Look out for comet NEOWISE in the northwest sky after dusk. The comet will reach its closest point to Earth this week, 23rd July when it will be 64 million miles (103 million km) away. It appears low above the north-western horizon as the sky darkens and could be visible to the naked eye around midnight, although it is much easier to spot with binoculars. The comet will remain in the sky all night but its position will change as the Earth rotates so that by early morning it will be in the north eastern sky.
To find the comet around 11pm, first find the Plough, then look down and to the right (towards the horizon and round to the north). The comet will appear as a fuzzy patch of light with its tail pointing almost straight up, away from the horizon.
Don’t be disheartened if you don’t spot the comet straight away – it takes a while for your eyes to become adapted to the dark so give yourself about 20 minutes away from bright lights to have the best chance of seeing it. You can also try ‘averted vision’ – that is, looking just to one side of the object you’re trying to see, which can often be effective for spotting faint objects.
The comet was discovered by the NASA space telescope NEOWISE in March this year. Comets are balls of ice and rock, so called ‘dirty snowballs’, that come from the far reaches of the solar system. Comet NEOWISE has a nucleus around 5km (3 miles) in diameter with a tail that has two parts as is typical for comets – a white tail made of fragments of the comet itself and a blue tail, made of ionised gas blown back by the solar wind.
Check out this timelapse captured by Jodrell Bank’s Anthony Holloway, featuring the comet NEOWISE amongst a sky of stunning noctilucent clouds above the Lovell Telescope.
Ant also took some fantastic image of the Telescopes at Jodrell Bank with the comet overhead (pictured here). Why not try and capture it with a camera yourself from where you are? Share your images with us on twitter, facebook and instagram.
The iconic Jodrell Bank Observatory is taking its first major steps to resume scientific operations after lockdown as part of what is probably the biggest ‘reboot’ in astrophysics!
After the longest shut-down in their history, the first set of telescopes at the observatory are being switched on so they can once again contribute new and exciting data to the international science community.
Big projects that Jodrell Bank is planning to re-join this summer include a programme to determine the mystery of how planets are formed – and testing the theory that dust and gases create pebble-sized matter that somehow bond together to create a single planetary rock.
The Mark II radio telescope has already successfully re-joined the European VLBI Network (EVN), a partnership of radio telescopes located in Europe but also Asia and additional antennas in South Africa and Puerto Rico. The EVN performs very high angular resolution observations of cosmic radio sources – and the only network of its kind capable of real-time observations.
To the great relief of observatory staff, data from the Mark II telescope was transferred to the Netherlands, where they were successfully correlated against the other European telescopes, including the Yebes 40-metre telescope in Spain. “The data looks great – so this is a real milestone in getting Jodrell re-connected to our international community,” said Professor Mike Garrett, Director of the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics
Also up-and-running, explained Professor Garrett, is the 42-foot dish that sits atop Jodrell Bank’s main building and is busy monitoring the activities of pulsars.
“Getting Jodrell Bank back into operation after such a long shutdown is a really positive signal to our team at Jodrell, the rest of the University and the international science community as a whole,” said Professor Garrett.
Professor Garett explained that getting the observatory back to pre-lockdown status will be a complex and phased process, ensuring that staff and students are fully safeguarded all along the way. During the height of lockdown a community of 60 staff was reduced to a skeleton crew who were keeping an eye on the shuttered site.
“Safety is our number one consideration, so nothing can be rushed. We must be sure that research, technical staff and students are all safe – thankfully, much of our work can be done remotely,” explained Professor Garrett. He said that Jodrell scientists have continued much of their research at home accessing and analysing a swathe of legacy data using their laptops and linking up to Jodrell’s huge digital databases.
The next phase in Jodrell Bank’s post-lockdown strategy is restarting the e-MERLIN programme, an array of seven radio telescopes spanning 217 km across the UK connected by a superfast optical fibre network with its headquarters at Jodrell Bank – e-MERLIN has a unique position in the world with an angular resolution comparable to that of the Hubble Space Telescope.
Telescopes in the e-MERLIN array will be carefully activated one-by-one, with the nearest dishes to Jodrell Bank switched on first.
As the summer progresses, work to complete the final stage of resurfacing on the giant Lovell telescope will resume and this should be done by the end of July. Work can then begin to make the Lovell telescope operational again and incorporated into e-MERLIN to work on the major legacy observing programmes.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to getting Jodrell Bank fully operational has been restarting the ‘supercomputer at the heart’ of Jodrell’s scientific programmes because its amazing number-crunching capabilities make sense and correlate the vast amounts of data that the Manchester telescopes gather from the cosmos.
