Why I always take my son outside to watch the ISS fly over.

“Quick!”, I yell….. “It’s about to come over”.
My son jumps off the sofa and heads out of the back door with me.
We stand in the cold night air, looking up at the sky. Far to the west, a small bright dot begins to move across the blackness. It’s barely noticeable at first, masked by the ever present glow of the light pollution coming from our nearby city. Our patience is rewarded however. The dot has become brighter and faster and is overhead now.
We point up at it, grin at each other and marvel at this incredible sight zooming across the night sky.
So why do I think that taking my son outside to wave at the International Space Station (ISS) is so important? Well, to many people it has just become another “thing” to look at or photograph in the night sky but for me it represents something else, something quite important.

The ISS flies overhead. © Charles Simpson 2015

Like many other 13-year-olds across the country, if I’m not careful, my son’s life would revolve around electronic gadgets – his phone, his Xbox and computer. So it’s really great to be able to break into that “virtual” circus and do something different and, in my opinion, more rewarding.
And that’s where astronomy comes in. We actually started in a fairly low key way, remembering names of the moons various planets in the solar system as a sort of game whilst walking the dog at twilight. I’m pleased to say with a little time and encouragement, he now really loves the time we spend outside under the starry skies, looking at various astronomical objects and constellations. After only a short time, he could name many of the constellations in the night sky and can now use certain asterisms and constellation features to locate other easily visible astronomical objects such as star clusters and named stars. Even thinking on a larger scale, he has a good grasp of our place in the universe (well, astronomically speaking anyway!).
Many people might regard astronomy as a dry subject and firmly entrenched in the world of science but that’s not the case at all or at least it certainly doesn’t have to be! The opportunities for using astronomy as a vehicle to engage kids in a variety of subjects is huge and very wide ranging. With a few ideas at the ready and little nudge in the right direction, the possibilities are plentiful.

For modern kids, it’s so easy to get lost in the easy attractions of the virtual world.
My personal belief is that it’s really important for them to take time out from the ‘small things’ (ie. the day to day stuff), to gain an appreciation of the bigger things. A wider world of science, history, art and wonder.
And that brings me back to the ISS.
The power of the ISS is not just in the science experiments completed onboard – it’s not in the astronauts’ amazing journey to and from the station – it’s not even in the fact that the ISS itself is perhaps one of the greatest achievements of science, engineering and international co-operation.
For me, it’s the power to inspire!
It’s that little “wow” you get when you explain that it’s bigger than the size of a football pitch, has more space than a six bedroom house, is travelling at over 17,000 miles per hour, orbits the earth over 15 times a day and has a crew of six brave men and women who live and work aboard for six months at a time.
So the next time you get chance to pop outside for a look …… give it a try.
Whether you’re in the middle of a city or in the middle of the countryside, it doesn’t matter. You’ll still be able to see it.

Links to ISS Tracking websites
A quick search of the internet will bring up many websites that will track the position of the ISS. Here are a couple of useful ones to get you started.

NASA’s “Spot the Station” webpage with a guide on how to see the ISS from your location including the times to go outside for the best view. http://spotthestation.nasa.gov/sightings/

The ISSTracker website does exactly what is says on the tin and tracks the position of the ISS in real time. http://www.isstracker.com/

I wrote this blog post over two years ago now, when I was the guest blogger for the amazing Kielder Observatory. My son is now 15 and looking at careers in the space sector.
From tiny acorns, massive oak trees grow. 🙂

To The Moon and Back Again – An Evening with Al Worden

Having seen Al Worden before, I was under no doubt that it was going to be a super evening and I’m pleased to say that I wasn’t disappointed.
After the brief preamble and introduction by Mark Hempsall, the president of the British Interplanetary Society (BIS), Al took the stage.
Standing behind a purpose built podium, Al shared the stage with a giant model of the docked Lunar and Command Modules suspended over the Apollo 15 mission logo.
Al’s theme for the talk – a brief walk through the history of NASA spaceflight.

