” discovery led to a global scramble to acquire confirming images and spectra from the dazzling object.

It now been confirmed by the International Astronomical Union as a supernova – a violent blast of energy and light that is hurled out as a star dies.

It has taken 12 million years for the light to reach us. But though this may seem like a long way away, scientists say this is the closest supernova to be spotted since the late 1980s.

Scientists says it could grow even brighter over the coming weeks, before fading away.

If this happens, astronomers in the northern hemisphere may be able to spot it with binoculars, by looking between the Great Bear and the Little Bear.

Supernova ‘Mingus’ could shed light on dark energy

By Jason PalmerScience and technology reporter, BBC News, Long Beach, California

Supernova, artist's conceptionSupernovas are traditionally named after composers

Astronomers have spotted the most distant supernova ever seen.

Nicknamed “Mingus”, it was described at the  221st American Astronomical Society meeting in the US.

These lightshows of dying stars have been seen since ancient times, but modern astronomers use details of their light to probe the Universe’s secrets.

Ten billion light-years distant, Mingus will help shed light on so-called dark energy, the force that appears to be speeding up cosmic expansion.

Formally called SN SCP-0401, the supernova was something of a chance find in a survey carried out in part by the Supernova Cosmology Project (SCP) using the Hubble Space Telescope, first undertaken in 2004.

But the data were simply not good enough to pin down what was seen. As David Rubin of the University of California, Berkeley, lead author on the study, told the AAS meeting, “for a sense of brightness, this supernova is about as bright as a firefly viewed from 3,000 miles away”.

Further news had to wait until astronauts installed the Wide Field Camera 3 on the Hubble telescope in 2009 and again trained it on the candidate, which had – in an SCP tradition of naming supernovae after composers – already been named after jazz musician Charles Mingus.

“Unfortunately, it took the development of Wide Field Camera 3 to bring home what the [2004] measurements meant,” Mr Rubin told BBC News.

“The sensitivity is a few times better, which makes a huge difference, and we have a much cleaner image.”

Wide Field Camera 3 installationThe Wide Field Camera 3 enabled scientists to focus in on Mingus

The team went on to confirm that the supernova was in fact a Type 1a – a particular class of exploded star whose light occurs in such a regular way that it is known as a “standard candle”.

‘Bit of history’

What interests astronomers trying to find ever more distant Type 1a supernovae – distant both in space and in time – is the chance to compare them to better-known, more local supernovae.

“We were able to watch these changes in brightness and spectral features for an event that lasted just a few weeks almost 10 billion years ago,” said Saul Perlmutter, who leads the Supernova Cosmology Project.

Prof Perlmutter shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for work with Type 1a supernovae that proved our Universe is speeding up in its expansion.

Elucidating the mysterious force, “dark energy”, which has been invoked as the cause of the expansion, will require careful study of supernovae all the way back to the epoch of the earliest stars.

“We’re seeing two-thirds of the way back to the beginning of the Universe, and we’re getting a little bit of history where the physics of what makes a supernova explode have to all work out the same way there as they do near here,” he told the meeting.

Dark Ambitions

Supernova SN SCP-0401Supernova SN SCP-0401 fits into a wider story, Prof Frieman says

The meeting also heard from Joshua Frieman, director of the Dark Energy Survey – a five-year mission using the most powerful camera ever trained on the skies to get to the bottom of the dark matter mystery.

The phone-booth-sized Dark Energy Camera took it’s first cosmic  photos in Sept 2012 and will begin its formal mission in September this year, looking not only at supernovae but also at three other dark-energy signatures in the cosmos.

Prof Frieman told BBC News that the distant supernova result fits neatly into a story that he hoped the Dark Energy Survey would explore in great detail.

“What they’re doing is using the Hubble telescope to go really deep – we’re going to use the Dark Energy Survey to go very broad,” he explained to BBC News.

“They’re finding tens of supernovae at these high [distances], and we’re going to find thousands of supernovae not quite as deep. You really need both of those together to really make progress in trying to figure out why the Universe is speeding up.”