It’s very rare to get to see a comet which is so bright that you can easily see it from the middle of a housing estate through light haze with a near full Moon with just your eyes. No telescope, no binoculars, nothing! But that’s what I’ve just done. The Periodic comet 17/P Holmes has just surprised the heck out of Astronomers by brighting from Magnitude 17 (you need a professional grade telescope to see things that faint) to Magnitude 3 (easily visible with the naked eye) literally over-night. Obviously something very spectacular just happened on the comet.

Thanks to an email with coordinates form Terry Mosley I knew Holmes could be found near delta Persei at around midnight. When I got outside conditions were very poor and not helped by the street lights all around me. As I mentioned there was a near full Moon high to the south and a think layer of haze across the whole sky being lit up by the Moon. Needless to say my expectations weren’t high. However, Holmes was so bright that it distorted the shape of Perseus to the extent that I had trouble finding the constellation! My brain just kept saying “no, that’s not Perseus, Perseus doesn’t have that nice little triangle of stars in it”. You guessed it, one of those three stars was not a star at all but the comet. To me Holmes looked to be about the same brightness as Delta Persei so that would put it at around the Magnitude 3. I’ve never seen a comet like this before. It looks just like a star, even in binoculars. No Coma, no tail, nothing, just a point of light. For all the world it looks like an extra star has appeared out of nowhere in Perseus. I’ve attached a scan of my record of the observation below.

Comet 17/P Holmes - 25-10-2007 @ 00:20

If you’re interested in observing the comet yourself the guys in Astronomy Ireland have been kind enough to put a finder chart up on their website. You can find it here:

[tags]Comet, 17/P Holmes[/tags]

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I was invited to a careers fair organised by my old school yesterday. The idea was that past pupils would come back and be available to talk to current students and their parents about their experiences in further education and/or employment. I was past student number 78, and if memory serves, there were another five to ten past students after me on the list. For a school of about 600 students I was very impressed by those numbers. The place was also packed with interested students and parents so it was not only a good idea but also a success. I had a constant stream of students talking to me about the sciences and IT throughout the two hour event. The students were keen and enthusiastic, which was great to see. However, the students who spoke to me all had one other thing in common, they were all male.

I always hopped that as time went on the gender imbalance in the sciences and IT would sort itself out. I thought it was just a relic of long gone times that would automatically be corrected as the older generations were replaced by newer ones. That is plainly not the case in rural Ireland. I don’t think this imbalance is down to prejudices or uneven opportunities within these disciplines. That certainly was the case in the past but, I see no evidence of it now. So, it must be something else. I’ve been thinking about this all day, and I can only assume it has something to do with image. I guess school girls don’t see either science or computers as interesting. We’re going to have to change that, but I’ll be damed if I can see how. Anyone out there got any ideas?

People didn’t seen averse to my posting links to interesting articles I’d recently read so here’s another batch to tickle your fancy. These range from serious and thought-provoking to playful and humorous.

  • We’ll start with a thought-provoking article about Linux. This is one that some of you are bound to disagree with but I think Walt Mossberg is right, Linux is getting better but it’s not yet ready for novice users – Linux’s Free System Is Now Easier to Use, But Not for Everyone
  • While we’re on the topic of technology I came across a fantastic essay by one of my hero’s Stephen Fry on smart phones. I had no idea Stephen was such a technophile! This is a very long but a very well written, thoughtful, and humorous look at why none of the supposed iPhone killers actually are iPhone killers – Device and Desires
  • Before we more on to other matters here’s one more technology article. One I find rather humorous. According to Steven Frank from Panic Software Macs make better Windows machines than regular PCs! – Macs Really Do Run Windows Better
  • Now on to a totally different subject, light pollution. I came across a fantastic article about it in the New Yourker this week. That article is long, but very well written and touches off all the issues including energy savings, the ways in which much modern ‘security’ lighting actually helps the criminals and of course the wonders of the night sky which we are depriving our selves of needlessly – The Dark Side
  • Finally, some light entertainment in the form of a fantastic parody of the last Harry Potter book – Potterdammerung

Note: This article was written for, and first published in, The Big Bang, the news letter of Astro2, the Astronomy & Physics Society of NUI Maynooth.

This is a very nice time of the year to get into some practical astronomy. The nights are getting longer and it’s getting dark earlier and earlier so you don’t have to stay up late to enjoy the wonders of the night sky. A few months from now the treasure’s of the winter sky will make their appearance but until then we have a last chance to admire the stars of our summer skies before they are gone for the year.

In particular this is a great time to enjoy the constellations that straddle the Milky-Way galaxy. Even with the most basic of binoculars scanning the band of the Milky-Way is a fascinating experience. So many stars all heaped on top of each other. I can’t help but wonder how many intelligent aliens are staring back at our little sun from those tiny pin-pricks of light.

While you’re scanning the Milky-Way with your binoculars you may as well have a go at tracking down some of the nice open clusters in the area. Probably the best of these is the double cluster in Perseus closely followed in my opinion by the V-shaped M39 at the top of Cygnus. Also worth tracking down is M34 also in Perseus and M52 in near-by Cepheus.