Starting at the beginning, Al took over 100 of the assembled crowd through the Mercury and Gemini programs until finally reaching the beginning of the Apollo program.
He explained the events that led up to the terrible pad fire of the Apollo 1 mission and spoke of the reasons behind the tragedy and the lessons that were learned by NASA.
Moving on through Apollo 7 and the near disaster of Apollo 13, Al began to share memories and anecdotes of his own Apollo 15 mission.
He began by explaining how the logo bore the Roman numerals XV in the form of crater shadows and how an Italian underwear designer came to be the company making NASA space suits.
Moving on to describe the gentleness of the launch, Al then explained how nice it was to have time on own after releasing the Lunar module containing David Scott and James Irwin, joking that after spending over three days in close confinement with them, it was nice to have some space!
As part of this time on his own, Al tells the audience how he removed the central seat from the command module to give himself extra room to move about and how this backfired on him slightly when, during a main engine retro burn, he was thrown from one of the remaining seats into a wall mounted g-pad due to a lack of bracing with the centre seat removed.
Al emphasised the scientific content of the mission and spoke of the some of the instrumentation aboard the service module including a mass spectrometer – a device used to analyse the composition of the thin lunar atmosphere. After saying that it had detected nothing for the first two days of his solo mission orbiting the moon, he had been contacted by mission control about some unexpected results. It turned out that it had picked up the liquid waste dumped into space from the Command module which, much to the crowd’s delight, Al likened to a cloud of white urine ‘snow’ that followed Endeavour wherever it went.

Speaking about the last parts of his Apollo 15 mission, he related the story of the iconic photo taken by James Irwin during his EVA – the first ever deep space extra vehicular activity. With his typical dry sense of humour, he jokingly blames Irwin for only taking a picture of his back and feet as he retrieves the film from the Scientific Instrument Module (the SIM bay) on the side of the service module, even though Irwin insisted the camera ‘jammed’. At this, Al rolls his eyes and comments on the camera not having jammed whilst James took a thousand shots on the lunar surface, to which the crowds laugh again.

He also relates the tale of the unofficial disposal of bags of solid waste from the astronauts, saying that much like the urine ‘snow’ previously mentioned, these bags would follow the CM all the way back to Earth on the return journey but that “NASA could sort that crap out” when they got back.
Unsurprisingly, this was also very well received and met with yet more riotous laughter.
Al finished off the history of NASA spaceflight talking about the space shuttle and how he percieved it to be a more dangerous vehicle than the Apollo CM citing the tragedies of the Challenger and Columbia vehicles. He brought the presentation full circle by comparing the Apollo Saturn V vehicles and the new NASA space launch system (SLS) saying he was pleased to see a retun to a capsule type vehicle, much like the planned Orion project.

At the point where Al’s talk had finally reached an end and the huge applause was dying down, David Hawksett from Guinness World Records took the stage. Many of the audience had been at the Reinventing Space conference diner the night before to see Al presented with his World Record for the most remote human being and assumed it was to be a repeat of the same but for this nights audience.
But no! Over the next few minutes the audience were delighted to see Al presented with another World Record – the first ever “deep space” (ie. beyond LEO) EVA. This was especially poignant as whilst other astronauts in the future will eventually travel further and be ‘remoter’ than Al, this award for being the first, would never be broken and would always remain Al’s.

With the main talk concluded the serious business of signing got underway in an adjoining room. People waited patiently in line and had options to purchase Al’s excellent book “Falling to Earth” now on its 16th reprint and a range of fine quality prints for Al to sign.
Patient and generous to a fault, Al always took the time to have a short chat to people who had waited to see him for a signature.
As I was manning the signing table for the BIS, I got to see first hand the massive range of space related items that people had brought for Al to sign. Some of the more notable items included, a moon globe, a huge mission logo, the original prayer sheets from the recovery ship’s chaplain and even some exceptionally rare Alan Bean artwork.

Whilst Al’s talk and signing provided the main focus for the evening, a number of other tables and displays had been set up.
The BIS had set up a great stand of information and merchandise in the foyer to the main hall and signing room. The display also included a superb array of space related auction and raffle items all kindly commissioned and donated for the event.
Nick Howes, of Aerolite Europe, had a great display of meteorites and kindly donated all of his profits from the event to Children in Need.

