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Awesome aurorae

Image: Jamie Cooper.

Image: Jamie Cooper.

The Northern Lights are one of nature’s true splendours and given that to see them one usually must venture north close to the Arctic Circle, the combination of the aurora and the Arctic backdrop can make for a particularly awesome adventure.

However, the brilliance of the aurora is wholly dependent upon the power of the Sun, but our closest star is now quietening, its maximum activity having passed in 2013. If you wish to see the Northern Lights, this winter and next might be the best opportunity you have for quite a few years.

To kick off this year’s European AstroFest on the morning of Friday 7th February, Ian Ridpath will describe the aurora – how they are created and what they are like to view, and offers recommendations on where to go to see them and how to capture their ethereal colours on camera.

Don’t miss out – Find out how to book tickets to see this and other talks at European AstroFest 2014.

Monster stars in our midst

Our Sun is enormous: 1.39 million kilometres across and 1.99 million trillion trillion kilograms. Yet it is just a lightweight compared to some of the other stars out there, giants clocking in at dozens of times the mass of the Sun. However, the truly great stars are also the most enigmatic; behemoths that measure 100–300 times the mass of our Sun. Only in the most exotic, most active star-forming regions are they found, but how are they assembled? Are they really individual stars, or are we really measuring binary or triple systems that are too close together for us to resolve? Why do they violently blow off their outer layers and what happens when they explosively die?

Image: ESO/M Kornmesser.

Image: ESO/M Kornmesser.

Stars are superb subjects for scientific study, but monster stars really are something extraordinary, which is why Professor Paul Crowther of the University of Sheffield, who led a group of astronomers that discovered possibly the most massive star in the Universe, will be speaking about these spectacular stars at European AstroFest on the afternoon of Friday 7 February.

Don’t miss out – Find out how to book tickets to see this and other talks at European AstroFest 2014.


AstroFest puts European space missions under the spotlight

The world’s second largest space agency, the European Space Agency (ESA), has a hand in a multitude of missions and 2014 is shaping up to be a seminal year for them. From the supreme accuracy of the Gaia mission that will measure the positions and characteristics of a billion stars in the Milky Way, to the Rosetta spacecraft that successfully awoke from hibernation on 20 January and is now preparing to rendezvous with comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in May 2014, the next twelve months will be all-action for ESA. In particular, if everything goes to plan Rosetta could become one of the most exciting space missions yet, especially when it drops a small lander called Philae onto the comet’s surface in November to witness what life is like on a comet.

The European Space Agency's most ambitious space venture yet, the Rosetta mission, which will place a lander on a comet later this year. Image: ESA.

The European Space Agency's most ambitious space venture yet, the Rosetta mission, which will place a lander on a comet later this year. Image: ESA.

To provide detailed insight into these missions and the rest of ESA’s recent and varied catalogue of space projects including Venus Express, Mars Express, Huygens, Herschel and Planck, the agency’s Senior Scientific Advisor in the Directorate of Science and Robotic Exploration, Professor Mark McCaughrean will be on stage at European AstroFest on the afternoon of Friday 7 February.

Find out how to book tickets to see this and other talks at European AstroFest 2014.

Book now to avoid disappointment!

We are now sold out of tickets for the Saturday morning conference session. Tickets remain available for all day Friday and Saturday afternoon. Visit our conference page to see the full line up of speakers. To book tickets call 01732 446106 or book online. Conference tickets start at £18 for one session. Tickets for exhibition entry are £8 and will be available from the ticket desk on the day. The February issue of Astronomy Now contains a coupon for £2 off the price of exhibition entry.

Meet our mysterious Milky Way

Unanswered questions about the habitability of the Universe are layered like a Russian doll. First is the question of why Earth has evolved to be ‘just right’ for life, followed by whether there are particular zones in the Milky Way Galaxy that are conducive to the development of rocky planets and complex life. However these are topped by an even grander question: is there something special about our Milky Way Galaxy as a whole, from the mysterious and oddly quiet black hole in its core to the composition of dust, gas and stars in its spiral arms? Are we living in a special time in the Milky Way’s history?

