Visions of the Cosmos

The European Astrofest 2007

Another year had past.  With eager anticipation we came once more to Astrofest.  The venue for the European Astrofest is at Kensington Town Hall  lies in a most appropriate part of the bustling capital of the UK.   Only a short distance away are the great museums of South Kensington - The Science Museum where the past triumphs of scientists and engineers are displayed for the people of the world to see and to learn how much science has done to improve the lot of the world.  One small example must be the discovery and application of electricity.  Close by is the Museum of Natural History where young people and the not so young can learn about the enthralling history of our planet - much of which is outlined in the first 'chapter' of this web-site.   Across the road is the Victorian and Albert Museum where art  from all over the world is vividly displayed.  Within the same complex is The Imperial College of Science and Technology  which employs some of the top space scientists in the world within its walls.  Here also in London is the seat of power of one of the member states of the  European Space Agency.  ESA is going from strength to strength and is taking its equal place besides NASA, as well as encouraging co-operation with the Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Indian and other space organisations.  The heartening thing is that in the new age which is dawning on our planet international co-operation in space research is pointing to the fact that we are one species, one people emerging from the bloody past of conflict and ethnic wars where men and women of goodwill from every corner of the Earth are progressing  together towards a bright and marvellous future when prejudices, conflict, greed, hatred and delusion will be a distant memory of a brutal paste.

"When our society stops looking out at the Universe we inhabit , when we stop asking questions about it - then our society is ready to decay. Prof. David Southwood

In May 2001 David Southwood took up his post as Director of Science (D/SCI), in charge of the ESA Science Programme.
David Southwood is a space physicist who has spent most of his career teaching and carrying out research. After graduating in 1966 he decided to pursue his career in academia and went on to Imperial College London, UK, where he obtained a PhD in Physics.

The Imperial College is very close to the Kensington Hall where the European Astrofest has been held in early February for many years

As in past years the Conference was an outstanding success with a large number of exhibitors from the fields of commerce and from academia and full of bright and eager people.  The programme of lectures was admirably chosen to cater for many different aspects of astronomy and space science.

It opened, appropriately enough, with events on our own planet.  Iain Gilmour from the Open University dealt admirably with the importance of extraterrestrial impacts on our own world, an example being the great Cretaceous  Extinction which is believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs, the pterosaurs and many more orders of animal. We must never forget that the Earth is only one planet in a stupendous Universe vast beyond our comprehension but it is the only place we know as home and the place we have to care for.

Illustration Pteranodon - Cretaceous Flying Reptile Heinrich Harder, Tiere der Umwelt Pub 1916

The next talk was given by Andy Newsam who gave the delegates an enthralling picture of how dedicated scientists and engineers are opening a window on the Universe to the younger generation.  Andy Newsam is the Director of the National Schools' Observatory and runs the Astronomy by Distance Learning Programme at Liverpool John Moores University. The National Schools Observatory is giving young people at schools throughout the UK the opportunity of having direct access to the world's largest robotic telescope on the Canary Islands.  Using specially created software, pupils and teachers can plan observing programmes which are sent over the internet to the 2 meter reflector at the Roque  de los Muchachos Observatory.  Thr National Schools Observatory is now available free to all UK schools.

Left hand Picture ESTEC            Right hand illustration Smart - 1

Building Photo Ray Goodwin       Courtesy ESA

Nye Evans from Keele University took us out into the world of stars - to special kinds of stars which produce Novae.  Although statistically rare and often little talked about these events are of great importance in understanding  the way in which matter can behave when subjected to unusual conditions.   Dave Heather from ESTEC (European Space Research and Technology Centre) the European Space Agency's Centre at Noodwijk in the Netherlands came nearer to home when he gave a illuminating description of one of the most ingenious experiments in the history of Space Research.  The section on the Moon in Chapter 2 of this web-site was largely inspired by his talk.  The launching of SMART-1 to the Moon by the European Space Agency must rank as a great step forward in space technology.

In the unfortunate absence of Professor Eva Grebel who was due to give a talk on the Local Group of Galaxies, Professor  Don Kurtz gave the delegates a most illuminating lecture on time and pointed out many things we do not usually consider, such as although the DAY is 24 hours long, the PERIOD OF ROTATION of the Earth is 23 hours 56 minutes 04. 09053 seconds. This is called the sidereal period (which means the period relative to stars). The sidereal period is not exactly equal to a day because by the time the Earth has rotated once, it has also moved a little in its orbit around the Sun, so it has to keep rotating for about another 4 minutes before the Sun seems to be back in the same place in the sky that it was in exactly a day before.

