Sunday, 10 April 2016

Space Shuttle Streaming Through the Clouds

Over the past few weeks a lot of people having been forwarding me this image and asking if it's real...

In most cases it's claimed that this photo was taken from the International Space Station, of a space shuttle launching through the clouds, along with some comment on how small everything looks from outer space.

Is it real? Yes, mostly.

I've tracked down what I believe to be the original image and it's Space Shuttle Endeavour launching on May 16, 2011. As you can see below, the original photo doesn't have the same "small world" effect as the one above, which has also been further enhanced with some colour changes and sharpening.

Image source: NASA
Click the images for full-size versions.

There are several ways to achieve the "small world" effect. It can be done in-camera using a tilt-shift lens or (to some extent) simply by reducing the depth of field. In this case though the effect was obviously added afterwards by blurring parts of the image.

By the way, the photo wasn't taken from space, it was taken from a training aircraft that was observing the launch.

I haven't been able to trace the edited image to any particular source so I can't credit it (let me know if you can help with that) but it's a nice effort to be sure. Well done.

Here are a few more genuine examples of launches seen from above the clouds...

Space Shuttle Endeavour, 16th May 2011.
Credit: Lorrie "Bird" LeBlanc

Space Shuttle Endeavour, 16th May 2011.
Credit: Lorrie "Bird" LeBlanc

Atlas Rocket, September 2001.
Credit: Tech. Sgt. Rodney Jones/USAF

Space Shuttle Challenger, June 18th, 1983.
Credit: NASA

And my favourite... Delta II launch, June 7th 2007 (look closely in the background, below and to the right of the Sun):

Monday, 28 September 2015

NASA Announces Water on the Surface of Mars

NASA has made an announcement that's of great interest to planetary scientists and space enthusiasts: Evidence of liquid water on the surface of Mars. Until now the only place in the entire Universe that we've been able to find surface water is Earth. If there's water on Mars it has significant implications for the search for alien life. It's unlikely that there's any life associated with this particular water (for example, there's still lethal radiation to deal with), but it does make martian life slightly more likely than it seemed yesterday.

At the very least it makes Mars a more habitable environment than we previously thought, so it also has implications for colonizing the Red Planet.

It's important to understand that the latest evidence is indirect, meaning that we haven't actually seen it close-up or confirmed that it's really water. However the evidence is strong enough that we can be quite confident.

Also note that we've been accumulating evidence of martian water and ice for years, so today's news is a good incremental step forward in our understanding rather than a massive leap. I may seem a bit blasé compared to the breathless exhilaration being shown by some people, but that's just how I see it. Surface water is great but let's keep it in perspective. It's not a lake or river; at best it's a relatively small amount of liquid mixed up in the martian soil.

In any case, expect more evidence of water in the years to come.

Below:"Recurrent Slope Lineae", dark streaks that appear on the sides of craters and canyons. This is where NASA thinks the liquid water is, based on the changing patterns throughout the martian year.

One mystery is exactly where this water comes from. There are a few theories but they all have problems. That's part of the fun though - trying to figure these things out and learn more about planets and geology in the process (knowledge that can usually be applied here on Earth too).

What does all this mean for the "Mars One" mission to send people on a one-way trip to Mars? Sadly the answer is nothing because (in my opinion) that mission is unrealistic anyway. I seriously doubt whether it will ever get off the ground. Still, people will get to Mars one day and when they do, having easily accessible water on site would be a huge bonus.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Space Centre Update

It's been another long gap between posts and a lot has happened in that time. The new Space Centre has opened in Kihikihi and been up and running for about eight months. Things are going well and the public response to the new venue has been excellent (even better than expected).

We're currently averaging about 70 visitors per week which is pretty much the minimum we need at this stage. It's nowhere near enough for the long-term, when we'll need at least twice that many just to stay viable, but it's enough for now as we keep working to spread the word.

We're averaging one group booking per week. These are mostly schools but we're also getting other groups as well. If you'd like to make a booking, it's a good idea to check our calendar for available dates and then contact me.

Regarding this blog, I'm in the process of moving it to the same domain as our website ( so there are likely to be a few hiccups along the way. Sorry about that. I'm planning to start using this blog for a few things so hopefully it will become a bit more active again.

Remember to follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

Friday, 3 October 2014

Is Pluto a Planet Again?

