Standing Under the Aurora

Under an auroal display in 2004 above a Harstad (Norway) communications tower (NASA)
Under an auroal display in 2004 above a Harstad (Norway) communications tower (Frank Andreassen/NASA)

In 2002, I remember standing on the ice-crusted snow in Svalbard, looking up, in awe of what I was seeing. Dancing overhead, stretching from horizon to horizon was my first aurora. Predominantly green and highly structured against the inky black 24 hour night, the highly dynamic plasma danced, much like a curtain in the wind. Occasionally, I would see the ribbons of green scatter, forming a radiant pattern, much like today’s NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD), above.

Seven years ago, I was studying the interaction between the solar wind and the Earth’s upper polar atmosphere with four friends for five months at The University Centre in Svalbard, and it is an experience I’ll never forget. Seeing this dazzling view from a communications tower in northern Norway stirs some amazing memories of my stay on this unique island in the high arctic, watching the light generated as the solar plasma spiralled down Earth’s magnetic field, interacting with our atmosphere.

From that magical day onward, I never underestimated the beauty of physics again

“They’re (Not) Dead Dave…” – Red Dwarf Returns! (Update)

Chris Barrie (front), Craig Charles, Robert Llewellyn and Danny John-Jules (back), plus computerized Hattie Hayridge (series 3-5)
Chris Barrie (front), Craig Charles, Robert Llewellyn and Danny John-Jules (back), plus computerized Hattie Hayridge (series 3-5)

I don’t usually post stuff about TV shows, but this is HUGE news.

Besides, Red Dwarf was the best sci-fi sitcom, and it still is the BEST SCI-FI SITCOM to grace the TV in the UK ever since the mining spaceship Red Dwarf‘s crew was wiped out by a radiation leak, 3 million years ago. Lister (played by Craig Charles), the last remaining crew member (who was held in suspended animation for the duration), is joined by Rimmer (a hologram of Lister’s despised crew mate, played by Chris Barrie) and a descendent from Lister’s pregnant cat, called… Cat (Danny John-Jules). As the second series progressed, the trio meet the mechanoid Kryten, played by Robert Llewellyn (who, incidentally, I leant this news from via @bobbyllew).

The first show was aired back in 1988 and it continued (for eight seasons) until 1999, and I was addicted to each and every episode. Red Dwarf taught me many things, including:

1) There is no Silicon Heaven.
2) Toasters should not be allowed to talk.
3) There’s no such thing as “brown alert”.
4) The BSc in “Arnold Rimmer BSc” stands for “Bronze Swimming Certificate”.
5) Kryten has some amazing uses for his groin attachment.

So it looks like there will be a returning Easter special of two episodes, plus another two improvised episodes that will be done in front of a live audience! Alas, I’ll be in the US when it airs on the UKTV Channel Dave in April, but I will be sure to get it recorded!

For more info, check out The Guardian coverage of this superb news. Also, check out the Red Dwarf website, it’s just brought back some superb memories.

UPDATE: The Dave Channel Overlord just left a message informing me that Dave will be “revealing an exclusive piece of news from the production set every Wednesday at noon at Enjoy!” Hopefully this will also be accessible to the continentally-challenged individuals like myself who’ll be missing out on the live airing in the UK… is there any news the new episodes will be online?

Please Dave, polymorph Red Dwarf into joyful smegtastic streaming video… pleeeaase?

Track The Space Shuttle

Tracking Space Shuttle Launches (NASA)
Tracking Space Shuttle Launches (NASA)

As I type, the next Shuttle mission is STS-119, scheduled for launch on February 12th, 2009. The crew of Space Shuttle Discovery will deliver the final component of the International Space Station’s solar arrays, boosting power output from the solar panels to ensure the ISS can power all the facilities for space station crew expansion later this year.

As we are fast approaching the final handful of Shuttle launches before the whole fleet (Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour) is retired in 2010, each and every launch will draw a lot of attention. When a shuttle launch is under way however, it is always nice to track the shuttle from Cape Canaveral until it reaches its final destination (in the case of STS-119, it will be the ISS. In May, the STS-125 Hubble Servicing Mission will dock with the orbiting telescope). For astronomers and observers, if you want to have the chance to spot the orbiting craft from the ground, you’ll need to track the spaceship to see if it is going to orbit over your location.

So, in preparation for STS-119 (and the rest of the Shuttle launches), here’s some useful tracking resources I use on a regular basis:

The Moon and a Jet: Astrophotography by Stephen Sykes

Photography by Steven Sykes
Photography by Stephen Sykes

If you’ve listened to my Astroengine Live show, you may have noticed that I am a (very) frustrated practical astronomer. I have yet to save up for my first telescope (thanks Mike Simonsen for making me even more eager to hand over my credit card!), and I still want to upgrade my camera equipment so I can begin taking some shots of the night sky.

