Report on Astrofest 2015

By Frank Bonner

Astrofest is a bit of a strange beast. Run by Astronomy Now for the last 25 years it is part Astronomy Conference and part market place, where you can buy anything from a £1.50 filter to a £15,000 mount and anything in between.

The hardware show can easily damage your wallet but the Conference gives a good update on the current state of play on astronomy and cosmology issues. Over two days you get 16 talks over a wide range of issues.

This year’s conference covered a look back over the last 25 years, together with an update of cutting edge issues such as the outcome of the Rosetta mission and the BICEP 2 announcement of the discovery of primordial gravitational waves.

Whilst it is easy to look forward to the next great thing it is also easy to forget that some of the great things of the past are still working and producing valuable results. The last 25 years have seen the launch of the four great space observatories – Hubble, Spitzer, Chandra and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory together with other more focussed space based observatories like Planck. At the same time on the ground we have seen the development of 8 to 10 metre telescopes with adaptive optics in places like Hawaii and Chile giving unprecedentedly good views of the skies from the ground.

The roster of discoveries of these telescopes is far too long to list but, for example, Hubble, as well as providing some stunning photos, has provided key information about Dark Matter, Dark Energy, found embryonic solar systems in the Orion nebula and looked at the atmospheres of exoplanets. Planck has told us more about the formation of the Universe through the Cosmic Microwave Background mapping it has undertaken, as well as giving sharp focus to the actual make up of the Universe as we experience it today.

Meanwhile, all of the solar systems planets have been visited at least once whist Mars in particular has had so many missions it is hard to keep count.

Without even touching on the myriad other things which have been done with earthbound telescopes and other activities it is an impressive list of achievements in such a relatively short period of time.

The Present

Undoubtedly two of the main highlights of the last year were the announcement by the BICEP 2 group that they had discovered Primordial Gravitational Waves and the arrival of the Rosetta mission at Comet 67P and the landing of Philae on the comet. Both projects were represented at Astrofest.

BICEP 2

The BICEP 2 team gave a presentation which covered what they thought they had found and how, working with the Planck team, they discovered that they had not discovered gravitational waves but in fact what the had seen was galactic dust. They are still strongly of the view that gravitational waves will be found, either by themselves or those looking for them as a result of neutron star mergers, in the next few years.

Rosetta

The Rosetta team flew in Barbara Cozzoni, the leader of the Philae lander team from Darmstadt together with the leader of the Osiris camera team to talk about the problems they had in landing Philae and the work the camera team have already been able to do at the comet.

The camera team were able to show some new photos from the comet particularly highlighting cracks around the neck of the comet which they think may lead to the comet splitting in two later in its orbit although this is by no means guaranteed.

For their part the Philae landing team outlined a timetable which they think may result in the lander’s batteries recharging and getting more work out of it. In summary their thoughts are:

  • Possible booting in April/May.
  • Possible communication in May/June.
  • Possible science in July/August.

There is clearly much more to come from Rosetta over the next year or so as the comet rounds the Sun. The current plan is to soft land Rosetta itself on the comet at the end of the mission but like everything else that could change.

Astrophotography

Adventures in Robotic Imaging by Nik Szymanek was an interesting talk on the use of robotic telescopes for astrophotography. Whilst he mentioned the commercial operations from which time can be hired, the bulk of the talk centred on the facility he and some friends have built in Spain to get around the problems of poor sky quality in the UK. The standard of the photos he is producing from this facility are truly staggering and it seems that most of his work is now done using these robotic telescopes.

It is an expensive process to set up and run a facility like this. What was surprising however is that all the hardware and software are off the shelf items that anybody can buy from an astronomy shop and/or Amazon. The real skill is in the way it has all been put together.

Other Issues

Sixteen talks packed into two days is a heavy agenda. It is almost two years worth of talks for us as a group. I have highlighted some of the talks that I found most interesting. But there was much more that I don’t have the space to cover in any detail at all. These include:

➣Supermassive Black Holes

➣100 years of General Relativity

➣Herschel and the Hidden Universe

➣Cassini’s mission to Saturn

➣Gravitational Wave Astronomy

➣Swift and the Biggest Bangs in the Universe.

It is a very interesting weekend and even if you do not fancy one or more of the talks there is always the lure of all the hardware assembled in the show area. It really should come with a credit card health warning!

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