After quite a few people had left and Al had been backwards and forwards a couple of times for various photoshoots, he returned finally to the signing table. What came next was a testament to kind and generous nature of a true gent.
One of the guys who had been waiting quite a while for Al to return in order to get a signed copy of his book, finally got his chance and asked Al a question about his piloting of the command module during re-entry. As Al began to speak, more people gathered round to listen to another smaller and more intimate talk. Complete by diagrams on a scrap of paper, Al explained the intricacies of re-entry. He explained to the assembled dozen of us how the 3 degree variation away from perpendicular was enough to allow the CM to skip through the atmosphere and how by firing the thrusters to effectively roll the CM left or right would change the orientation sufficiently to “steer” it.
Fascinating and such a privilege!

With final books and pictures signed and a pint of fine English ale drunk (by Al), the event finally concluded.
I think it’s fair to say that there cannot have been a single person who left disappointed after such a great night.

A big thanks go out to the British Interplanetary Society for hosting such a great event and especially to Vix Southgate for co-ordinating and organising it all.

Scientific Heritage and WW2 Legacy – A Visit to RAF Stenigot

The old RAF Stenigot base is set high up in the Lincolnshire Wolds and is a site I had been meaning to visit for a long time.
The site began with the large Radar mast (now a grade 2 listed structure) that was part of the Chain Home network of early warning radar installations dotted all around the country. Chain Home (often shortened to CH) was the codename for the system designed to protect Great Britain from the threats posed by Luftwaffe (Luftflotte 5 in particular) during WW2.


After the war had ended, the site was retained and further developed. In the 1950s, a number of large tropospheric scatter dishes were installed as part of the N.A.T.O. ACE High communications system, receiving the designation UBIZ – Stenigot.

The ACE High system used tropospheric scatter (also known as troposcatter) which is a method of communicating using microwave radio signals transmitted over considerable distances (often up to 300 km) by effectively ‘bouncing’ the signal off the upper troposphere. In reality, this signal back scatter is caused by the refraction of transmitted radio waves in the upper (and more turbulent) parts of the troposphere resulting in only a small amount of the original signal strength being received.

The RAF Stenigot base closed in 1988 and by the mid 90s had nearly all been demolished.
The radar tower is a grade 2 listed structure (thankfully) and is still used by the RAF aerial erector school (now based at RAF Digby) to select potential new recruits.

The ACE High dishes now sit forlornly towards the edge of a nearby field. I felt somewhat saddened by this. I would have been incredible to see the site when it was still complete.

The selection of images below show the dishes and radar tower as they are today but even in their degraded state they still hold a certain appeal and stand (a now silent) testament to the scientific achievements of the past.

Fallen giants.


My son sitting in the centre of one of the dishes.


The rear of the dishes showing the supporting structure.









The abandoned dishes seen from a distance.


The ACE High dishes as they would have looked. Photo © D. Farrant

The tropospheric scatter dishes as they would have looked. Photo © D. Farrant

Rosetta and Philae – The afterglow of “that day”.

In a previous post I asked the question if Rosetta and Philae would rekindle the public’s imagination, like comet ISON had done previously.

Well …..blimey !!!!

The answer I’m completely happy to say …. is an unequivocal YES !!!

The first peak in excitement came with Philae’s inital release and start of its journey down to the comets surface. Pictures release later showed a wonderful image (captured with Rosetta’s OSIRIS camera) of the fully deployed Philae lander beginning its descent to the surface.


Set to be a future iconic image ….Philae just after departing Rosetta imaged by Rosetta’s OSIRIS camera.

From then on, the tension just ramped up and up.
So many questions for us all to grip our collective chair arms and repeatedly refresh our twitter feeds for …

  • did it land and whether or not it was successful?
  • did the harpoons fire?
  • did the ice screws in the feet grip the surface?

Then a little later, with many theories expounded, alternate hypotheses proposed and conjecture from all angles we found out our favourite little lander had bounced……not just once, but twice!


Philae’s bounce after landing and subsequent resting place. Image courtesy ESA.


By this point, the social media world had gone bonkers. My own twitter feed looked like the London stock exchange ticker and I could barely keep up with the volume of posts.
I was elated.
Not just because they had accomplished “something wonderful” (to paraphrase Dave Bowman from 2001!) by managed to successfully “soft-land” a probe on the surface of a comet 300,000,000 km from earth but that the whole world was sitting up and not only taking notice but joining in and celebrating the landmark scientific success.