“This has now been turned on – we had all our fingers and toes crossed and so far it looks good. Of course, it still needs to be exercised with some real data but that will come,” added Professor Garrett.
Jodrell Bank became a World Heritage Site in July 2019, in part because the site is the only one in the world that retains traces of the development of radio astronomy from its earliest days to the present. This extraordinary story that is written across the landscape of Jodrell Bank, from the remains of the 1946 searchlight aerial; an instrument for the radar detection of meteors, through the majestic Lovell telescope, to the shiny new headquarters of the Square Kilometre Array.
But why is the story of radio astronomy so important? Why does it have the ‘Universal Value’ that UNESCO look for in a site of international importance? The development of radio astronomy marked a revolution in our understanding of the universe; it has been the basis of the 20th and 21st century’s great leaps forward in astronomy and cosmology, such as the cosmic microwave background, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence and the recent imaging of a black hole. And crucially it also paved the way for astronomy in other wavelengths, such as infrared and x-ray. It is in multiwavelength astronomy that we now get the most colourful and detailed picture of the universe.
These developments have had a profound impact on humanity; on how we understand our own place and our planet’s place in the universe; our ‘pale blue dot’.
But although our site tells this story, the story doesn’t belong exclusively to Jodrell. Radio astronomy emerged as a new science after the second world war. Although two notable individuals, Karl Jansky and Grote Reber, had detected galactic radiowaves earlier than this, it was war time radar research that inspired physicists, such as Lovell, to see whether radar could be used to study the sky. This happened simultaneously and most significantly at four sites: Jodrell Bank, the Cavendish Laboratories in Cambridge, the British Army Operational Research Group and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Sydney, Australia. Open a correspondence file from the Jodrell archive of this period and you will find many letters between Lovell and the leaders of these research groups; sharing data, asking questions, reporting new developments, requesting corroboration, outlining hypotheses.
There was a particularly strong relationship between Jodrell and Cambridge. Lovell and Cambridge’s Martin Ryle were similar in many respects. Both had worked for the Telecommunications Research Establishment during the war, developing radar systems, before returning to their respective universities where they applied their wartime expertise to their research.
The 1949 letters below are part of a series between the two men from the exciting early days of radio astronomy. They had turned their radio receivers to the skies and found that the universe was indeed transmitting in radio frequencies; the possibilities of seeing what had previously been invisible was starting to unfold. The areas of interest were in the constellations of Cassiopeia and Cygnus, and Lovell speculates about the cause of fluctuations in the signal and asks his peer ‘Is there any fallacy in this reasoning?’. Ryle responds three weeks later with his own speculation and encloses their own tracings of Cygnus and Cassiopeia plus their ‘activity charts’ so Lovell can make the comparison for himself.
The ongoing dialogue between scientists was critical in the rapid development of radio astronomy, that went from bouncing radar signals off meteors in 1946 to the first mapping of an extragalactic radio source – the Andromeda Galaxy – just four years later.
Jodrell scientists Cyril Hazard and Robert Hanbury Brown analysing data charts from observations of Andromeda in 1950. CR University of Manchester
Chart recordings of Cygnus and Cassiopeia radio observations, 1955. From the Jodrell Bank archive at the University of Manchester Library
Radio astronomers in these early years had no real contact with optical astronomers; the phenomena they were discovering didn’t correspond to anything before seen in optical astronomy, and their processes were entirely different. Each research site had different equipment and approach; Cambridge for instance had a number of small aerials and concentrated on the technique of combining them to obtain a sharper view. Jodrell focused on the use of larger, single dishes, allowing them to detect much fainter and more distant radio sources. Neither could get a complete picture but by working together, along with the team in Sydney and, in the next few years an increasing number of sites around the world, they mapped the entire radio sky and created a revolutionary new window into the universe.
We are so excited to announce the first phase of our science line up for bluedot 2020 including some incredible headline speakers for the festival’s popular DotTalks programme and an unmissable opening concert with the Halle orchestra.
European Space Agency astronaut Tim Peake joins us a headliner, sharing stories of his time aboard the International Space Station and his reflections on the future of space travel. We’ll also be welcoming Emmy Award winner Ann Druyan – co-creator of the iconic documentary series Cosmos, writer of the novel and film Contact, and Creative Director behind NASA’s Voyager Interstellar Message Project. It was of course, Voyager 1 that famously turned its cameras back towards Earth to take a series of pictures. Those images showed Earth from a distance of 3.7 billion miles as a small point of bluish light and inspired Druyan’s late partner and original presenter of Cosmos, Carl Sagan, to coin the phrase ‘pale blue dot’ to describe our home planet. From which we, in turn, take inspiration for our festival.
