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We wanted consultation....

Today is the deadline for contributions to the Ground Based Facilities Review. This is an important means by which us ordinary working astronomers in the community can tell the powers that be, via the GBFR committee, which facilities are the most important to the science that we currently do, and the science we are hoping to do over the next decade. This helps them set the priorities with the budget that they have. Yes, we'd all like to have everything funded, but there just isn't enough cash to go around and, sadly, this is a situation that isn't likely to change any time soon.

Now, admittedly, it's not the best survey I've ever seen, but at least it's a consultation. After the debacle of 2008 it's nice to see a bit of change along these lines, so it's very worrying to me that out of the entire population of UK-based astronomers, they have still only received 337 responses as of yesterday (see Monica Grady's comment on Andy Lawrence's blog). One of those responses is mine - and I'm not even in the UK. Given how many UK-based astronomers there are (a large number of whom regularly turn up to National Astronomy Meetings), I'm absolutely amazed at the lacklustre response to this. Flabergasted is probably a better word.

We were the ones up in arms over decisions taken without consultation (Gemini, anyone?), so now's your chance. Go read the documents and fill in the form. It's a few hours out of your research time, but if you want access to your favourite facility to continue being funded then you'd be daft not to.

And if you've decided not to contribute, I'd be genuinely curious why not.

Posted by Megan on Friday 31st Jul 2009 (05:04 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

What's in the southern sky - August 2009

For the last few months, I've been writing a short contribution to the Scouts WA newsletter on what's in the sky for the month ahead. Here's the piece for August. Times are correct for Perth.

August sees the days continue to lengthen with the Sun rising at 6.35am and setting by 5.59pm by the end of the month. The Moon is full on August 6th and New Moon this month is on the 20th. Jupiter is visible all night and will be the brightest object, after the Moon. Rising in the East in the early evening, it passes very high overhead from Perth and will be hard to miss. If you are up early on August 7th, you will be able to see Jupiter just three degrees from the almost full Moon.

Discovery image of the impact on JupiterDiscovery image of the impact on<br /><br />Jupiter
Left: Discovery image of the impact on Jupiter.  CREDIT: Anthony Wesley. Right: Hubble image of the impact scar from the newly installed Wide Field Camera 3. CREDIT: NASA / ESA.

Jupiter was hit by an object during July, leaving a visible scar on its thick atmosphere. The impact was discovered by Anthony Wesley, an amateur astronomer in New South Wales, who noticed a new black mark on the planet through his backyard telescope. News of the event spread quickly around the world and several large telescopes were used to observe the planet over the following days. The newly upgraded Hubble Space Telescope has also imaged the impact site using the newly installed Wide Field Camera 3 which is working beautifully.

Saturn is still visible in the western sky during early evening twilight, although it is setting earlier each night, setting at 7pm by the end of the month. The elusive planet Mercury will also be visible in the early evening sky towards the end of the month. The best time to look will be a few days either side of the 16th (when Saturn and Mercury are close together in the West after sunset: Saturn will be the brighter of the two), and the 22nd (when Mercury will be close to a very thin crescent Moon). Have a look with binoculars if you can, BUT WAIT UNTIL THE SUN HAS SET BEFORE USING THEM! The Sun will blind you easily, so never look at the Sun through any kind of optical aid.

Mars will be visible in the early morning sky, halfway between Venus and the Seven Sisters (also known as the Pleiades cluster). Sadly, it will look no bigger than usual, despite the email hoax going around. You may recently have received an email saying that Mars is going to appear as big as the full moon in August. Don't believe it! This rumour has been going around since 2003 and is sadly just not true. In August 2003, Mars was at its closest to Earth for several thousand years and, while it was brighter than normal in the sky, it was still a very long way from us (more than 55 million kilometers) so a reasonable telescope was needed to see any details on the surface. All the planets travel in circles around the Sun. Mars is further from the Sun than the Earth is, so every few years we overtake it as we go around the Sun, and this is when the two planets are closest to each other. This will happen next on 29 January 2010 when we will still be almost 100 million kilometers from Mars. If you get an email with a powerpoint presentation about this, then please delete it!

Posted by Megan on Saturday 25th Jul 2009 (14:03 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

Ubuntu hassles

Linux is great, don't get me wrong, but I hate upgrading. Every single time I try it, things go wrong and I waste a ridiculous amount of time trying to get everything up and running again. The first time I upgraded (from Redhat 5.1 to 5.3) was an education. It broke just about everything and took me weeks to get a functioning system back together. I was pretty new to computers at the time, never mind linux and kernels and compiling packages, so I did learn a lot.