Just about every major news broadcast carried the landing as its lead story – just wonderful.

Eventually its was discovered that Philae had settled (at the end of its second bounce) in a shaded area of the comets surface, next to a rock wall. Limited battery life, experimental processes, streaming data and the lack of sunlight to charge the lander via the solar arrays led to the inevitable end that everyone had been dreading. The apparent “death” of little Philae. Sad to watch but expertly managed by the team at ESOC, the bittersweet moment arrived where battery charge was exhausted and Philae went into stasis – all systems powered down into standby or “idle mode”.

What a rollercoater ride!

And according to the ESA Rosetta project director, it might not be over yet !
It has been suggested that as the comet gets closer to the sun, there is a chance that little Philae may yet awaken as more sunlight falls upon is solar panels.
Only time will tell and for now its down to the scientists to process the amazing amount of data gathered by the lander in its short active period on the surface.

But what now? ….is there more? ….what comes next?
Is there a legacy of such a marvellous achievement that can be built on?
I believe most strongly that the answer is YES!
I really hope that the afterglow of such an amazing project is long lasting and bears fruit in the form of further and sustained interest in not only space but in the wider arena of STEM related subjects.

Comets Comets Comets – Will Rosetta & Philae recapture the public’s imagination?

Last year, at the very end of November, the world of space and science revelled in the spotlight for a while as comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) passed close to earth, passing round the sun, only to disappear in a few lingering wisps of cometary debris.


Comet ISON’s pass round the Sun.

During this perihelion pass, I (like many others) was glued to a multitude of scientific newsfeeds from NASA, ESA and other users in my own twitter feed. For the self-confessed astrogeek in me, no Hollywood blockbuster even came close to the will it or won’t it debate!

For a short period of time comet ISON captured the imagination of the world’s media, both social and mainstream, and gave a huge boost to the place of science in pop culture.
This was however, shortlived (as usual) and science soon returned to its comfortable old armchair at the back of the hall.

But there’s a newcomer on the horizon! Another opportunity for science (and space in particular) to be thrust back into the limelight, and it comes in the form of a well travelled space probe called Rosetta.


Artists impression of the Rosetta spacecraft.

Launched in March 2004 aboard an Ariane V, the Rosetta mission has taken over 10 years to reach its goal – another comet!
This one, called 67P/C-G (Churyumov–Gerasimenko), is a large icy rock that completes its eliptical orbit of the sun once every 6.45 years.

After it’s incredible journey into the outer solars system, Rosetta reached the comet on 6th August 2014, becoming the first spacecraft to go into orbit around a comet.


Close up detail of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.

Lets just take a moment here to let this sink in …… we’ve successfully managed to launch a space probe, guided it to perform four gravity assist manoeuvres (around earth three times and Mars once) to gather enough speed, precisely calculate the position of a lump of rock and ice in the vastness of space, wake the space probe after ten years in sleep mode, in order to not only greet the comet at over 600 million km from earth but enter into orbit with the nucleus at a distance of just 30km!
Thats just incredible!
Absolutely incredible!

But the best is yet to come.

Scheduled for the 12th November, the second part of the Rosetta mission gets underway and involves a passenger that Rosetta has carried on its epic journey. No a passenger in the form of a person but a small robotic lander called Philae. This will detach itself from the main body of the spaceprobe and, if all goes well, achieve something that has never been achieved before, a controlled decent and landing on a cometary surface.  WOW!


Artists impression in the detached lander “Philae” on approach to the comet’s surface.

Immediately after touchdown Philae will deploy harpoons to anchor itself to the cometary surface and commence a series of scientific experiements to look at the comet’s surface and sub-surface composition as well as the plasma and magnetic environments of the nucleus.

For some people,that will not be exciting at all.
For others (myself included) it will be an incredible feat of science and engineering and marks a spectacular acheivement in space exploration.

No mater into which camp you fall, I just hope that the mainstream media give this endeavour the attention it deserves.