After you’ve tracked down those clusters you could also track down a must larger group of stars, the Andromeda galaxy just a little lower down in the sky at the top of the constellation of Andromeda. If you’re in a particularly dark location you can also try for the pinwheel galaxy, M33, in Triangulum. This is a huge galaxy that is so large on the sky it’s almost impossible to see in a telescope but can be quite easily seen with a pair of binoculars if the sky is dark enough.

Finally, over these months Mars will start to rise earlier and earlier in the sky as it charges towards us for it’s closest approach around Christmas time.

As part of a program to promote science at second level my Leaving Cert physics teacher asked me back to give a talk. I decided to focus on something that the curriculum certainly never does, the stuff we DON’T know. The curriculum teaches science as a set of laws and equations. It all seems very much set in stone, almost like commandments chiseled into tablets. What the curriculum doesn’t really teach kids is how science evolves or how it is evolving today. Right now scientists are trying to thrash out some really very fundamental questions about the universe we all live in. It’s the continuation of a never-ending epic struggle to better understand our universe. Students generally don’t get to see that, so I dedicated my talk to explaining just two of those very fundamental mysteries which scientists are trying to get to the bottom of right now.

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James Webb Space Telescope in DublinIreland has been honored as the only country in Europe to get a visit from a full-size model of the James Webb Space Telescope (the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope). At the moment the model is in the grounds of the Museum of Modern Art in Kilmainham in Dublin. It will be in Ireland for a few weeks yet but it may be moving around. For information on where and when you’ll be able to see the model contact the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies. If you’re going to see it in Kilmainham my advice would be to park in Heuston Station from where it’s only about a five minute walk.

The museum itself is a beautiful building in beautiful grounds. Had the weather been better I could have happily spend a few hours there. As it was it was dull and raining on and off. Regardless of the rain I did take some pictures which you can see in my gallery.

[tags]Dublin, Museum of Modern Art, James Webb Space Telescope, JWST[/tags]

Having set myself the challenge of observing all the planets with a pair of 10x50mm binoculars I bought in Lidle for €19 this year I got to tick another one off my list today, Jupiter. I now just need Mars and the two difficult ones, Uranus & Neptune. Although Jupiter is the only one I get to cross off my list today I did get to observe many more planets, in fact, I observed all the planets bar the three I’m missing!

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To settle a little argument in the family I’ve been keeping a record of the results of all the games of Solitaire I’ve played since Easter. Since Nature weren’t interested in my results I present them here on my humble blog 🙂 To cut a long story short, Dad’s hypothesis was that one only wins about one in every twenty games of Solitaire, I disagreed giving a non-scientific estimate that I win about one in five games. He asked me to prove it, so I started keeping records! Today my dataset hit 150 games which I think is enough to average over and get meaningful results. To further support my work my brother also contributed data on a further 100 games owing to extreme boredom while forced to take time off work because of a football injury.


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Ireland is not a big country, only a small percentage of people in Ireland are interested in Astronomy, only a small percentage of those get actively involved. So, the Irish Amateur Astronomical community is small. Yet, it is plagued by a decades old feud. On one side you have the combined entity of Astronomy & Space Ltd (a company) and Astronomy Ireland (a club), and on the other you have everyone else, mostly combined under the banner of the Irish Federation of Astronomical Societies (IFAS). The level of animosity between both camps is astounding. The stories you hear are often shocking and the depth of emotion almost unimaginable. There are a few rare people like myself who straddle(d) the divide, but most are in one camp or the other. There are also many people who are new to the community and who don’t know nor care about the history that started the feud. Many of these get so put off by all the animosity that they just give up altogether and withdraw from the community to enjoy the wonders of the night sky by themselves.

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I observed the eclipse from the end of the umbral phase when you could start to see some limb darkening through to the middle of totality. There were three of us to start with, myself, my better half and a mate, but since I set the telescope up in the driveway we soon had a collection of passers by having a look through the telescope and the binoculars and we wowed a few of the more interested ones with a quick glance of Saturn. One of our neighbors came round for a few looks and brought us some beers as a thank you (cheers Michael, much appreciated). All in all it was a good observing session and the things that we noticed were:

  • That there was a blue tint on the edge of the umbral shadow
  • That even during maximum eclipse the moon wasn’t very red, more orange
  • That even during maximum eclipse we could easily make out the larger seas with the naked eye, with binoculars loads of surface features were easily visible, and with the telescope even lunar rays were easy to see.
  • The top edge of the moon was always that bit less dark than the rest.

This would lead me to the conclusion that this eclipse was at point 4 on the Danjon scale, i.e. the least dark kind of lunar eclipse. The fact that the earth didn’t pass through the center of the Moon’s shadow probably played a part in this as did the fact that we’ve had no major volcanic activity recently.

All in all it was a great nights observing with no real weather problems, we had the occasional whisp of high cloud but they passed by very quickly. The most important thing was that a good night was had by all.

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