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us.”
In this then, the 30th anniversary of that iconic ‘blue dot’ image, we’re thrilled to welcome back the Halle Orchestra for our opening concert, where they will present a bespoke live score that celebrates that literary work which inspired a generation of star gazers. Cosmos with the Halle Orchestra will take place on the Thursday night.
We’re delighted to also welcome back other festival favourites – The UK Space Agency’s Libby Jackson will be exploring the possibility of life on Mars, the BBC’s Sky at Night presenter Chris Lintott will be shocking us with some of space’s most unexpected surprises, and the Open University’s Monica Grady will be returning to tell us just how important one element can be in determining the fate of humanity…
We’ll also be joined by some of our colleagues from the University of Manchester who will be teaching us about everything from gut bacteria to climate change. Katherine Coyte, Chris Jones, Matthew Cobb and Chris Parkes will all be sharing a slice of their work with us over the course of the weekend.
With even more to be announced over the coming weeks, bluedot’s fifth year is set to be one of the best yet – proving that an interstellar combination of music and science doesn’t occur once every blue moon, but once every bluedot.
bluedot takes place 23-26 July 2020. Weekend tickets are now on sale from just £149, click here to find out more and explore the full lineup.
In just over six months, from 23 – 26 July, we’ll welcome over 30,000 people to Jodrell Bank once again to enjoy our award-winning, star-struck festival of discovery, bluedot. In honour of the festival’s fifth anniversary, we’ve gone to infinity and beyond to find the most inspiring combination of music, cosmic culture and science, and are excited to start sharing the 2020 line up.
The ground-breaking dance duo Groove Armada will headline the main stage on Friday night, followed by indie-electro giants Metronomy on Saturday. Sunday will see the legendary singer-songwriter Björk collaborate with the Hallé Orchestra in an unmissable festival finale featuring bespoke projections on to the Lovell telescope.
The highly anticipated science line up will follow in the next few weeks, but we couldn’t help but share the news that astronaut Tim Peake will be speaking at the festival! The first British ESA astronaut to visit the International Space Station will entertain with his stories from Mission Principia, where audiences will hear about his spacewalk to fix the station’s power supply and his record-breaking achievement to become the first man to run a marathon in space.
Saplings grown from apple pips from Isaac Newton’s tree and taken into space by astronaut Tim Peake have been given new homes to inspire the next generation.
8 young trees were grown from seeds taken from the ‘Flower of Kent’ tree at Woolsthorpe Manor, National Trust, in Lincolnshire, the home of iconic scientist Sir Isaac Newton who drew out the principles of gravity after seeing an apple fall.
The seeds then spent 6 months floating in microgravity as part of the ‘Pips in Space’ project before landing back on Earth in 2016 and nurtured into young trees. The UK Space Agency, the National Trust and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, worked together on the project.
Jodrell Bank is among the winners of a competition to become home to one of these special saplings and this Monday, Discovery Centre director Teresa Anderson accepted the tree at the special event at Woolsthorpe Manor. Our expert Gardeners are now looking after it and preparing it for planting here in the grounds of Jodrell Bank where it can inspire future generations of scientists.
Tim Peake said: “These trees are truly unique. They come from the iconic apple tree that inspired Sir Isaac Newton to ponder the forces of gravitation and continues to inspire to this day. My mission to space was named Principia in homage to Newton’s defining work that included his world-changing ideas about gravity. I wanted my Principia mission to inspire others, particularly young people, with the adventure of space and the excitement of science. Now, thanks to the careful nurturing at Kew, the apple pips that flew with me into space have grown into fine young trees which I hope will continue to inspire potential Isaac Newtons.”
Ian Cooper, General Manager for the National Trust, said: “Isaac Newton’s time back home at Woolsthorpe in his Year of Wonders in 1665 to 1666 transformed scientific thinking, the impact of which is still felt today. As the trees grow and mature at their new homes, the partnerships we’ve formed in this project will enable us to share Newton’s fascinating story with new people, hopefully inspiring curiosity and a passion for scientific endeavour. The successful applications for the space saplings had to demonstrate a commitment to inspiring people through sharing stories of science, space exploration, physics, horticulture and conservation.”
Dr Anne Visscher, Career Development Fellow, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, said: “We are delighted to have been part of such an exciting project. Apple seeds can lose viability if not stored properly, so we made sure they were kept at low humidity during their time in space. After their return to Earth, we germinated them in our seed bank laboratories before handing them over to the nursery team, who have gone out of their way to keep the young trees healthy. We are hopeful that they will continue to mature in their new homes around the country whilst engaging visitors with their history of Newton, space travel and plant science.”