Comet Tales – Exciting ISON

Now that all the excitement has died down a little, I felt it only right that poor old ISON got at least one blog post from me, to commemorate its passing.
I, like many others (my fellow astro-obsessed people), watched intently the journey of comet ISON over the last couple of weeks of November to today in early December, culminating at the very end of November (perihelion on the 28th) in ISON’s passage around the sun and thence to its final demise to naught but a wisp of dust and particles (although speculation still abounds!).


A time-lapse image of comet ISONs perihelion.

This information above probably comes as no great shock to anybody.
Anyone into space and astronomy was watching.
However ……
I feel I have to comment on the unpresidented activity that ISON’s slingshot round the sun caused. I for one was glued to my twitter feed, the helioviewer website and the NASA and ESA feeds of LASCO, SOHO and STEREO data.
It was joyous to behold !
….. but not because of ISON itself but of what it caused. The huge level of interest in this space based phenomena. A surge of tweets and posts, as so many like-minded science lovers looked on, and speculated, postulated and discussed.
But it became more than just the science community, for a time ISON entered the domain of the common man and sought to complete almost as a celebrity. It was trending on twitter, discussed on local radio stations and given plenty of attention in the national media and television.
How wonderful that science could be brought to the fore and engage so many people by the travel of a lump of icy rock that began its journey from the very farthest reaches of our solar system over a million years ago.

C/2012 S1 (ISON) ….. I salute you !

Top Ten Astrophysics Misconceptions Explained

This post is born out of a conversation between students during a lecture on the life cycle of stars and harvests many comments gathered over years working in schools and colleges. Some of the list also came from suggestions made by friends on Twitter. It’s by no means a definitive list, just the top ten I picked.

They say that “kids say the funniest things” but that’s not always true. When it comes to common misconceptions about space and astrophysics, it’s just as likely to be the adults 🙂

So here we go on a countdown of the top ten.

No. 10 – Planetary Nebulas make planets.


The Crab Nebula

Our first misconception (and the one that started it all off). A planetary nebula is the remnant of a star that, at the end of its life, has burned all of its fuel and shed or pushed off its outer layers. The rest of the star then collapses inward leaving a small dense core called a white dwarf star. During this process, strong stellar winds drive the expanding gasses and this coupled with large amounts of emitted ultraviolet radiation, cause the clouds of gas and dust to glow. Initially called “planetary” nebulae by early astronomers (namely William Herschel), thinking their round appearance resembled the recently discovered planet Uranus.
The emitted material from these nebulae will eventually spread across space until it mixes with other stellar matter and once more begins to clump together initiating the formation of other stars.

No. 9 – “Empty” Space

Another one I reckon just about everyone will have heard. “Space is a vacuum and the gap between planets and stars contains nothing”.
Wrong again I’m afraid. Although it doesn’t contain very much, space is not empty. Scientists have now realised that every square metre of “space” contains at least a few atoms of matter – primarily a plasma of hydrogen and helium as well as varying quantities of the ubiquitous neutrino. However, the story does not stop there as many cosmologists are now looking at the possibilities of dark matter and dark energy to fill these spaces, that could account for as much as 80% of the mass-energy of the universe !

No. 8 – Black Holes part I – Travelling through and out of the other end.

Hollywood has a lot to answer for when it comes to space misconceptions and this is one of them. If you’ve seen the Disney film “The Black Hole” or more recently “Interstallar”, then you know what I’m talking about. However, contrary to sci-fi film makers predictions, space travel through a black hole is not possible ……. well not yet anyway. The matter shredding tidal forces and infinite density of the singularity at the centre of a black hole would merely add any object’s mass to the mass of the black hole, effectively destroying it in the process.
However, I felt I ought to qualify the “not yet” part with additional explanation. There are some recently floated theories and papers dealing with principles that may yet yield results in the field of black hole travel, although the commonly held opinion is that these theories still currently sit firmly in the realm of science fiction.

No. 7 – Saturn’s rings.
(suggested by @SaturnSheila)


A picture of Saturn taken by the Cassini orbiter.