Recently, my computer had started to fall over. I installed Linux on it when I bought it, and never upgraded, so things were starting to complain. It was time to sort out the problem. So, here we are again. I finally had a free weekend, so I bought an external disk, did a backup and prepared to do a new install. I've finally gone from Fedora Core 3 (yes, I know) to Ubuntu 9.04 by wiping the install partition and starting again. I thought that things might go a bit smoother this time, given the amount of development going on and the much larger user community. Wishful thinking.

The first obvious problem was that there were no desktop icons, and nautilus wouldn't run. When trying to invoke it from the command line, I got a "GLib-ERROR", which turned out to be caused by having a CD in the drive! Talk about bizarre. One (kludgy) fix suggested in the forums was this:

    sudo chmod a-r /usr/lib/nautilus/extensions-2.0/libnautilus-brasero-extension.so

which did the trick.

Then I had sound problems - output seemed ok, but the mic wouldn't work. This is rather annoying, since one reason for upgrading was to get Skype running again. I had been using an old version which had been fine, until Skype changed something and I could no longer log in with the old client. Playing around with the advice from a guy called Mark eventually fixed this one.

Then I discovered that I couldn't play DVDs, the playback was really choppy and kept jumping quite badly, making it pretty much unwatchable. The fix for this was the following two commands:
    sudo apt-get install libdvdread4
sudo /usr/share/doc/libdvdread4/install-css.sh

found on the Ubuntu website. Hurrah - I can watch Red Dwarf again! This was a big problem - Australian TV is pretty rubbish.

But, I still can't get the webcam running. After some investigation, it seems that this might be a conflict with the TV card so the only solution I have at the moment is to open up the box and remove the card. Frankly, I can't be bothered, it's just not that important right now. Maybe a later update will fix it.

So a lot of problems, but a lot of fixes. It's taken most of a weekend so far. I'm not impressed.

Posted by Megan on Sunday 19th Jul 2009 (04:12 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

Apollo 40

Forty years ago, Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. While Michael Collins watched from orbit in the command module, Armstrong and Aldrin touched down on the surface, becoming the first of twelve people to date to walk on the surface of another world. However you look at it, it was an incredible feat of engineering. Wish I'd been there to see it.

Some people still refuse to acknowledge that this really happened of course. Many, many people have spent considerable time debunking the "it was all shot in a lot in Nevada" myth, notably Phil Plait (the Bad Astronomer), but there are still a noisy crowd of people who refuse to see the facts, still believe it was all a set up. Finally, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has taken pictures of the Apollo landing sites and they were released this week to coincide with the 40th anniversary. Check them out, they're pretty spectacular.

Apollo 14 landing site
Apollo 14 landing site as seen by the LRO CREDIT: LRO/NASA

While we're on the subject of Apollo, if you happen to have a lunar module lying around in your garage that you just can't fix, don't bother taking it down the garage as you can now fix it yourself with this handy Haynes manual. Awesome.

Posted by Megan on Saturday 18th Jul 2009 (12:35 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

In print

On the breakaway
On the breakaway CREDIT: Megan
Occasionally I've had letters or comments printed in astronomy magazines, and I still write for Macc Astro's journal when I get the time, but I was really pleased to see one of my photographs in print this week. It's odd, seeing your stuff printed, but it's pretty awesome that someone thinks it's worth using (even nicer when they ask you first though...). The photo in question (on the left) was taken up at Boolardy on the Ilgarijiri trip and has been used as the header image for an article on the project in State of the Future magazine, published by the Government of Western Australia's Department of Commerce.

Actually, it seems that some of my photos have been doing the rounds recently. They've apparently also shown up in an article in SCIOS (the journal of the Science Teachers Association of Western Australia) as well, although I'm not a member so, frustratingly, I don't actually have a copy. One of my photos was used as the background for the Ilgarijiri exhibition invitations, and was printed out and hung on the wall in the gallery alongside the panel describing the exhibition. Faculty PR have asked for copies of photos I took of the art in the gallery for use in their press releases and promotion when the exhibition comes to Perth later in the year, and the digital media unit are using a whole bunch of them as well. It's always nice when things you do are appreciated! I wonder where else they will show up...

