It’s 2017, the year the Sun goes out

Happy New Year! We hope you’re still flattened under the burden of gifts and groaning with the tonnage of mince pies you’ve consumed, but let’s get straight to the important stuff: this year, the Sun is going dark. August 21st 2017, mark our words.

Sorry, what’s that? Oh, you’ve heard of total solar eclipses, have you? Drat.

OK, so:

That last point is quite impressive, when you think about it. And it’s the subject of the NASA video posted above, which is even more impressive than you might expect. It doesn’t just show the ground track, it factors in (as the video explains) the effects of the angle of the Sun, the elevation of the observer at each point, and the bumpiness of the moon’s surface. The combined result is that the shadow of the sun isn’t elliptical as you might expect, but more… well, watch the film and see.

The next total solar eclipse visible from the UK mainland won’t be until 23rd September 2090. There’ll be a pretty good partial eclipse in 2026, but having seen both partial and total eclipses I can personally vouch that there’s no comparison to witnessing totality. If you ever have the chance to travel to see one, absolutely take it. It’s a (literally) phenomenal experience. You might remember the partial solar eclipse of 2015, which looked like this:

…but seriously, that was nothing like as impressive as a total eclipse.

Come to think of it, I have a friend in Boise, Idaho…

More information: List of solar eclipses visible from the UK; NASA’s site about the 2017 US eclipse.


Win a Free Astronomy Trip to the Alps

The European Southern Observatory is organising an Astronomy Camp at the beautiful (if awkwardly-named) Astronomical Observatory of the Autonomous Region of the Aosta Valley, in the Italian Alps. It’s pictured above, and sounds like an impressive place to hang out for a week of lectures, hands-on activities, observing sessions… and winter sports and excursions. Here are the details:

  • 26th December 2016 to 1st January 2017
  • Open to students aged 16-18 years (ie. born 1998, 99, 2000).
  • Working language: English
  • Camp fee: €500… but read on!

How to apply

The camp is open to maximum 56 secondary school students from a list of countries including the ESO Member States (which includes the UK). There are more details and a web form on the Camp web page, and you’ll also need to submit a video. Your film should be in English, last no longer than three minutes, and be on the theme: “I would most like to discover/invent …… because……..”.

Submission deadline: 4th October 2016.

The applicant with the best entry from one of ESO’s Member States will win an ESO bursary to cover the complete cost. In the UK, the Royal Astronomical Society will also contribute to costs for the country’s best entries.

This sounds like one of those things you never quite dream you could win, but somebody has to, and for those who do it could be a life-changing experience. The full programme (on the camp website) looks jam-packed, exhausting, and huge fun. Get your application in, and please please let us know if you’re one of the 56 students. Send us a postcard, at least!

Heading image: ESO/V. Vicenzi.

View the transit of Mercury on 9th May

This May will provide us with a fantastic opportunity to observe a transit of Mercury. It should be possible to view the eclipse from your school or home, but we will need to keep our fingers crossed for good weather.

What’s a transit of Mercury?

Like a solar eclipse, when the Moon obscures the Sun, a transit occurs when Mercury or Mars (the only planets between us and the Sun) partially block the view of the Sun from the Earth. A transit is much rarer than a solar eclipse. A solar eclipse may occur a few times a year, while transits of Mercury occur between 3.5 and 13 years apart, and transits of Venus come along only every century or so.

The next transit of Mercury will start just after midday on 9th May and will finish at around 7:40pm

How to observe the transit safely

The best way to observe in a group is to project an image of the Sun onto a shaded white surface using a telescope. CLEAPPS Guidance leaflet provides excellent information about how you can set this up:

However if you do not have a telescope, or the weather is poor on the day, live streams of the transit will be available on the internet.  ESA will be providing one and the link will be provided on their website closer to the event.


Never look directly at the sun!

You could permanently damage your eyesight



The Royal Astronomical Society have produced a teachers activity pack (PDF link) which contains a range of different worksheets and activity suggestions for use with primary and secondary students. The pack also supports literacy and numeracy, and features Mercury-themed cupcake investigations.

You could ask pupils to compare the size of Mercury and the Sun. They could do this by looking at the diameter of the two objects, the area of the disc, or their volume. Which approach gives the best idea of the relative scale of the two? NASA has created a solar system explorer website that will help students investigate further.



Kielder Observatory trip – 26th February

Another month, another four schools, another 30 students; we seem to be making a habit of trucking people up to the Kielder Observatory. No snow this time, so our intrepid driver Steve bounced us up the track, and we managed to get some good observing in before the high cloud closed over. Luke from the Observatory then gave us a joyous romp through the exciting bits of astronomy and cosmology (absorption spectra! Woo! — no, really, I did go a bit giddy about absorption spectra), and all too soon we were back on the coach heading home.