Telescopes in the European VLBI Network (EVN), including Jodrell Bank’s Mark II Telescope, have observed a repeating Fast Radio Burst (FRB) in a spiral galaxy similar to our own. This FRB is the closest to Earth ever localised and was found in a radically different environment to previous studies. The discovery, once again, changes researchers’ assumptions on the origins of these mysterious extragalactic events.
One of the greatest current mysteries in astronomy is where short, dramatic bursts of radio light seen across the universe, known as Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs), are originating from. Although FRBs last for only a thousandth of a second, there are now hundreds of records of these enigmatic sources. However, from these records, the precise location is known for just four FRBs-they are said to be ‘localised’.
In 2016, one of these four sources was observed to repeat, with bursts originating from the same region in the sky, in a non-predictable way. This resulted in researchers drawing distinctions between FRBs where only a single burst of light was observed (‘non-repeating’) and those where multiple bursts of light were observed (‘repeating’).
“The multiple flashes that we witnessed in the first repeating FRB arose from very particular and extreme conditions inside a verytiny (dwarf) galaxy.” Says Benito Marcote, from the Joint Institute for VLBI ERIC and lead author of the current study. “This discovery represented the first piece of the puzzle but it also raised more questions than it solved, such as whether there was a fundamental difference between repeating and non-repeating FRBs. Now, we have localised a second repeating FRB, which challenges our previous ideas on what the source of these bursts could be.”
Artist’s conception of the localisation of Fast Radio Burst (FRB) 180916.J0158+65 (a.k.a. “R3”) to its host galaxy, SDSS J015800.28+654253.0. The host galaxy image is based on real observations using the Gemini-North telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. The impulsive burst emanating from the galaxy is based on real data recorded using the 100-metre Effelsberg radio telescope in Germany. The 8 radio dishes that are pictured are part of the European Very-long-baseline-interferometry Network (EVN). This global network of radio telescopes was used to pin-point the location of the FRB to a star-forming region in the host galaxy. The pictured telescope dome is that of the Gemini-North optical telescope, which observed the host galaxy in order to determine its redshift, which is a proxy for distance.
Image credit: Danielle Futselaar (artsource.nl)
On 19th June 2019, eight telescopes from the European VLBI Network (EVN) simultaneously observed a radio source known as FRB 180916.J0158+65. This source was originally discovered in 2018 by the CHIME telescope in Canada, which enabled the team, led by Marcote, to conduct a very high resolution observation with the EVN in the direction of FRB 180916.J0158+65. During five hours of observations the researchers detected four bursts, each lasting for less than two thousandths of a second. The resolution reached through the combination of the telescopes across the globe, using a technique known as Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI), meant that the bursts could be precisely localised to a region of approximately only seven light years across. This localisation is comparable to an individual on Earth being able to distinguish a person on the Moon.
With this location the team were able to conduct observations with one of the world’s largest optical telescopes, the 8-m Gemini North on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Examining the environment around the source revealed that the bursts originated from a spiral galaxy (named SDSS J015800.28+654253.0), located half a billion light years from Earth -specifically, from a region of that galaxy where star formation is prominent. “The found location is radically different from the previously located repeating FRB, but also different from all previously studied FRBs.” Explains Kenzie Nimmo, PhD student at the University of Amsterdam. “The differences between repeating and non-repeating fast radio bursts are thus less clear and we think that these events may not be linked to a particular type of galaxy or environment. It may be that FRBs are produced in a large zoo of locations across the Universe and just require some specific conditions to be visible.”
While the current study casts doubt on previous assumptions, this FRB is the closest to Earth ever localised, allowing astronomers to study these events in unparalleled detail.
“We hope that continued studies will unveil the conditions that result in the production of these mysterious flashes. Our aim is to precisely localize more FRBs and, ultimately, understand their origin” Concludes Jason Hessels, corresponding author on the study, from the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON) and the University of Amsterdam.