Some stories just won't die without a fight and neither will some planets. Pluto was kicked out of the planet club in 2006 and is now known as a "dwarf planet" or "minor planet". An article today at makes it sound like there's a new movement of support for Pluto becoming a planet again, but in fact this is nothing new - astronomers have been arguing about it for many years and will continue to do so for many more.

One important point the article missed is that next year NASA's New Horizons will be the first spacecraft to fly past Pluto. It will be all over the news so 2015 is the year when Pluto supporters will probably make a big push to get public opinion on their side.

Whether Pluto does ever back its planet status is anybody's guess as it depends so much on the personal views of people in scientific-political positions. However it's very unlikely that anything will change in the foreseeable future, even with all the publicity coming next year. The wheels of change turn slowly at the International Astronomical Union and they aren't likely to want to reverse such a major decision less than 10 years after it was made.

So for now, and probably for a long time, we have 8 planets in our solar system.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

The Moons of Pluto

Today the International Astronomical Union (IAU) announced the official names for Pluto's two most recently discovered moons. The temporary names P4 and P5 have been replaced with Kerberos and Styx respectively.

These days the IAU doesn't get to make their decisions in isolation or without public pressure. People want to have their say and are quick to criticize unpopular decisions. And of course many Pluto fans are still getting over the whole demotion thing.

Last year there was a public vote for new names for Pluto's moons. By far the most popular was "Vulcan", supported by William Shatner.

Not for the first time, the IAU ignored public opinion and went with something different. Did the IAU get it right?

I think so. I'm a Trek fan and it's always fun to watch William Shatner get excited about anything, but in this case Vulcan would have been the wrong choice.

  • In the 19th century Vulcan was the name given to a hypothetcal planet inside Mercury's orbit. Although the planet turned out not to exist, the term "vulcanoid" is still associated with objects very close to the Sun (which does not include Pluto's moons).
  • In Star Trek lore Vulcan is a very large, hot planet, totally unlike Pluto's moons.
  • There is a long-standing convention of naming planets after Roman gods and moons after Greek gods. Vulcan is a Roman god so it would break the convention.
  • Astronomical names need to last a very long time. Will the Star Trek reference still be relevant even in 5000 years? I hope so but I wouldn't bet on it.
  • Kerberos and Styx are good, relevant names.

Both in astronomy and Star Trek, Vulcan is strongly associated with heat. It's not logical to name an icy moon Vulcan. Let's save the name Vulcan for a hot extrasolar planet orbiting close to its star. That would be a fitting tribute.

Vulcan's time will come, we just need to be patient.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

My First Total Solar Eclipse

Some time ago we decided to book a family holiday to see the November 2012 total solar eclipse in Port Douglas, Australia. It was a tricky venture to plan and I agonized over how to approach it. Where was the best place to be? How much effort should I make to photograph and/or video the event? Should I take my solar telescope and good camera, or travel lightly and be more mobile?

As it turned out, practical considerations ruled out taking all my best gear. That probably wasn't a bad thing though, because I had already decided to concentrate on enjoying the experience rather than recording it. I didn't want to be stressing about camera settings when I should be looking at the freaking TOTAL ECLIPSE.

So here's a rough video of how it unfolded. I plan to rework this video at a later date and add more about the whole experience, including the eclipse-chasing culture. But for now here's what a total eclipse felt like, the best I can explain it...

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Attending my first star party

This article was originally written for the Hamilton Astronomical Society monthly bulletin, February 2012.

This year I finally attended my first star party and, to my surprise, managed to convince my family to join me. The event was Stardate 2012, a weekend gathering of astronomers organized by the Phoenix Astronomical Society. It was held at a fully reserved camping ground near Hastings, on the 20th to 22nd January.

There were two accommodation options: Shared bunk rooms or tent spots. When booking, we only had a brief description and no photos so it was hard to imagine what the bunk rooms were like. We opted for a tent spot which was the right decision - the bunk rooms turned out to be unsuitable for families.

We arrived mid-afternoon on Friday and pitched our tent in a nice spot. Quickly meeting some of our neighbours was a good move, as they were veteran star partiers who helped us find our way around.

The opening ceremony was surprisingly short and left me with the vague feeling that I didn’t really have enough information. Oh well, people seemed very friendly and I was sure we’d be able to ask for help as needed.

The first presentation was an impressive showcase of images from the 2011 RASNZ astrophotography competition, hosted by well-known Gisborne astronomer John Drummond. This was also the session in which I learned just how uncomfortable a seat can be. As soon as the first talk was over I went back to the tent and grabbed a pillow to sit on. I never went to another talk without it.