The thin cloud layer and absent moon made for a relatively lousy night for photography, so there aren’t many shots:

Here’s Becki welcoming us to the Observatory, as we huddle in the one vaguely-warm part of the site and get properly dark-adapted:

Luke’s observing station, with 3- and 5-inch refractors set up and ready to go:

…and a group observing from that station, a few minutes later:

The 16” Reflector was in use. Here it is slewing across the sky while my shutter was open:

…and here’s an arty shot of the housing. The smudge of stars left of centre is – if I’m not mistaken – the Pleiades cluster.

Finally, my best shot of the night: Becki’s observing group out on the deck, with Orion directly above the telescope. Top left of Orion is Betelgeuse, looking much more red than Rigel, down the bottom-right of the constellation.

As ever, it’s quite a trek out to the Observatory (as Becki put it: Kielder is the most remote village in England, so the Observatory is outside the most remote village), but it’s well worth it, particularly if you’re lucky with the weather. Keep an eye on Kielder’s Events page (or this handy availability checker) and book yourself into a session!

Big thanks to the Observatory staff, and we’ll hope to be back again soon.

Gravitational waves – The Think Physics Guide

As a project with ‘Physics’ in our title, it hardly seems possible not to be talking about gravitational waves in the office this morning. We read the reports avidly, we got all excited, and we also realised that we’re hardly the experts on this. So here’s our brief run-down of the really useful stuff we’ve found from better journalists than ourselves and more informed cosmologists:

First up, an excellent film from the New York Times, which sets out what the LIGO experiment in Louisiana and Washington has done:

The rest of the Times’ report is a good solid overview of what’s happened. Through the arms-length reporting you can glimpse the level of excitement and the significance of the work.

If animation is more your style, this primer from PhD Comics will spin you through the bumpy landscape of gravitational waves:

Hooked? Fascinated? Excited? The New Yorker has an outstanding long article about the inside story of the discovery:

“Space and time became distorted, like water at a rolling boil. In the fraction of a second that it took for the black holes to finally merge, they radiated a hundred times more energy than all the stars in the universe combined. They formed a new black hole…

The waves rippled outward in every direction, weakening as they went. On Earth, dinosaurs arose, evolved, and went extinct. The waves kept going. About fifty thousand years ago, they entered our own Milky Way galaxy, just as Homo sapiens were beginning to replace our Neanderthal cousins as the planet’s dominant species of ape. A hundred years ago, Albert Einstein, one of the more advanced members of the species, predicted the waves’ existence, inspiring decades of speculation and fruitless searching.”

It’s a beautifully-written piece, and it really captures the human aspect of this – of hundreds of physicists around the world experiencing that moment of discovery. It’s an image that’s ingrained in popular conceptions of how science works, of Archimedes leaping out of his bathtub and exclaiming ‘Eureka!’ The reality, of course, is usually very different. Science tends to proceed in small steps, miniature breakthroughs in labs and desks and computers around the world, inching forwards piece by piece. But the LIGO work appears to be a genuine breakthrough, and the excitement is both real and hard-earned.

That’s also the theme of yesterday’s BBC Radio 4 Inside Science Special:

“It is the cleanest signal you can imagine… you have to feel fantastic for those 800 scientists, who have been spending – some of them – decades of their careers working towards this first detection.”
— Dr. Andrew Pontzen, UCL

The programme also hears from the leading UK scientist on the project, Prof. Sheila Rowan of the University of Glasgow. You can get a good sense of how giddy everyone is about this by listening to her impression of the signal ‘chirp.’

Do take a look at the LIGO experiment website, but for now, the final words:

Kielder Observatory trip – Friday 15th January

On Friday we took a group of about 30 students from four different schools up to Kielder Observatory. Yes, there was snow. Yes, it was cold. But, oh my, was it glorious.

Here’s a photo story of the evening, with captions and everything. Enjoy – and I very much look forward to my next trip up.

Huge thanks to the tremendously professional Observatory staff for wrangling a bunch of us through the maximum possible observing time. This was my first visit, and I was hugely impressed with how slickly-run the whole thing is. We’re heading back with another school group next month, but if you’d like to visit yourself keep an eye on Kielder’s Events page (or this handy availability checker) and book yourself into a session. It’s always a gamble with the weather, but if you’re lucky, as we were, the views are magnificent – and all the better for the expert guides who’ll show you around the universe.

The drive up takes about 90 minutes, give or take faffing about with Land-Rovers for the final stretch if the track is snowy or muddy. So it’s quite an expedition for an evening, but well worth it. Our group were buzzing all the way back, which is always lovely to hear.

Jobs with the European Space Agency

The European Space Agency (ESA) describes itself as:

Europe’s gateway to space. Its mission is to shape the development of Europe’s space capability and ensure that investment in space continues to deliver benefits to the citizens of Europe and the world.

The organisation brings together 22 member states and wider partners from Bulgaria to the Ukraine, sharing financial resources and intellectual skills, allowing ESA to achieve far more than if one single European country were to go it alone. It’s a shining example of the benefits of collaboration.

The main objectives of ESA’s programmes are to find out more about Earth, its immediate space environment, our Solar System and the Universe. It also works to develop satellite-based technologies and services, to promote European industries, and to collaborate with space organisations outside Europe.

ESA has sites in Germany, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and in the United Kingdom.

