Astrofest 2014 Session 1

Astrofest 2014 kicked off this morning with four talks the first on The Year of the Aurora, the second on the Voyager mission, the third on measuring gravity in the solar system and the fourth on exoplanets.

The talk on the aurora was very interesting in showing the causes of aurora but also the areas in which they can be seen and the way that varies. many people will have seen the pictures of the aurora shown on Stargazing Live earlier in the year. This talk helped place them in context and explained clearly what was actually happening.

The talk on the Voyager mission meanwhile acted as a timely reminder of how many of the things we now take for granted were first discovered by the Voyager missions.

These include:

  • the first measurements of the Great Red Spot on Jupiter
  • active volcanoes on Io
  • an underground ocean on Europa
  • a methane atmosphere on Titan
  • the hexagonal polar storms on Titan and
  • the surprising fact that even at 30 AU from the Sun Miranda and Triton are geologically active and Triton has an active atmosphere. 
Ali Mozafarri talked about testing gravity within the solar system. This has become important because it provides a way to test the theory of modified newtonian gravity (MOND), a potential alternative to Dark Matter. It is not something that can be tested on Earth since it requires a very low gravity environment to test.
 
Happily such an environment can be found at a point between the Earth and the Sun. Even better ESA’s LIGO Pathfinder mission contains precisely the kind of equipment needed to make these measurements to a very high degree of accuracy. LIGO pathfinder is due to launch next year and discussions are going on to try to get agreement for it to undertake this work after its main mission is completed. 
 
The final talk of the morning was on the subject of exoplanets and what we can learn about them. Clearly this is a difficult task given the great distances they are at and their relatively small size. 
 
However a great deal is already being learnt  By measuring the spectra when they transit in front of their star we can already detect whether these planets have atmospheres and, if so, what it is composed of. This can also be used to tell us something about the history of these planets.
 
With 1,000 exoplanets already discovered we already know that the solar system is not typical of planets in the rest of the galaxy. Although there are clear distinctions between the rocky planets, gas giants and ice giant planets in our solar system the exoplanets we see do not display this clear delineation  but rather are more of a continuous spectrum from small to large.
 
The next couple of decades will see a great deal more information flowing from this work which will tell us a lot more about our place in the cosmos.
 
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