Astrofest Awesomeness

Well I thought I ought to do a blog post about my time at Astrofest 2011 over the last few days. It was a fantastic 2 days, learnt a lot, met some lovely people and generally had a superb time.

I’ll admit, I was a bit nervous and apprehensive about going along. I knew no one except for a few people I ‘knew of’ on Twitter. I’m not usually good when you put me in the situation of this kind of thing with loads of random people.

Nevertheless I found how to get to High Street Kensington on the tube (tube maps confuse me) and on Friday morning at 8am I left to find my way. I then went in search of breakfast and coffee before I went in.

Now, despite checking how to get to the event on Google Maps, Google Street View and the fact that I had my iPhone with me, I still managed to get lost. I even missed the giant sign that said ‘ASTROFEST IS HERE’. Even the swarms of people heading to that big building over there didn’t help me out. I got there in the end though, just in time for Session 1.

The first talk was by Dr Emily Baldwin (@AstroEmz) on the moons of Mars. I’m very interested in this area of science (planetary geology etc) and was intrigued to hear all the different theories on how these moons came to be. What was most interesting, however, was the possible explanation for some weird markings on the moon Phobos.

Strange Grooves on Phobos

There were many theories, maybe low-angle secondary impacts from the huge crater Stickney. It turns out that these grooves were formed from ejecta thrown up into space by a giant impact on Mars sometime in its past. Pretty interesting stuff! And the Russians are even sending a lander there to gather samples and bring them back to the Earth.

Next we got to play around with the Faulkes telescope in Australia. There was a live connection and over the internet you could operate the telescope. How cool was that. You could even take photos too.

We then got to hear about the strange Epsilon Aurigae. Why did it dim significantly every 27 years? Research suggests that it is an eclipsing binary system, but that’s not all. The possible companion has a huge disc of dust around it and when it passes in front of the star, it dims. There’s still a lot of unknowns about it but this nice artists impression describes the situation nicely.

Epsilon Aurigae transiting dust disc.

The next talk by Chris Arridge (@chrisarridge) was another one that interested me. It was about the giant planets, specifically Uranus and Neptune. I’ve just been studying the giant planets as part of my OU course and found some of it quite difficult and challenging. It was all made slightly easier to understand by Chris’s fantastic talk. He talked about the odd rotational axis of Uranus (almost 90°) the winds and the Great Dark Spot on Neptune and all the peculiar cryovolcanic moons Miranda and Triton and many more. Chris is also working on a future space mission that has been put forward for proposal. We’ll all know in the next month whether the mission has been accepted. The mission is called ‘Uranus Pathfinder’ a mission to head to Uranus, enter orbit, study its magnetic fields, winds, composition and moons. It’s a very exciting mission but if it’s accepted won’t enter Uranian orbit until 2036/37. A long time indeed!

I’m going to jump straight the Session 3 the next day now, and it started with a near miss. A very near miss, of the asteroidal kind! Unbeknown to us all, the night before an asteroid, only a small one, came rather close to the Earth. 0.85 Earth radii or about 5500km to be precise. Pretty close indeed. The Earth’s gravity even changed its orbit quite significantly. The object used to orbit just outside the Earth’s orbit and now it will orbit within the Earth’s orbit. Here’s a great graphic of the near miss.

Near Miss

We then had a great talk on Near Earth Objects (NEO’s). How many were out there? How many big ones could collide with the Earth? What can we do to stop one? Turns out there’s not much for us to be worried about, we’re very unlikely to witness a catastrophic impact in our lives. However, every two years there’s a conference called the Planetary Defence Conference where leading scientists and engineers gather to discuss on possible defence techniques.

The lost films of Apollo was our next talk. All footage mainly from engineering cameras that few people had seen. There was some great footage from the command module water landing tests as well as some from launch stage separations. We were then shown footage complied together that was used in the docu-film ‘In the Shadow of the Moon’. I’ve found it on YouTube so please have a look.

Later the comedian Helen Keen (@helen_keen) gave her fantastic stand-up act ‘It IS Rocket Science’. It’s was absolutely hilarious! She’s got a new Radio 4 comedy show coming out soon too under the same name, so be sure to watch out for that one!

Session 4 that afternoon. The peak of excitement, masses of people, and people like me turning into giddy little girls. Yes, Brian Cox was in the house. After a superb talk on lunar impacts and lava flows and another on how we’re mapping the galaxy Brain Cox told us about the amazing work going on at the LHC.

Particle physics has never been my strong point, it’s interesting, but I don’t understand it! As always though, Brian Cox manages to put it in an easy to understand way. I now know, in a lot more detail, about antimatter, super-symmetry (SUSY), the Higgs Boson and neutrinos. Did you know that 6 billion neutrinos pass through your thumb nail every second! Impressive stuff eh!

All in all a stupendous 2 days, I’ll definitely be back for Astrofest 2012!

I must say thanks to some lovely people I met though. Dave who I ended up going to Session 1 with on the Friday, and fellow Open University student Ruth who was great to talk to and who I went to Session 4 with. Thanks!

Hope everyone else had a great time too!

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