Radio Astronomers Form Telescope the Size of Earth

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Telescopes located all around the world are being used together to work in real-time as a single gigantic instrument. As part of the opening events for the International Year of Astronomy 2009 in Paris, (watch live) a nearly continuous 33-hour observation is being conducted on January 15-16. 17 telescopes in Asia, Australia, Europe, North America and South America, are taking part in the mammoth project.

Using an astronomical technique called electronic, real-time Very Long Baseline Interferometry, or e-VLBI, participating telescopes will observe the same object simultaneously. Data from each telescope will be streamed across the globe through high-speed optical networks to a purpose-built supercomputer at JIVE in the Netherlands. This machine acts as the focus of the giant distributed telescope, the largest real-time telescope ever, combining the signals collected from instruments across the world.

Here’s a link to a page that shows webcams from the participating sites.

Link to a page that displays cumulative on-the-fly generated plots of the selected type. Approximately every 5 minutes a new image is generated, incorporating all the data collected so far; they are being being built up as the experiment progresses.

“By combining information from such widely separated radio telescopes we can produce incredibly sharp images with up to one hundred times better resolution than those available from the best optical telescopes”, said Simon Garrington, Director of the UK’s MERLIN/VLBI National Facility. “It’s like being able to sit here in Manchester and read a newspaper in London”.

With e-VLBI the ability to send data electronically and combine it in real-time has the additional advantage of providing results to astronomers within hours of conducting an observation, rather than weeks later via the traditional VLBI method of recording data onto disks and shipping it to the correlator.

JIVE Director Huib Jan van Langevelde explained, “With VLBI we can zoom in on the most energetic events in the universe, and the new e-VLBI technique allows us to do this fast enough to catch such events on the time-scale that they occur and respond quickly.”

Source: eVBLI site
, PhysOrg

Was Galileo the First?

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Italian Galileo Galilei has usually been attributed with making the first celestial observations with a telescope and then creating notations and drawings to record his observations. And that’s the focus of what’s being celebrated during this International Year of Astronomy. But a British historian is taking this opportunity to publicize the work of another astronomer, Thomas Harriot, who actually was the first person to create drawings of the what the Moon looks like through a telescope, doing so well before Galileo. Historian Allan Chapman says dated maps prove that Harriot drew Moon maps several months earlier than Galileo, in July 1609. You can hear Chapman talk about Harriot in today’s 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast.

Chapman says that according to historical documents, Harriot used a ‘Dutch trunke’ (telescope), and turned it towards the Moon on July 26, 1609, and created drawings, becoming the first astronomer to do so.

Historical documents show Galileo first observed the moons of Jupiter on January 7, 1610, and later made drawings of Earth’s moon.

Harriot’s crude drawings show a rough outline of the lunar terminator (the line marking the division between night and day on the Moon, as seen from the Earth) and includes a handful of features like the dark areas Mare Crisium, Mare Tranquilitatis and Mare Foecunditatis.

Harriot's drawing of the whole moon.  Image: (c) Lord Egremont
Harriot's drawing of the whole moon. Image: (c) Lord Egremont

Harriot went on to produce further maps from 1610 to 1613. Not all of these are dated, but they show an increasing level of detail. By 1613 he had created two maps of the whole Moon, with many identifiable features such as lunar craters that crucially are depicted in their correct relative positions.
Thomas Harriot.  Credit:  RAS
Thomas Harriot. Credit: RAS

But Harriot remains relatively unknown. Unlike Galileo, he did not publish his drawings. Dr. Chapman attributes this to his comfortable position as a ‘well-maintained philosopher to a great and wealthy nobleman’ with a generous salary. Harriot had comfortable housing and a specially provided observing chamber on top of Sion House, all of which contrasted with Galileo’s financial pressures.

Dr. Chapman believes that the time has come to give Harriot the credit he deserves. “Thomas Harriot is an unsung hero of science. His drawings mark the beginning of the era of modern astronomy we now live in, where telescopes large and small give us extraordinary information about the Universe we inhabit.”

Source: RAS

UT Reader Promotes IYA in “Canoe Africa”

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If you haven’t heard of UT reader, Brian Sheen, you will over the next few months. Brian is not only a reader here, but he’s also a member of the Roseland Observatory in Cornwall and he’s about to embark on an adventure that most of us only dream about. Four men, one canoe, one river, 2,500 miles, in six months…

Brian Sheen
Brian Sheen
Canoe Africa is a unique project ready to launch by the UK astronomer just as soon as the proverbial waters reach safe levels. Brian and a small team of scout leaders will begin their journey on foot in the mountains of Guinea, at the source of one of the longest rivers in the world – the Niger. Then it’s into a dugout canoe to travel almost 2,500 miles passing through the countries of Guinea, Mali, Niger, Benin and Nigeria, with their epic journey stopping about 100 miles away from wilds of the Niger Delta. Along the way they will meet with local scout troops for support and company in their journey, but there’s much more to the story than just a deliverance.