Could you have a future space career?

Yes of course! If you have a passion for space, build the skills and knowledge that are required and you’ll be in with a shot.

For more information and to see the types of jobs available visit the ESA Careers website. There, you’ll find information on graduate traineeship schemes, work placements for undergraduate or masters students, case studies, videos and current opportunities, so you can get a flavour of the types of jobs and more importantly the skills and qualifications you would need.

Find out More: Subscribe to the ‘vacancies announcement‘ list and receive weekly updates about job opportunities.

Teachers: share with your pupils the types of jobs available within the Space sector. You could even inspire students (of all ages) by displaying job opportunities on the board as they enter the classroom. For example, very recently ESA have recruited for:

  • Thermal Engineer
  • Medical Officer
  • Systems Engineer
  • Earth Observations Project Specialist
  • Contracts Officer
  • Component Engineer
  • Microelectronics Engineer

Is “The Martian” accurate? Does it matter?

It’s been a big couple of weeks for the planet Mars. Two weeks ago it was the star of our North East skills stand, last Monday NASA announced they’ve found evidence of flowing water, and now it’s the setting for the big-budget rescue of Matt Damon in the movie, The Martian.

Being both a teacher and a movie fan, I’m always curious as to how I can use films to educate students. I know a lot of people worry about the scientific accuracy of films; in fact there are whole websites dedicated to exposing bad movie science, but I wonder if a movie like The Martian has other things to offer. Firstly, it’s a film that celebrates intelligence and problem solving. The film’s heroes have to use their brains to save the day, a relative rarity in a Hollywood blockbuster. Interstellar was praised for its scientific content (thanks to consultant Kip Thorne), but still ultimately boils down to “love saves the day”. The Martian bucks the trend and is a great demonstration to students of how a scientific mind-set can be our best weapon in the face of the most challenging of problems.

Secondly, I think that the insight into a large scientific organisation, in this case NASA, will help students to appreciate the wide-range of different careers onto which STEM qualifications can lead. In this film we see every type of scientist outlined by the People Like Me project which is part of the WISE campaign which promotes women in STEM. The aim of this project is to demonstrate the different roles available to people who study STEM; it’s not all men in white coats. It is the combination of these different skill-sets working together in The Martian that ultimately saves the day. Thankfully, The Martian also has a suitably diverse cast which helps to break down a few stereotypes about the types of people who work in STEM.

If we decide to use films in the classroom, I think we need to be very clear as to what our ultimate goal is. If we are using them to illustrate or teach scientific concepts, I think we must be very careful about the accuracy of the scientific content. On the other hand, if we want to show our pupils the value of a STEM education and inspire them to continue towards STEM careers, I think films like The Martian, despite the odd inaccuracy, can be very useful.

Another favourite of mine is Contagion (also with Matt Damon!), for being similarly diverse and not afraid to celebrate intelligence. What films or TV shows have/would you show in the classroom?

IOP talk: Formation of Extrasolar Planets

Dr. Ken Rice from the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Astronomy will be here at Northumbria University on 18th June, speaking on the formation of extrasolar planets. To date we’ve confirmed the existence of almost 2,000 planets beyond our solar system – come and discover how they formed and evolved in this Institute of Physics-organised lecture.

The event will take place in room A003 in the Ellison Building, 7–8pm. All welcome.

For more information, the IOP have a glossy flier (PDF, 1Mb), and a Facebook page.


Yesterday, National Public Radio in the US published an interview with an astronomer, in which he’s quoted saying:

“Many scientists, I think, secretly are what I call ‘boys with toys’.”

Many other scientists are, of course, not boys at all. But they still have toys, and for the last eleven hours or so Twitter has been awash with fantastic photos of scientists, grouped under #girlswithtoys. There are lots of telescopes:

…there are plenty of other bits of apparatus and equipment:

I have no idea what a dual intracellular amp is, but it’s clearly making someone happy.

Then there are the not-really-instruments-just-cool-toys:

Drop whatever you’re doing and spend a few minutes scrolling through the #girlswithtoys stream (see also the live feed). It’s a glorious depiction of scientists doing what they love, with the tools and instruments of their work.

(top image from this tweet – who doesn’t love a spot of Antarctic heli-fishing?)

Update, 11am: One of the most remarkable photographs is this:

Margaret Hamilton during the Apollo Program (NASA / WikiMedia Commons)

Margaret Hamilton during the Apollo Program (NASA / WikiMedia Commons)

I’d never heard of Margaret Hamilton, which seems outrageous given that she was the lead flight software engineer on the Apollo programme. That is: the code written by her team landed men on the moon. In the final moments before touchdown, the Apollo 11 Lunar Module computer was swamped with excess data and pushed beyond its limits. It’s a fairly standard story in software engineering circles about how the development team anticipated such a situation and had built a system that could tolerate it. Their foresight avoided calamity.

I’ve read the story many times, but I’ve never heard it mentioned that Hamilton led that development group, nor that she coined the very term ‘software engineering.’ Her Wikipedia page is awesome.


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