B. Marcote, K. Nimmo, J. W. T. Hessels, S. P. Tendulkar, C. G. Bassa, Z. Paragi, A. Keimpema, M. Bhardwaj, R. Karuppusamy, V. M. Kaspi, C. J. Law, D. Michilli, K. Aggarwal, B. Andersen, A. M. Archibald, K. Bandura, G. C. Bower, P. J. Boyle, C. Brar, S. Burke-Spolaor, B. J. Butler, T. Cassanelli, P. Chawla, P. Demorest, M. Dobbs, E. Fonseca, U. Giri, D. C. Good, K. Gourdji, A. Josephy, A. Yu. Kirichenko, F. Kirsten, T. L. Landecker, D. Lang, T. J.W. Lazio, D. Z. Li, H.-H. Lin, J. D. Linford, K. Masui, J. Mena-Parra, A. Naidu, C. Ng, C. Patel, U.-L. Pen, Z. Pleunis, M. Rafiei-Ravandi, M. Rahman, A. Renard, P. Scholz, S. R. Siegel, K. M. Smith, I. H. Stairs, K. Vanderlinde & A. V. Zwaniga. 2020. A repeating fast radio burst source localised to a nearby spiral galaxy. Nature (https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1866-z)
Were you lucky enough to receive a telescope for Christmas? If so, here are some fantastic things to find in the sky.
A nebula is a huge cloud of gas and dust in space from which stars are formed and they can be beautifully colourful. An easy nebula to spot is the Orion Nebula which can be seen with the naked eye as a faint smudge below Orion’s belt. A telescope reveals the purple colour of this nebula along with some of the stars which have formed there.
A small telescope or binoculars can reveal the beauty of these groups of stars bound together with gravity. M13, the Globular Cluster in the constellation of Hercules is a cluster of hundreds of thousands of stars which looks spectacular through a telescope.
The Pleiades is another cluster, this time visible with the naked eye. Up to 7 stars can be seen without aid but a telescope reveals dozens more and the blue hue of these hot super-giant stars.
Planets: In the night sky, several planets in our Solar System can be seen with the naked eye – they look like bright stars which don’t twinkle, you can even make out the red glow of Mars. But a telescope really brings the planets to life.
A small telescope can show the bands of cloud across Jupiter and four of its moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. These are known as the Galilean moons as they were first observed by Galileo; he wrote that it looked like Jupiter had ears!
And last but by no means least, is Saturn. We all know that Saturn has rings made up of thousands of chunks of rock and ice, but seeing them through a telescope with your own eyes is simply wonderful!
If you are just starting out in astronomy, a map of the night sky or ‘planisphere’ is invaluable and there are many free digital maps available to help including some of our learning resources here…
You’ll also find stargazing books, telescopes and other paraphernalia in our gift shop and opportunities to learn more about stargazing at our regular Stargazing Nights here at Jodrell Bank.
Happy New Year and good luck with all of your astronomical endeavours!
Last night, Jodrell Bank’s bluedot was awarded ‘Best Medium Festival’ at the UK festival Awards.
Having previously won ‘New Festival on the Block’ and ‘Mind-blowing Spectacle’ at the Association of Independent Festival Awards, this new prize firmly establishes bluedot as a major player on the UK festivals scene. The festival was also shortlisted for Line-up of the Year and Best Marketing Campaign.
Founded by Professors Teresa Anderson and Tim O’Brien in 2016, the 2019 festival was the biggest bluedot yet, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing in style with a four-day line-up of artists, speakers, scientists and performers.
Since its beginnings, the festival has gone from strength to strength, welcoming a diverse audience of tens of thousands of people to Jodrell Bank Observatory and receiving wide critical acclaim for its unique fusion of science and culture.
The 2020 festival looks set to be yet another extraordinary event with a carefully curated programme of screenings, talks, performances, exhibits, installations and hands-on activities. Taking place 23-26 July, tickets are on sale now and line-up announcements can be expected over the next few months.
For more information, to purchase tickets, and to watch highlight videos from previous festivals, visit www.discoverthebluedot.com
After a long period of maintenance work, the Lovell Telescope is back in action!
Since the spring of 2018, a number of tasks have been undertaken on the Telescope including painting, steelwork repairs, and a major project to fully replace the original 1957 Telescope surface.
The first major upgrade to the Telescope took place in 1970-71 when a new reflecting surface with a shallower curve was added above the original. The original surface was left in place underneath as an integral part of the structure. It is this original surface that you can see from beneath the Telescope and which has been recently replaced.
The work involved to replace the original surface was significant and took place over the last two consecutive summers -when the days are longer and the weather is (usually!) better. Throughout the work, the Telescope has been out of action and parked in the zenith, pointing directly upward.
While the project is not quite complete, last Friday, the giant Lovell Telescope was nevertheless back in action and staff and visitors all came out to watch it move again. The last ring of panels are still to be replaced however, and if you look closely, you’ll be able to spot a slight gap between the original surface underneath and the 1970-71 surface on top.
Parts of the original surface have been carefully kept for use in our National Lottery Heritage Funded project, First Light, celebrating the history of the Observatory. At the heart of the project will be a new exhibition using these carefully preserved sections of the surface.