There are two common misconceptions about the ring system of the solar system’s second largest planet. The first is that the rings are made of rocks. They are not! Although this is the most common answer given when asking people what they think Saturn’s ring are made from. In reality, 99% of the ring material is ice. It is this fact that allows us to get such a good view of the rings, as the ice is very good at reflecting the sun’s light. Each ring is made of chunks of ice ranging in size from about a millimetre to over ten metres in length. Each of the rings can be as thin as three metres in depth to over a kilometre.
The second misconception is that the rings have gaps in them where there is an absence of ring material. However, it just seems that way to the observer. In reality, all the rings have varying densities and even the bands that appear to us as gaps are actually populated with ice, just at a very low density.

No. 6 – The moon shines or gives out light.
(suggested by @DrLucyRogers)

Quite a common misconception this one. A lot of people gaze up at earth’s natural satellite and see how bright it is in the sky without actually realizing that what they are actually seeing is reflected sunlight – and not very much of it at that !!! moon2A surprising fact about the moon is that it only reflects approximately 12% of the light that hits it from the sun. This is primarily due to the fact that the moon is essentially a large lump of dull grey rock. That last bit is probably a disservice to the moon as I’m sure we all agree it can be breathtakingly beautiful when showing us different phases and during the differing metereological conditions of the changing seasons.
Beautiful as it can be, it doesn’t change the fact that the moon is not a “luminous” object . It emits no light of its own!

No. 5 – The Far side of the Moon – “Doesn’t the moon rotate?

The second of our lunar based misconceptions checks in at number 5 in our top ten.
So to what are we referring when we say “the far side of the moon”.
Well …. seen from the earth the moon does not appear to rotate as we see the same part of the moon all year round. This led to the misconception that the moon doesn’t rotate.
Fortunately, it does. The effect is caused by a phenomenon called tidal locking in which the tidal forces of the earth have altered the rotation of the moon causing the time taken for the moon to rotate once to be the same length of time as it takes the moon to complete one orbit of the earth. The result of this is the fact we only ever see the same bit of the moon even though it is rotating.
Numerous conspiracy theories existed concerning the far side of the moon but were mostly debunked in the late 60s early 70s after numerous missions from both Russia and the US returned high resolution imagery of the far side.

No. 4 – Black Holes part II – “Nothing escapes the pull of a black hole, not even light.”
(The “Cosmic Vacuum Cleaner” analogy)

Well …… thats partially true but we’ll still deal with it as a misconception. It is true that once the event horizon is breached, not even light can escape from falling into the physics defying, matter crushing, depths of the space-time singularity in the black hole’s centre. The story does not end there however as there are a couple of other factors that we need to consider.


An artist’s rendition of the Cygnus X1 black hole showing polar jets and the accretion disk pulling material off the nearby blue supergiant HDE 226868.

Jets! – Not the baseball team, not even the fast moving aircraft either. These jets are “Relativistic Jets”. These occur at the poles of the black hole throwing plasma thousands of light years in to space and are thought to form due to the complex dynamics of the twisting magnetic fields and super high temperatures of the accretion disk focusing these beams along the rotation axis of the black hole (see pic). Realistically, we perhaps shouldn’t really consider these being emitted from the black hole itself though.
The other thing that escapes a black hole is something called Hawking Radiation. Not for the scientifically feint-hearted, this quantum effect relates (in incredibly over-simplified terms) to the escape (therefore emission) of one half of a virtual ‘particle / anti-particle’ pair formed just above the event horizon and brought into being by the black hole’s massive gravitation.

No. 3 – “Its hotter in July because the earth is closer to the sun.”
(suggested by @DrLucyRogers)

The notion that the whole earth moves closer to the sun in summer is a fallacy. The four seasons (no, not the hotel :)) are driven by the fact the the earth’s axis is off vertical by 23.4 degrees.
This slant causes different parts of the earth to be closer to the sun at various times of the year, giving us our seasons. During July, the Northern Hemisphere of the earth tilts towards the sun giving us our summer and away from the sun in December giving us the cold weather of winter. Unsurprisingly, the opposite is true for the Southern Hemisphere who have their winter in July and summer in December.

No. 2 – A comet’s tail always trails out behind it showing where it’s come from.


Comet Hale Bopp showing two distinctive tails.