Posted by Megan on Friday 17th Jul 2009 (10:59 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

Skills camp

Last weekend was a skills camp for Scouts in WA. We spent the weekend training more than 60 Scouts in skills such as knots, lashings, general camp skills, backwoods cooking and navigation. Then we got them up at 5am on Sunday and challenged each patrol to find their breakfast by following a compass trail through the bush in the dark! They all managed it (much to my relief - I taught them the navigation skills!), and then had to learn how to light a fire using damp wood.

On Saturday morning, I got up well before sunrise so that I could take some pictures of Venus and Mars. They are close on the sky at the moment, and at the weekend were directly between the Pleiades and the Hyades. In this photo, the Pleiades is on the left (upside down, remember!), Mars is above. Venus is the bright object near the centre, and the Hyades cluster in Taurus is to the right.

Venus and Mars between the Pleiades and Hyades
Venus and Mars between the Pleiades and Hyades CREDIT: Megan

There was also a campfire on Saturday night. As well as setting the fire (with the help of Womble), I ended up leading one half of "There's a Hole in my Bucket", and teaching everyone "Waddly Acha". After the campfire, I got some of the Scouts to create some more light paintings.

Campfire songsTorchlightsTorchlightsBreakfast
Left to right: Campfire circle, torchlight paintings, Sunday breakfast CREDIT: Megan

Posted by Megan on Tuesday 14th Jul 2009 (13:57 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

Ilgarijiri and Boolardy

Some photos from the last trip to Boolardy to talk to the MSOTA kids. The first lot are from the Ilgarijiri exhibition currently in Geraldton - art that was inspired by a previous trip to Mullewa and Boolardy with a group of indigenous artists. There were almost sixty pieces in the exhibition, with more on display in a local cafe on the sea front. There is a mixture of traditional and modern techniques, and some pretty impressive pieces. The exhibition runs until September when it moves to the new Chemistry precint at Curtin Uni in Perth.

Ilgarijiri exhibitionIlgarijiri exhibitionIlgarijiri exhibitionIlgarijiri exhibition
Various views of the Ilgarijiri ("things belonging to the sky") exhibition in Geraldton CREDIT: Megan / Yamatji Arts

While we were there, Tim and I had a quick run up to the MWA/ASKAP site while waiting for the Sun to set. The goats don't seem to mind the alien-like MWA tiles littered around on the ground, but they didn't seem too happy about a couple of monkeys wandering around the place.

Lunch at TalleringAn MWA tileGoats on the breakaway
Left to right: Lunch at Tallering station, an MWA tile at Boolardy, goats on the breakaway CREDIT: Megan

Posted by Megan on Tuesday 14th Jul 2009 (13:18 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

European travels

Last month I went to the Panoramic Radio Astronomy conference held in the Dutch town of Groningen. It was a really interesting meeting with lots of talks describing exciting surveys planned for the radio telescopes which are either coming on line or planned for the next couple of decades. A lot of the talks were on neutral hydrogen surveys, but there were three on hydroxyl (in a session jokingly title "OH: the other emission line"), including mine. After the meeting, I went to England for two weeks to see the folks and catch up with the guys back at Jodrell.

While I was back at Jodrell, I spent some time doing some work on M82 which, after 20 years of not doing much, went bang twice just after my PhD supervisor retired - one of the objects we're studying is turning out to be very interesting indeed... but more on that at a later date. I spent a couple of days in Manchester too. On one day I was there I attended a CASA workshop run in the new UK ALMA centre. It was interesting stuff, quite different to AIPS, and we managed to break it in several different ways! It will take a bit of getting used to I think.

The broken wheel
The broken wheel CREDIT: Megan

I spent a fair bit of time at the observatory, including some time talking to random visitors in the Visitor Centre (I can't help it!). Sadly, the telescope was parked while I was there due to another broken wheel - the third one to break in the last few years. The engineers had removed the wheel before I arrived, so the telescope was stuck. On one day I was there, the new first year PhD students turned up for a tour of the telescope. I happened to be in the control room at the time, and ended up taking a group up! I did wonder what the rules were on non-staff taking students up, but nobody seemed to care... It was good fun, quite a while since I'd been up the scope. Given I'd already destroyed the computer running the meteor experiment that week, I'm surprised Taff let me have the keys!

