New Scientist: Star Burst

10 August, 2013

I have an article published in this week's (2929 10 August) New Scientist magazine:

Solar superflares: A new danger from the sun

SOMETHING with almost unimaginable power hit Earth in AD 775. Europe was in the grip of the dark ages, yet the skies were alight. "Fiery and fearful signs were seen in the heavens after sunset; and serpents appeared in Sussex, as if they were sprung out of the ground, to the astonishment of all," recorded the 13th-century English chronicler Roger of Wendover.


We don't just have his word for it. In the past year, new evidence has come to light confirming that something cataclysmic took place in the solar system that year. But what? There are no signs of a mass extinction or an environmental disaster which would normally accompany such an event. More mysterious is that no trace of it appears in the heavens today.


The only clues to what happened are found locked inside ancient tree rings. What they reveal is shocking. A supremely powerful blast of radiation ...

Read it online here.

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Perseid meteor shower: how to get the best view

09 August, 2013

I have a new post on the Guardian online Across the Universe blog:

The Perseids, the year's most spectacular meteor shower for viewers in the northern hemisphere, have arrived.

One of the year's best astronomical events will light up the sky for the next five nights. Best of all, it's really easy to observe. You don't need telescopes or cameras, just a deckchair, blankets and a hot thermos to keep you company.

Read the whole piece here.

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Sun's quiet spell not the start of a mini ice age

24 July, 2013


I have written a piece for New Scientist and they have published it online:


Sun's quiet spell not the start of a mini ice age


Those hoping that the sun could save us from climate change look set for disappointment. The recent lapse in solar activity is not the beginning of a decades-long absence of sunspots - a dip that might have cooled the climate. Instead, it represents a shorter, less pronounced downturn that happens every century or so.


Read the whole story here:

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Science Weekly podcast: Britain invests in spaceplanes

22 July, 2013

On 17 July I wrote a piece about the Sabre engine on the Skylon spaceplane. (You can see it below if you scroll back to that date.) I've now made a podcast about it for The Guardian explaining why the £60m investment in the Sabre rocket engine could open up our access to space.


You can listen to it here

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Smile! Nasa to attempt long-distance portrait of Earth from Saturn

19 July, 2013

On the Guardian's Across the Universe blog:


On Friday Nasa's Cassini spacecraft will take a picture of Earth and its seven billion inhabitants from 1.44bn kilometres away

It may sound like a terrible sequel to The Day the Earth Stood Still, but The Day the Earth Smiled is an attempt to take a new picture of our home planet from a spacecraft in orbit around Saturn.


The project has been masterminded by Carolyn Porco, who leads the imaging team on Nasa's Cassini mission to Saturn.


Cassini will acquire a sequence of images of Saturn and its ring system over the course of four hours on Friday. The Earth will be visible near the rings and will be captured as it appears between 22.27 and 22.42 BST (17.27 to 17.42 EDT).


I say "as it appears" because Cassini is 1.44bn kilometres away. Light from Earth takes 80 minutes to reach it. So, although the time to look up and smile is between 22.27 and 22.42 BST, the shutters on Cassini will open 80 minutes later to capture the light as it arrives. Astronomers call this "look-back time".


In the finished image, our entire planet will appear as no more than a pale, blue dot, peeping through Saturn rings.


"Pale blue dot" was the phrase used by Carl Sagan to describe an image of Earth taken in 1990 from even further away. The Voyager 1 spacecraft was 6bn kilometres from us, roughly the distance to Pluto's orbit, when it took pictures of most of the planets in the solar system.


Read the complete story here

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Cosmic gas cloud fights supermassive black hole

18 July, 2013

I have a new post on my Across the Universe blog for the Guardian:

A supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy has a gas cloud in its gravitational clutches - but the gas cloud isn't giving up without a fight


If gas clouds could think, this one would class itself as the luckiest bunch of atoms in the universe. The front portion of a giant gas cloud called G2 has survived a close encounter with the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy.


The huge gravitational forces that have been acting on the cloud have thrown it back into space with a velocity of 10m kilometres per hour. That's about one per cent of the speed of light, the fastest speed through space achievable.


The gas cloud was discovered in 2011 and shown to be on a nearly suicidal orbit that would carry it to within 25bn kilometres of the black hole, which is itself estimated to be about 7bn kilometres across, and contains more than 4m times the mass of the sun.


It is impossible to know what comprised that mass before it was swallowed by the black hole because it has been crushed out of existence and only its combined gravitational impression remains. Common sense would suggest that some of it was once gas clouds, stars and planets.


These new observations, taken by an international team of astronomers using the ESO Very Large Telescope, show that the latest victim has arrived earlier than calculated and that some of it has survived. Not all of it is expected to be that lucky.


G2 has arrived early because the gravity of the black hole has stretched the cloud into a giant string of "spaghetti" that will now take more than 12 months to complete its dangerous passage.


During that time, some of it is bound to stray too close and find its way into the black hole. This will spark a flare of radiation that should tell astronomers something about enigmatic objects known as active galaxies.


Read the whole story here

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