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May 2012: Piggy-Back

May 2012

Piggy-Back. In this month's show we bring you the first of many interviews recorded at the National Astronomy Meeting. We talk to Dr Jayne Birkby about Hot Jupiter planets, Dr Nick Cross about a billion star image, Phil Bull about dark energy and Dr Dan Brown and John Tanner about light pollution in the Peak District. Plus, Megan rounds up the latest news and we find out what's in the May night sky from Ian Morison and John Field.

The News

In the news this month:

Interview with Dr Jayne Birkby

Dr. Jayne Birkby from the University of Cambridge talks us about her work regarding hot Jupiter type planets orbiting low-mass dwarf stars. Hot Jupiter's were first discovered in 1995 and since then there have been many questions about how exactly they form and what they can tell us about planet formation as a whole. Dr. Birkby explains how her work in particular with the WFCAM transit survey and the United Kingdom Infra-Red Telescope on Hawaii will help planet formation scientists choose between two competing planet formation theories. She also explains how her research will aid in the understanding of why hot Jupiter's end up so close to their parent star.

Interview with Dr Nick Cross

Dr Nick Cross works on producing, cataloguing and analysing wide-field infra-red images of the cosmos at the University of Edinburgh. These images form detailed surveys recording a huge number and variety of astronomical objects, and in this interview Nick talks about an infra-red image composed of 150 billion pixels, which made headlines for capturing a billion stars. Covering the plane and part of the bulge of our Galaxy, it consists of thousands of smaller pictures stitched together, each observed with either the UKIRT or VISTA instruments. Nick reveals that this is much more than just a pretty picture: when complete, the archive will also show the sky at various times, allowing distances to variable stars to be calculated. Astronomers from all over the world will be able to search a database of objects in the image and download the observations of those that interest them, including many extragalactic objects such as quasars. As Nick explains, the biggest advantage of using infrared wavelengths is that they penetrate cosmic dust much more than visible light does, allowing us to see through the centre of the Milky Way to the other side of its disc.

Interview with Phil Bull

Phil Bull (PhD student, Oxford University), talks to us about what dark energy is and what the "dark energy problem" is. He goes on to tell us about theories of what dark energy could be including quantum mechanical effects and modified gravity theories. He also tells us about the assumption of homogeneity of the universe. Phil also refers to type IA supernovae in his interview.

Interview with Dr Dan Brown and John Tanner

John Tanner from the Peak District National Park and Dr Dan Brown from Nottingham Trent University gave a talk at NAM where they presented the outcomes of raising awareness of light pollution. They discuss how well the message of light pollution has been spread and describe the events that they have done to promote awareness of light pollution as well as some future events including the Peak Star Party. In their interview, they also mention Dark Sky Discovery.

The Night Sky

Northern Hemisphere

Ian Morison tells us what we can see in the northern hemisphere night sky during May 2012.

Leo, looking like one of the lions in Trafalgar Square, lies to the south-west in the evening this month, while the constellation Virgo with the bright star Spica lies in the south. East from Leo is the cluster of galaxies called the Virgo Cluster. Many of these galaxies can be seen using small telescopes. East of that is the star Arcturus in the constellation Boötes and the circlet of stars called Corona Borealis. Further east is the constellation of Hercules. The four brightest stars in Hercules make up what is called the Keystone, and located two thirds of the way up the right-hand side of the Keystone is M13, a globular cluster visible with binoculars or a small telescope. Rising in the east in the early evening are the constellations Cygnus, Lyra and Aquila. Ursa Major is located directly overhead.

The Planets


Southern Hemisphere

John Field from the Carter Observatory in New Zealand speaks about the southern hemisphere night sky during May 2012.

May sees Orion the Hunter low in the west, beneath Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Sirius sparkles like a diamond when near the horizon, as Earth's turbulent atmosphere splits its light into the constituent colours. It forms the head of Canis Major, while, below it, Canis Minor is marked by Procyon. These two dogs accompany Orion, who is upside-down to southern hemisphere observers. His Sword and Belt are also known as the Pot or the Saucepan. The three stars of the Belt were called Tautoru by Māori astronomers. In the middle of the Sword is the haze of the Orion Nebula, a glowing, star-forming region visible to the naked eye and resolvable as a cloud through binoculars. To Orion's right are the stars Castor and Pollux, marking the heads of Gemini, the Twins. In the south, Crux, the Southern Cross, is high overhead with the pointer stars Alpha and Beta Centauri. The constellations of Carina, the Keel, and Vela, the Sails, run along the Milky Way between Crux and Sirius. A number of bright stars and nebulae reside in this region, including the Eta Carina Nebula. Although bright at magnitude +1, it blends into the Milky Way when viewed with the naked eye. Sweeping around with binoculars, however, reveals many star clusters, along with glowing clouds of gas that are laced with dark lanes.

Scorpius, or Te Matau a Māui, rises in the east after sunset. It is accompanied by Sagittarius, and the two constellations mark the widest and brightest part of the Milky Way. To the west of Scorpius's brightest star, Antares, is the globular cluster M4, in which a small telescope will show curved loops and streams of stars. 4° west of Antares is another globular cluster, M80, appearing as a hazy ball to small telescopes and a dense star cluster to larger ones. The clusters M6 and M7 are both visible to the unaided eye near Scorpius's tail, and their stars can be discerned using binoculars.

The Eta Aquariid meteor shower is visible at the beginning of the month. It can produce up to 60 meteors per hour, but is hampered by a nearly-full Moon this year. The radiant, from which the meteors appear to originate, rises in the north-east after midnight, and will be best seen around 03:00 NZST (New Zealand Standard Time, 12 hours ahead of Universal Time).

The Planets

Odds and Ends

At the end of April, the space shuttle made its final flight. But this time it wasn't a space mission, instead it was strapped to the back of a Boeing 747 to take part in a "victory" lap around the US Capital, Washington D.C. This resulted in many excellent photo opportunities and was a fitting send off for the flagship of the space shuttle fleet. Discovery will now take up residence in a Smithsonian Museum.

The British ESA astronaut Tim Peake is soon to begin training in an underwater base off the coast of Florida. The NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) is a facility for astronaut trainees to test their teamworking and problem-solving in a situation from which there is no quick exit - the sort of skills that will be necessary for space missions. In an exchange programme, NASA's astronauts will later undergo cave training with ESA. You can follow Tim's training on Twitter (@Astro_TimPeake) and, along with his fellow trainees, on the ESA Astronaut Class of 2009 blog.

A company has been set up to mine asteroids for their resources, this is a long term project which includes building space refuelling stations aswell.

Show Credits

News:Megan Argo
Interview:Dr Jayne Birkby and Stuart Harper
Interview:Dr Nick Cross and Mark Purver
Interview:Phil Bull and Christina Smith
Interview:John Tanner, Dr Dan Brown and Christina Smith
Night sky:Ian Morison and John Field
Presenters:Adam Avison, Libby Jones and Leo Huckvale
Editors:Mark Purver, Megan Argo, Claire Bretherton, George Bendo, Christina Smith
Segment Voice:Cormac Purcell
Website:Adam Avison and Stuart Lowe
Producer:Adam Avison
Cover art:Discovery piggybacks on a Boeing 747 CREDIT: NASA, Goddard Space Flight Center, Melissa Meyers

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