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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Sabre rocket engine could open up access to space as never before

17 July, 2013

My latest piece is up on the Guardian
blog Across the Universe:

A £60m pledge from the UK government puts Reaction Engines' Sabre rocket on course to change space exploration forever

Imagine taking off from a runway like a normal aeroplane but flying so high and so fast that when you unclip your seatbelt, you float around the cabin. Look out of the windows: on one side is the inky blackness of deep space, while on the other is the electric blue of your home planet, Earth.


This is no joyride for a few brief minutes of space-tourism weightlessness. Instead you are three, five or even 10 times higher than those little hops. In front of you is your destination: a space station. Perhaps it is a hotel or a place of work. You are in low earth orbit - and you've got there in far less time than it takes for a transatlantic flight.

This is the promise of the spaceplane, and it took a step closer to reality yesterday. UK Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts confirmed the government's £60m investment in Reaction Engines Ltd.


Read the rest of the story here

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Storysack discount for a fortnight

16 July, 2013

Storysack have a special offer for the next fortnight centred around our children's book Little Moon. The sack also contains, a non-fiction book, parent guide, CD, fabric playmate and Moon, picture card game, and activity resource guide.





If you buy the items individually they cost:
Little Moon £7.99
What's in the Sky? £4.99
Little Moon Activity Guide £4.95
Little Moon Sack £8.39
Little Moon Playmat £18.00
Little Moon Card Game £7.19
Parent Guide £1.99

But until 31st July you can buy them all for £45 + VAT.
Simply quote 8215 when you place your order to receive the 15% discount.
Code valid only for new orders

If you are a school you can specify a September delivery date. Order here

Little Moon was born deep in space where it was cold and lonely. Join him on his amazing journey through our universe as he meets planets, black holes and stars in search of a warm, cosy place he can call home!
Storysack are proud to present in association with the European Space Agency this outstanding storysack. A must for space lovers everywhere. A wonderful introduction to the marvels of our Solar System.

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Tags: The Moon

The Universe Explained - speaker line-up

10 July, 2013

I posted on 13th June about the Manchester event at The Gorilla on Saturday 20th July, 7-10pm where I have been invited to speak.


The organisers of The Universe Explained state:
Both artists and scientists are explorers. There has never been more public interest or more scientific progress in understanding the fundamental workings of the universe but at the same time the concepts are extremely complex and occasionally bewildering to the lay person. They are also intrinsically fascinating and inspirational to artists. This is an attempt to translate the complexity and express the wonder through a variety of art forms.  This is public engagement with a difference.

The other speakers will be:
Professor John Ellis, leading theoretical physicist from the LHA in CERN
Jonathon Keats, artist and experimental philosopher (beaming in from San Francisco!)
Chella Quint, performer and comedian
Professor Maurice Riordan, poet and co-editor (with Jocelyn Bell Burnell) of Dark Matter: Poems of Space
John Robb and post-punk legends The Membranes
Suzie Shrubb, composer and pulsar enthusiast, with 16 musicians from the Edges Ensemble
Dr Radmila Topalovic from the Royal Observatory Greenwich
Michael Trainor, artist
More details here
or on Facebook

I think we are in for a thought-provoking treat!
Buy tickets from any of the following:
See Tickets
We Got Tickets

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