Wrong again but this is a very common misconception, hence it’s high ranking here at number 2 on the top ten. A comet is comprised on a solid ball of rock and ice and is a leftover piece of “stuff” from the earliest times in the formation of the solar system. Thought to originate in the Oort Cloud on the very edges of our solar system, they tend to have very large elliptical orbits around the sun. At the furthest distances from the sun the comets is just a fast moving icy rock.
When the comet begins its approach towards the sun, solar radiation causes vaporisation in this nucleus resulting in the ejection of dust and gas forming a glowing cloud around the nucleus, called the “coma”. As the comet closes the distance to the sun the tail forms. Comets usually have two tails and not one as many people think. Both tails are expelled from the comets nucleus by the solar wind. The first tail, the ion tail (type I tail), is a jet of ionised particles that always points directly away from the sun. The other tail, the dust tail (type II tail), isn’t as strongly affected by the solar wind and so curves back somewhat, toward the comet’s path.
If we think now about the comet having already gone round the sun and starting its long journey back to the edges of the solar system, the tail (still stretching directly away from the sun) will be in front of it! – although constantly reducing as time passes and the comet gets further from the sun.

No. 1 – There is zero gravity in space!
(suggested by @Rebecca_George and many many students over the years!)

Here it is. The final misconception in our top ten. In number one position – “Once you get into space there is zero gravity!”

Many people looking at the astronaut in the picture could be forgiven for thinking this is true but that’s why it’s number one in the list. Its completely false! (but a little difficult to explain simply)

Gravity exists between all objects with mass.

Although gravity is the weakest of the fundamental forces (the others being electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces) the masses of objects involved, at least on a cosmic scale, are gigantic and consequently the effects of gravity are far reaching – holding the planets in orbit around the sun, the satellites in orbit around the earth and it can recall comets from the farthest reaches of the solar system.


NASA astronaut undertakes EVA.

With this in mind and looking again at the astronaut in the picture – ask yourself …… is he really in zero gravity ??

The obvious question now becomes why does he look and behave “like” he’s in zero gravity ?? Well, we’re back to mass again and the confusion between the terms zero gravity and weightlessness.
The astronaut is, of course still, affected by the force of gravity. Its just that he has no point of reference, no counter force (like the ground beneath his feet), to give him the impression of weight – hence he feels weightless.
Weightlessness is a bit or a misnomer and should be more correctly termed microgravity. The astronaut is not actually weightless, because the Earth’s gravity is holding him and his spacecraft in orbit. He is actually in a state of free-fall, much like jumping from an airplane except that he is moving so fast horizontally (about 5 miles per second or 8 kilometers per second) that, as he falls, he never touches the ground because the Earth curves away from him.

And there we have it, ten of the best space based misconceptions.
All comments / views / discussion welcome 🙂

New Boson Discovered – Anyone remember ?? (Pssst ….. it was called Higgs!)

Where were you the day they announced the new discovery??
Will you remember in ten years time?
Can you even remember now ?

Don’t forget this only happened ten months ago !
A big part of me can’t quite believe just how quickly it’s all calmed down again.
(Or was everyone just waiting for the end of the world …………. again! and even that’s now done and gone!)

For such a long awaited and much anticipated discovery….. where’s the follow up?
What has that gained us?

The sad thing is some of us know what the follow up has been but the vast majority of people out there neither know nor care.
If its not about celebrity cooking skating dancing or factor X wannabes, the majority are uninterested.
The science news just doesn’t really get the exposure it ought to. Fact and such a great shame!

The Higgs Field – Fact, Fiction or Football?

Update …. I really should finish a post in better time. Its been nearly a week since England lost to Italy at the football and I can hear the final (Italy vs Spain) on the telly, so please forgive my delay in getting this post out.

After the fuorre surrounding the press release given by the joint CMS and ATLAS teams at CERN last December, I thought I might take a short time to let things calm down a bit before I commented. Although a fair bit longer than I had anticipated waiting, it now seems that the dust has settled, so i thought I’d just have a quick look over the posted results and offer up my 2p worth. This is just before the upcoming ICHEP 2012 conference, which will undoubtedly see the dust well and truly stirred up again and set the cat amongst the pigeons (or at very least, set the world of the quantum spectator ‘flapping’ yet again).
The long and short of the last conference is that although the Higgs could not yet be confirmed, the main two ‘Higgsy’ experiments at the LHC, CMS and ATLAS, had closed the gap in the energy spectrum for where the Higgs can’t be. With the shrinking of the mass availability window to 110 to 145MeV the probability of successfully finding this elusive boson must surely be shrinking too??? It really is running out of hiding places !!!!
One glimmer of hope is the “spike” at approx 125GeV. This increased probability point has been independently seen by both of the main experiments and I guess the last six months furious data collection and analysis by the teams at ALTAS and CMS might (or might not) be further confirmed at the ICHEP conference in 3 days time.