So when I see images like the one above, I move one step closer to making that big purchase (upgrading to a digital SLR, followed closely by my dream telescope). This shot was taken by Stephen Sykes in his back yard in Alabama. Intending to capture the Moon alone, his luck was in and a commercial jet passed right in front. Luck is a huge part of astronomy, and when a skilled astrophotographer is there to capture the moment, stunning shots like these are possible.

Be sure to check out his site,, for all the images in this set. He’s even put together a superb animation of the series of shots he was able to capture during the jet transit.

The Universe Today Top 10 Scientific Endeavours of 2008 — Published!


The nominations are in, the votes are counted and the Universe Today writers have been consulted; the Top 10 Scientific Endeavours of 2008 has been published! This was probably one of the toughest top 10 lists to compile as 2008 has been a landmark year for all the sciences. Of course, the Universe Today has a focus on space science endeavours, but there is also a healthy mix of physics, biology and technology, so expect to be surprised at some of the entries in this top 10.

So, get over to the Universe Today and see the definitive Top 10 Scientific Endeavours of 2008!

Tune into Paranormal Radio… Now! A Chat About Anti-Gravity


I’ll be appearing on Paranormal Radio to chat about anti-gravity with Captain Jack… right now! The show has already started, but it’s a three-hour show, so you’ve got plenty of time to tune in! Check out the Paranormal Radio website for details, I’m sure it will be fun! I have very little opinion on the subject… but I think that might change tonight…

Nominate Your Most Important Science Endeavour of 2008


Over at the Universe Today, I’ve started a “Top 10 Scientific Endeavours of 2008” award. I’m calling for nominations for readers favourite topics posted on the Universe Today in the past 12 months (space, general science, or otherwise). Principally, this is in response to Time Magazine’s “Top 10 Scientific Discoveries” where many of the top 10 weren’t “discoveries” at all, more “achievements”. So in the UT top 10, we’re going to keep it simple and list the most popular scientific endeavours of 2008.

So, get over to the Universe Today and nominate! You have 7 days to make your nomination count…

Listen to Paranormal Radio, Tonight (Wednesday) at 9pm (EST)

Tonight for my monthly Paranormal Radio slot, Captain Jack and I will be having a discussion about the threat of asteroids and comets to the Earth. It’s not a question of if we’ll get hit by an extinction-level event, it’s a question of when

This show was postponed from last Friday after Captain Jack’s computer system suffered a glitch. But even after a storm that ravaged Texas over the last few days, the WPRT station is back up and running and ready to go! It will be another great night of discussion and debate, I hope you tune in! Also, if you want to get involved, you’ll also have the chance to phone in and ask Jack or myself anything you like.

For more information, check out the Paranormal Radio homepage, or listen live by activating your default streaming audio software

Poll: Should ESA Science Have a Political Agenda?

French President Nicolas Sarkozy

Recently, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced his vision for the future of the European Space Agency (ESA). To prevent ESA from becoming “obsolete” and overtaken by nations with fledgling space agencies (such as China, Japan and India), Sarkozy believes ESA should move away from a “science driver” and adopt a “political driver”. He is a huge advocate of NASA’s politically-driven direction and wants to adopt a similar model for Europe.

However, NASA’s political future is looking uncertain (budget cuts and job losses), is this a reliable model for ESA to adopt? Having said that, without a political incentive in the 1960’s NASA may never have landed man on the Moon. Perhaps politics can invigorate investment and space exploration.

I want to hear your view on this tricky subject, so for Astroengine’s first foray into online polls (true democracy over here!), please cast your vote on the question below and we’ll see what everyone thinks. If you want to share your views, please feel free to leave a comment!
Continue reading “Poll: Should ESA Science Have a Political Agenda?”

AstroPhoto #2: Low Elevation

Low Elevation (© Ian O'Neill)

In 2002, I spent five months on the Arctic island of Spitsbergen, in the Svalbard archipelago, studying the aurora and upper polar atmosphere. It was one of those life-changing experiences I will never forget. One day, during 24 hour daylight in Arctic spring, I found some time to have a walk across a plateau near the town of Longyearbyen, to collect my thoughts. Till that point, I didn’t realise just how flat and desolate Plateau Berget was. Fortunately, the weather was clear and the Sun was shining, so I explored across several kilometres of ice and snow, seeing mountains in the far distance (reminded me of the Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back Hoth battle scene). Eventually I stumbled across the SvalSat installation where I took several pictures of the satellite dishes. This is one small dish, at low elevation, watching for one of the few polar orbiting communications satellites. Such wonderful memories…
Continue reading “AstroPhoto #2: Low Elevation”