Image: NASA.

Image: NASA.

To answer these questions, The Sky at Night’s Chris Lintott, who is also a researcher at the University of Oxford, will describe the latest cutting edge results from Galaxy Zoo and space telescopes such as Fermi, as well as the possibilities for the new Gaia mission, to compare our Milky Way to other galaxies and find out just how different it is.

Find out how to book tickets to see this and other talks at European AstroFest 2014.

Sunny prospects for this year’s AstroFest!

Our Sun is acting oddly. Right now is meant to be the time when its activity is supposed to be at its peak – the solar maximum. Yet the Sun’s current activity is dormant, with barely any sunspots and only the odd flare, with solar physicists making analogies to the Maunder Minimum in the eighteenth century, when Europe was plunged into freezing winters. Alas, similar solar behaviour this time around will not be enough to mitigate climate change and increased global warming, but a drop off in solar activity could still have local affects, reduce the northern lights and provide a safer space environment for satellites and astronauts. The real question is, why is this happening to the Sun?

Image credit: SOHO (NASA/ESA).

Image credit: SOHO (NASA/ESA).

In her talk on Saturday, 8 February at European AstroFest this year, The Sky at Night presenter and solar physicist Dr Lucie Green will probe the mysteries of solar maximum, uncovering what makes the Sun tick, why it undergoes cycles of activity and what the future holds for our star.

Find out how to book tickets to see this and other talks at European AstroFest 2014.

AstroFest’s red planet adventure

The Mars Curiosity rover’s wheels keep on turning – for 18 months it has been working its way across the giant Gale Crater, heading towards the stratified five-kilometre tall slopes of Mount Sharp. On its travels it stops off at rocks or other interesting looking geological features to investigate the past environment of the red planet. How do scientists, many millions of kilometres away, decide where to send Curiosity and what to investigate on the surface?

Professor Sanjeev Gupta of Imperial College, London, is a Participating Scientist working on the Curiosity rover and is involved in analysing the ancient sedimentary rocks on the red planet’s surface. In his AstroFest talk on the morning of Saturday 8 February, Professor Gupta will describe a day in the life of the Curiosity rover, regale the audience with its story so far and provide an insight into how scientists plan Curiosity’s adventures.

Find out how to book tickets to see this and other talks at European AstroFest 2014.

The Universe goes dark at AstroFest

Two of the greatest mysteries of the Universe are the nature of the invisible dark matter, whose gravitational effects we can detect, and dark energy that is accelerating the expansion of the Universe. Together they account for 95.1 percent of all the matter and energy in the Universe –the stuff that we can see, i.e. ordinary matter that makes up the stars, galaxies, planets and our own bodies, accounts for just 4.9 percent of the Universe!

Image credit: NASA/ESA/J Lotz/M Mountain/A Koekemoer/HFF Team (STScI).

Image credit: NASA/ESA/J Lotz/M Mountain/A Koekemoer/HFF Team (STScI).

As we can see, the vast majority of the Universe is a big unknown and if we can pin down what dark matter and dark energy are it would be a giant leap forward in our understanding of fundamental astrophysics and cosmology. However, what if there is another explanation? Imperial College’s Dr Ali Mozaffari will be speaking at AstroFest on the morning of Friday 7 February about MOND, short for MOdified Newtonian Dynamics or, in other words, a modified theory of gravity that, if correct, could go some way to replacing dark matter and possibly even dark energy. MOND is certainly controversial and many astronomers will point to evidence of dark matter really existing in the form of an unknown particle, but in his talk Mozaffari will suggest ways to test modified gravity in our own Solar System, the results of which could either rule out MOND or provide the answers we have been seeking.

Find out how to book tickets to see this and other talks at European AstroFest 2014.

Dr Ali Mozaffari.

Dr Ali Mozaffari.