Astrofest 2016 Friday afternoon

The afternoon session started with a talk by Dr Tom Whyntie on particle physics in space. He pointed out that the equipment for undertaking particle physics on Earth has escalated in the last half century or so from table top experiments to the Large Hadron Collider. The experimental elements of the LHC weigh in the order of 15,000 tons so are not the sorts of things you can take into space.

However there are some particle physics experiments which can be done in space. He pointed to the AMS experiment on the International Space Station which is looking for Dark Matter. He also touched on Silicon detectors which can be built into USB sticks and which are currently being used to monitor the amounts of radiation astronauts are being subjected to. There are also plans to take some of these detectors on future Mars missions to get a good idea of the levels of radiation astronauts would face on a journey to Mars. So whilst some particle physics can be done in space it is much easier to do it on Earth and for the biggest experiments doing them on Earth is the only option.

Pete Lawrence then gave a talk on things to see in the night sky in 2016. Amongst his highlights were:

  • On 22 February comet catalin a will be close to the bottom of Kemble’s cascade close to NGC 1502.
  • In March Jupiter will be at opposition and visible all night.
  • On 9 May there will be the Mercury transit of the Sun and on 22 May Mars will be at opposition and so at its largest.
  • Finally June will see Saturn at opposition.

John Spencer from the Southwest Institute at Boulder gave a review of of the New Horizons journey to Pluto. John explained that there had been interest in a mission to Pluto since the 1980’s but it was only in 2001 that NASA finally called for proposals for the mission. Things then moved quickly and it took only 5 years from the call for proposals to launching the spacecraft in January 2006. It was the quickest turnaround of a mission of this size and complexity ever.

Once launched the spacecraft  took a trip around Jupiter to get a gravity assist which shortened the journey time by 3 years but also gave them the opportunity to test the missions instruments on Jupiter and its Moons. From there it was a direct flight to Pluto passing by absolutely nothing for 7 years until arriving at Pluto in summer last year. Despite losing contact with the craft about ten days out from Pluto and worries about possible debris in the Pluto system the mission went like clockwork and we are now seeing the product flowing back.

The final session of the day was a presentation on stereoscopic astronomy from Brian May. It’s not really possible to describe such a highly visual presentation in words But spectacular would not be overstating it.

With this the first day of Astrofest ended.

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