Brian is no stranger to long distance canoeing, nor is this his first time in West Africa. Forty years ago he was there providing relief with the Red Cross during the Niger Crisis, and returned again in 1981 to canoe 150 miles through the Delta from Onitsha to Port Harcourt. While the team will be promoting the UK Scouting Movement, astronomer Sheen also sees this as a unique opportunity to promote the International Year of Astronomy. “The vision of the International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009) is to help the citizens of the world rediscover their place in the Universe through the day- and night time sky, and thereby engage a personal sense of wonder and discovery. All humans should realize the impact of astronomy and basic sciences on our daily lives, and understand better how scientific knowledge can contribute to a more equitable and peaceful society.”

How does Universe Today tie into this? Thanks to being a constant reader, Brian discovered the Celestron Sky Scout and the Coronado PST. When he wrote me telling me what he was going to do and asking for help locating a French version of the Celestron SkyScout, not only did I find him the correct update, but I found more support for his project as well. Thanks to Michelle Meskill from Celestron International, Celestron Life: IYA has donated speakers for the journey as well! Now, not only will the Celestron SkyScout speak in French when needed – but is now able to reach large groups of people at once!

Map Provided by BBC
Map Provided by BBC

Brian will soon be on his way down the River Niger with binoculars, solar scope, Celestron SkyScout and more. We wish him the best of luck on his IYA Journey and look forward to bringing you further updates on our fearless UT reader and his African Astronomy Adventures during the coming months. Brille sur…

What Are YOU Doing for the International Year of Astronomy?

In 1609, Galileo Galilei looked at the heavens through a telescope for the first time, and things on Earth haven’t been the same since. To celebrate the 400th anniversary of this advent of scientific discovery and thought, people and organizations from around the globe are coordinating a world-wide, year-long program called the International Year of Astronomy (IYA). Some of the goals of IYA are to stimulate worldwide interest in astronomy and science, especially among young people, to provide as many people as possible with an “astronomy experience,” and to support science education in both formal and informal settings. Currently, 118 countries are going to be part of IYA. The program has the support of the United Nations, the International Astronomical Union, the US’s National Science Foundation and all the space agencies around the world. Recently, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution supporting IYA. Right now IYA is in the planning and coordination stage. But for IYA to be a success, says Doug Isbell, one of the co-chairs for the US IYA program, it’s going to take a coordinated effort from volunteers around the world who want to share their love of space and astronomy. So, it’s time to start thinking about what YOU are going to do for IYA. And even though we’ve posted the IYA trailer on UT before, here it is again to help get you in the mood:



So, what’s in it for you? Plenty. There are a myriad of ways for everyone to get involved in IYA, whether its just attending a star party, or helping to coordinate a local event, or making a financial contribution.

One of the goals of IYA is to provide as many people as possible with the experience of looking through a telescope. Currently, IYA is designing a telescope kit, called the Galileoscope, to distribute to schools and science centers around the world. “We have a goal of approximately 1 million Galileoscopes world wide” said Isbell. “We want everyone to have a high quality, aha! experience. From networking and experience, we know that experience is something like being able to see Saturn’s rings. That drives you to a 40 or 45 power telescope, which is more ambitious than we originally thought.” The telescope kit will come with a educational curriculum, and is designed to be to be a science experience in either a classroom or an informal science center.

IYA would like to offer these scopes free to people around the world, and is looking for funding. “This is a big funding challenge,” said Isbell. “We’re getting close to the design, but we’re still looking for the chunk of money that will get us to the production phase.”

The overall US goal, said Isbell, is to offer an engaging astronomy experience to every person in the country in some fashion, whether it is in person or virtual, and to build partnerships for the future in educational outreach.

“Within the US, we have plans to foster star parties around the country, in coordination with local astronomy groups,” said Isbell. “There will be national and international efforts to observe particular objects, like Jupiter that will be in a good alignment in August of 2009. Also, we’re promoting the dark skies concept of preserving the night sky for observers, and we’re trying to foster a more formal research project to observe the variable binary star Epsilon Aurigae. It’s going through an eclipse that comes around every few decades, and this is a chance for the more dedicated observers and teacher/student researchers to study this star.”

One of the exciting events happening in conjunction with IYA is the production of a PBS special called “400 Years of the Telescope,” produced by Interstellar Studios, headed by Kris Koenig. Not only will there be a television special, but planetarium shows and interactive educational activities are being coordinated for as well for IYA. The 400 Years of the Telescope website has a newsletter available, which is also where you can find info on the US IYA effort. Subscribe to the newsletter here. UT will provide more information on “400 Years of the Telescope” as the air date gets closer.

Check out IYA’s website, which provides a centralized outlet for people to publicize and learn about events, activities and materials available online. Here’s the US IYA site. See how you can get involved. You can also find IYA on several of the social networking sites, like MySpace, and Facebook.

Universe Today will provide updated information about IYA, as well as details about the different facets of IYA in upcoming articles.