After a tenuously relevant lecture about skin cancer, John Drummond was back with an interesting talk on elliptical and spiral galaxies.

Then came the reason we were all there - telescope viewing. This was held in the lower paddock, where everyone with a telescope sets up and invites everyone else to have a look.

4YO Floyd was asleep by this time, but 6YO Jessica was keen to go observing. Unfortunately the first six telescopes we visited were all pointed at M42! I guess that’s sort of understandable as people were getting themselves established, but perhaps a little coordination might have been a good idea. Although it was fun chatting to people along the way, after the sixth telescope Jessica was tired, a little disappointed (M42 is nothing new to her) and ready for bed.

Half an hour later I was back by myself and hoping for something more interesting. Sadly, this is where I got my biggest disappointment and made my biggest mistake.

The vibe had changed. Most of the “good” telescopes were surrounded by small groups of people huddled together and speaking in low voices. Feeling like a complete loner, I tried my best to insert myself into a couple of groups or even get a closer look to see what was going on. In the dark this wasn’t easy. I have no doubt that these were friendly people but they didn’t seem to be very mindful of newbies and I just couldn’t seem to get a look-in anywhere. Sure, I could have been more forceful and I would have been welcomed. But I was still finding my way and I didn’t feel comfortable with the situation.

So, less than two hours after lecturing my family about how important it is to seize every observing opportunity, I gave up and went to bed with the plan of finding a “buddy” to help me the next night. What was I thinking?

The next two nights were clouded out and there were no more observing sessions. Curse my idiocy.

Saturday morning featured the first of two sessions for children: "Constellations and Asterisms". Remarkably, this managed to hold my kids’ attention for almost ninety minutes. They’ve still got the handouts and pictures of asterisms they designed themselves.

At 12 noon we set off on the telescope trail, in which the owners of each telescope talked a bit about their gear. This was the highlight of the entire weekend for me, despite being way too hot in the midday Sun.

It occurred to me that a similar sort of trail would have been very useful the previous night. Instead of letting people try to find their own way around the viewing scopes, it would have been nice to have had a guide to help with introductions.

I attended about half the remaining Saturday presentations and was fairly satisfied with all of them. The best was the evening talk given by Ian Cooper and Stephen Chadwick who have co-written a book called “Imaging the Southern Skies”. The book is due out later this year and I’ll be buying a copy. I was stunned at the quality of Stephen’s photographs, and equally impressed by Ian’s knowledge. The only downside is that I’m pretty sure the talk included every single photo from the book (it was a long talk).

With no observing possible there was a movie on offer, but the thought of sitting on those bench seats a minute longer was too much. I went to bed.

Sunday morning included a rocket-launching session for all ages. It was gold, and I can’t thank George Moutzouris enough for providing the weekend highlights for my kids.

A buy-and-sell session over lunch was enjoyable and informative, although there wasn’t a huge amount of stuff for sale.

The remaining presentations were all reasonably rewarding but finished on an embarrassing note for us. Our kids really wanted to see the Mars presentation, and since they’re well-hardened to watching grown-up space talks I thought it would be okay. As it turned out, the talk was more advanced than we’d expected and involved a lot of technical text being read from the screen. Our kids became too fidgety and we had to walk out, at which time we discovered the world’s noisiest door. I assume the entire hall was glaring at us but we didn’t look back as we slunk away.

On a more positive note, I went for a walk at 2 a.m. and was surprised to find a clear sky. Three other people were about, so one of them brought out his 8" dob and we did a bit of observing.

All in all, despite a few missteps I count our first Stardate as a success. The biggest surprise was my family’s response—I had been nervous about how bored they would get but I needn’t have worried. They’ve suggested that we all go back next year, and we probably will.

Tips learnt from my first Stardate:

  1. Arrive by lunch time on Friday if you want a good tent spot.
  2. Ask for help and guidance. You don’t get a lot from the organizers but that’s okay once you realize it’s more a case of everyone helping everyone else. Don’t make my mistake and be too shy.
  3. Take a cushion for the talks. Before attending a talk, try to ascertain the technical level (they vary greatly).
  4. The kitchen closes without warning on Monday morning. Retrieve all your food and other belongings before then.
  5. Treat your first star party as a learning experience.

If you’re interested in going to next year’s Stardate, feel free to contact me and I’ll be your "buddy".