The new eMERLIN correlatorThe Lovell focus towerStudents in the bowl
Left to right: the Lovell focus tower, the new eMERLIN correlator in its temporary home, students in the bowl of the Lovell telescope CREDIT: Megan

I stuck my nose in the door of the room currently housing the funky new eMERLIN correlator as well. There has been a proper air-conditioned room constructed for it, but for the moment it's sat in one of the old library offices with portable air conditioners keeping it cool. The upgrade to eMERLIN brings a huge increase in data rate: the old system used a 32 MHz link, the new system uses a high-speed fibre link resulting in over 200 Gb/s at the correlator. The old correlator just can't cope with those sort of data rates, so a new one was constructed by the group in Penticton who are also building the EVLA correlator. The upgrades will result in an enourmous increase in continuum sensitivity, and MERLIN will actually be capable of snapshot imaging for the first time.

Posted by Megan on Wednesday 08th Jul 2009 (14:12 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

Outback Outreach (part three!)

I've just got back from my third trip out to the Murchison region of WA. It was also the third time I've been up there to do public outreach - far more than I'd imagined when I took this job! I was hoping to visit the proposed site for the SKA once (if I was lucky) while I was here, even if I had to take a holiday to do it, but despite the region having a very low population density, I've done three trips up there to do public outreach in less than a year.

The first was to visit the school at the remote Aboriginal community of Pia Wadjarri, the second was with a group of Aboriginal artists who were working on pieces for an astronomy-themed exhibition. This one was to run an observing evening for the Meekatharra School of the Air kids who were camping at Boolardy station. Because the population is so sparse up there, the kids are taught over the airwaves until they go off to secondary school. Several times a year, they all get together in one place and have a camp.

It was a long way to go for one evening, but it was worth it. The kids were brilliant. They had some unusual questions, but I was expecting that. I guess they have a slightly different outlook on life than kids who go to school in Perth. Some of them knew quite a lot, so giving answers that everyone understood was something of a challenge.

This time I went up with Tim Colegate, a PhD student at CIRA. I picked up the 4x4 (a Toyota Prado) in the morning and (by the time we'd loaded everything) we set off for Geraldton sometime between 11am and noon. It rained a lot. They were short showers, but they were heavy and frequent. We got to Geraldton late afternoon and went for some food in town. Being a Monday, the place was rather quiet, but the little Italian place was open, so we ate in there.

We had a few errands to run in Gero on Tuesday morning, so we set off for Boolardy late morning. After all the recent rain, the dirt road north from Pindar was still open, but there were some big puddles. We arrived at Boolardy, with a pretty dirty 4x4, at about 3pm and met some of the kids before driving out to the telescope site for a quick nose around. We got back and the clouds still hadn't lifted, so we had to change the plans slightly. By the time dinner was over (two camp-oven stews created in a cook-off between two teams!), the clouds were patchy enough that it was worth getting out the 8-inch Dob (but not the motorised 5-inch as it would take too long to set up).

We split the group into two: half looked at the Moon through the Dob with Tim, while the others played with a radio receiver and MWA dipole with me, then swapped over. As there are no radio stations in the Murchison, we hooked up Tim's FM transmitter to an iPod and challenged the kids to find the signal! The clouds cleared enough to let everyone see Saturn by the end of the evening. Once the kids had gone to bed, it cleared up beautifully of course... so we showed the adults Jupiter which had just risen, and a whole bunch of Milky Way highlights, before packing up, finally, at 11pm.

Today we drove all the way back from Boolardy, skipping the detour to Geraldton this time as Marissa from MSOTA had offered to return the 8-inch for us. We left Boolardy at about 9am with some directions from Carolyn at Boolardy on the most efficient route back to Perth. It involved a lot of driving on dirt roads (great fun - and what 4x4's are actually meant for...) and a lot of small towns, but it was fun.

As we had more time than we would have if we'd gone via Geraldton, we took a short detour to New Norcia. The place was founded by Benedictine monks a couple of hundred years ago and has some buildings which are totally out of character with what you'd ecxpect in WA. It also has a tracking station, used to send commands and receive transmissions from spacecraft. So, being a geek, I stopped to take a photo. By the time we got back to Perth, Tim and I had driven more than 1500 km between us.

All in all, another great trip. And it's unlikely to be the last as we are planning to visit many more of the remote schools to run astronomy days like we did at Pia last year. I can't wait. It's so different up there, so quiet and peaceful. I feel more at home up there than I do in the city!

Posted by Megan on Wednesday 01st Jul 2009 (12:53 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

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