Without the Higgs particle and it’s associated Higgs field, the standard model of particle physics starts to look a bit nervous.

I guess before we go too much further I ought to explain just exactly what a Higgs field is? I can’t really do that without talking about the much talked about (and often misunderstood or misquoted) “Higgs boson”.

I’ll try and keep it as simple as possible (for my own sake as much as anyone else I suspect!).
The Higgs boson or Higgs particle is the theorised member of the group of subatomic particles called bosons. I guess you might have read some of my other posts so you’ll know what a boson is. For those that don’t, a boson is the subatomic particle that carries or mediates a force or quality. In the case of the Higgs, this is mass. The standard model theorises that just as the photon is the carrier for the electromagnetic force, the gluon for the strong nuclear force and the W and Z bosons carry the weak force – there must be a subatomic particle that gives all the hadrons mass. This is what the Higgs does – in theory!
So whats this Higgs field ………? Well, putting aside explanations about SU(2) symmetry breaking etc the simplest explanation is that the Higgs field is a quantum effect that permeates everything. As a particle travels through this field it acquires (inertial) mass. The method by which things gain their mass from Higgs field is called the Higgs mechanism. Lastly, since Higgs is a quantum field it must also have a particle associated with it…….. and there we are back to the Higgs boson.

It is however, proving to be remarkably elusive! But as previously stated …….. without this missing link, the standard model of particle physics starts to fall down as there is nothing to explain the mechanism for why things have mass.
There are a number of problems facing experimental physics in search of the Higgs. The first is that it cannot be directly seen or detected. The only way to mark its discovery is to look for statistically significant events in the the decay remnants of high speed (and therefore high energy) proton/proton collisions, such as those at the LHC at CERN. The best indication of detection is the production of two high energy photons. Alas, This is also the rarest.
It is also very very short lived – somewhere in the region of 10-12 seconds. Lastly, even the mighty LHC produces only very small amounts of these bosons, completing the difficulty of detection.

With this in mind it seems almost a competition between the two experiments (ATLAS and LMS) at CERN to see who, if either, will get a glimpse of the Higgs first.

So….. to go back to the original question of whether the Higgs Field is fact or fiction, the answer is …… we’ll all just have to wait and see. In the mean time, as we’re just about to see the end of Euro 2012, I’ll stop pondering this and get back to the football !!!! 🙂

Hope for the future – geniuses in our midst!

Although that might sound like a mysterious way to start a post, don’t worry. Its not. I’ll say instead that it’s positive and encouraging.
I have spent the last week in a primary school looking at the next crop of Britain’s would be scientists, politicians, lawyers, farmers, doctors, till operators and benefit acceptees. A very diverse range of 7 to 11 year olds! And yes, I’ll freely admit that to give pupils arbitrary labels (as above) at such as young age is wrong. However, the realist in me says that from within any such group of youngsters, there will inevitably be a spread of life outcomes.

However, during this week of science enrichment and observations, I had the privilege to sit next to a nine (nearly ten) year old boy who was shortly to be put in for a maths GCSE. This, I was informed, was only going to happen as he would get an A* and anything less would disappoint. Pushy parents aside, I was so impressed that a nine year old could grasp a level of mathematics that 99% of the populous would still need an additional 4 to 5 years minimum, of schooling before being ready for that level qualification that I then began to imagine what this young man, sitting quietly next to me on a laptop, might be capable of as he nears adulthood. What might he accomplish, what goals would he have and in what direction might his, love of and aptitude for maths, take him?

A flight of fancy, I know, but could I have been sat next to the next Feynman???
Who knows?! ……. but how often can anyone say that have sat next to a potential genius?

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