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Lunch Hour Lecture: On supernovae and serendipity

IrrumAli13 October 2014

Like a white dwarf, autumn 2014’s first Lunch Hour Lecture was dense, full of energy and tightly packed (but in this case, time and not space, I might add).

Psyched for my first Lunch Hour Lecture, I was ready to explore the world of supernovae with a 45-minute guided journey through the stars, namely, ones in the process of exploding very dramatically.

Radiating enthusiasm and demonstrating expertise from start to finish, Dr Steve Fossey (UCL Physics and Astronomy) took a capacity audience on a whistle stop tour of January’s discovery of a Type ia supernova, memorably named SN 2014J, and situated in our neighbourhood galaxy, the sci-fi sounding, Messier 82.

After summarising the rules for supernovae discovery (there are two options: looking, and not looking but accidentally finding), Dr Fossey gave a short overview of history’s accidental supernova discoveries.

One scenario for Type Ia supernovae: a white dwarf accreting matter from a neighbour till it becomes unstable Credit: European Southern Observatory

One scenario for Type Ia supernovae: a white dwarf accreting matter from a neighbour until it becomes unstable
Credit: European Southern Observatory via Oli Usher

Beginning with Tycho Brahe’s find in 1572 – labelled SN 1572 – which rewrote the rules of astronomy, he moved on to Johannes Kepler’s discovery of SN 1604 in, wait for it, 1604 (are you seeing a pattern here?) and finally, and more recently, SN 1987A, found by astronomers in Chile.

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Astronaut touches down in Swiss Cottage

OliUsher10 October 2014

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NASA Administrator Charles Bolden visits UCL Academy

Charlie Bolden was born in the deep south of the US, during the days of segregation and institutionalised racism. Despite this inauspicious start in life, he went on to a high-flying military career, commanded the Space Shuttle, spent 28 days in orbit and, in 2009, was made head of NASA by President Obama. He is the first African American to hold the position.

During a trip to the UK to meet senior officials in the UK and Italian space agencies, Bolden dropped into the UCL Academy for a few hours to talk to the students and teachers there. The visit was organised by the Mullard Space Science Laboratory at UCL.

He started off with a conventional inspirational speech, full of quotable soundbites – “study hard, work hard, don’t be afraid of failure” – as well as first-hand anecdotes from the four Space Shuttle missions he flew on. (Most memorably, he went on a long and highly entertaining digression about Newton’s laws of motion, and how in microgravity you need to be attached to a computer keyboard if you want to avoid launching yourself across the cabin when you type.)

As he went on, and the students gradually became more and more enthused, more and more hands shot up in the audience.

A quarter of an hour in, any pretence of this being a lecture was off. Instead, it had become a wide-ranging conversation covering everything from what happens if someone falls ill in space (there is someone with basic surgical training on every mission) to whether or not there is wi-fi on the International Space Station (there is).

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On supernovae and serendipity

OliUsher24 March 2014

Fresh from his discovery in January of Supernova 2014J while at UCL’s University of London Observatory, Dr Steve Fossey spoke about ‘Supernovae and serendipity’ at a Physics Colloquium on 12 March.

When introducing Dr Fossey, the observatory’s director Professor Ian Howarth explained how he wanted to set some facts straight.

Supernova 2014 J Seen by UCL's observatory

Supernova 2014 J seen from UCL’s observatory
Credit: UCL Phyics & Astronomy

The discovery of Supernova 2014J was no fluke, he said, and the press release that said it was a happy accident (written by yours truly) was wrong, along with all the coverage that followed.

Like all good jokes, this one had a large kernel of truth (so Ian, if you’re reading, no hard feelings!): even if first chancing upon the supernova was a stroke of luck, what happened next, both on the night of the discovery at UCL and in the days that followed at observatories around the world, was not.

I bring this up because the story of what happened after the discovery is in many ways more interesting than what happened on the night.

Supernovae, Dr Fossey explained, are all caused by a star becoming unstable and exploding, but the reasons for the instability, and the properties of the explosion, vary. And in those variations lie this one’s importance.

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The future of Europe’s missions in space: small steps or giant leaps?

OliUsher2 February 2014

Serge Plattard, an international space policy expert recently appointed as honorary professor at UCL, gave a whirlwind tour of the politics of space in his inaugural lecture on 22 January. Covering everything from human spaceflight to navigation systems, and launching from topic to topic faster than an Ariane 5 rocket, Plattard’s whole lecture is hard to summarise.

But one fundamental truth ran through everything he said, including his talk’s title: space policy, economics and society are now all closely intertwined, and their mutual impact on each other is growing.

Although we still think of space as part of the public sector, with NASA, the European Space Agency and their Russian and Chinese counterparts dominating much of the mindshare, the days of state domination of space are over, he said. The total world spend on space is now over $300bn per year, of which less than $80bn is spent by governments. Private broadcasting alone spending alone outspends every public space agency in the world, and so does the geolocation sector.

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