Illustration Courtesy NASA/JPL/Caltech D. Watson University of Rochester

The audience were next introduced to one of the  most intriquing new instruments, the Spitzer Space Telescope by Rob Kennicutt from the University of Cambridge.  This new telescope is adding enormously to our knowledge of protoplanetary discs and how planets form around stars.  Professor Jocelyn Bell-Burnell followed with a brilliant talk on Pulsars - and who better to perform this task as the discoverer of these intriguing objects.  I feel sure we all left with a much better knowledge of neutron stars and their fantastic magnetic and gravitational properties after such a clearly described expose.

A diagram of a pulsar, showing its rotation axis
and its magnetic axis Diagram courtesy NASA


Pulsars were first discovered in late 1967 when  Jocelyn Bell Burnell was a graduate student. She detected them as radio sources that blink on and off at a constant frequency. Now we observe the brightest ones at almost every wavelength of light. Pulsars are spinning neutron stars that have jets of particles moving almost at the speed of light streaming out above their magnetic poles These jets produce very powerful beams of light

Mars Global Surveyor Illustration NASA/JPL Artwork Corby Waste                                              Mars Express. Courtesy ESA

The last talk on the first day was given by Michael Meyer from NASA Headquarters in Washington.  As the lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program and with an impressive background in biological work in many parts of the world including remote parts of the Earth such as the Gobi and Negev Deserts and the Arctic and Antarctic Regions as well as research work in Cambridge, Dr Meyer was admirably suited to give the delegates information on the latest Mars programmes.  He gave a most informative talk about the work done on Mars in particular by the American Mars orbiters and landers and by the European Mars Express.  This was to be his first talk.  On the afternoon of the second day Dr Meyer inspired the audience with the future plans of the investigation of Mars primarily by the American and European Space Organisations NASA and ESA.   Much of the ground covered by Dr Meyer will be discussed in the section of this web-site on Missions to Mars which is at present under preparation and due for early publication. 

The second day began with a talk by Professor Fred Taylor from Oxford University on the weather and climate on the planets.  He concentrated largely on Venus and as a result of his excellent descriptions the audience went away with an idea of what it must be like to pay a visit to the most inhospitable world in the Solar System.  The second talk of the morning taught us much about those visitors to the Inner Solar System, the Comets, as Reinder Bouma from the Royal Dutch Association for Meteorology and Astronomy regaled the audience about his visit to South Africa to study the recent McNaught Comet.  Some of the photographs of the tail were the most wonderful and impressive that I have ever seen.  Dr Bouma was followed by Damian Peach who gave an illustrated talk on the photography of the Moon.   He displayed some of the most impressive photographs of the lunar surface taken with modern equipment that is available to the amateur astronomer.

The crowning event of the morning session was a special presentation of 'The Sky at Night' with Sir Patrick Moore, Brian May and Chris Lintott.  It was a truly  impressive and uplifting event in which a packed audience was able to say THANK YOU to Patrick for all the untiring work he had carried out for 50 years in bringing the attention of the general public to Astronomy.  Dr Brian May and Dr Lintott paid tribute to all that Patrick had done throughout the years in inspiring people to not only show an interest in astronomy but in taking it up as a profession.  The audience gave a well deserved standing ovation at the end of the presentation.

Jodrell Bank Radio Telescope Picture of the Day 8 March 1996 Courtesy NASA Illustration Courtesy University of Manchester, Nuffield Radio Astronomy Laboratories, UK

During the afternoon Tim O'Brien inspired us with an illustrated talk on the history of the Jodrell Bank Radio Telescope.  He related to us in graphic terms details of the inspiring work carried out  by one man Sir Bernard Lovell of the University of Manchester who tirelessly persuaded a succession of governments of the day to build and to maintain one of the most famous and impressive scientific instruments of the second half of the twentieth century.  Not only is the Radio Telescope still performing valuable scientific work of world importance but Sir Bernard at 93 years of age still works on the wonderful machine which he created.

After a second talk on Mars in which Dr Meyer concentrated on the future developments,  Dr Alan Chapman delivered an impressive talk on the history of Richard Procter, astronomy's first transatlantic media star.  As he does every year Professor Chapman gave a clear and fluent picture about a great man from the past. Speaking without notes he brought Richard Proctor and his work to life. 

The session ended with a feeling of elation and hope for the future and I feel that I can speak for the other participants in saying that there was only one thing wrong and that is that we must wait another year before we can come to the next Astrofest.  It is the highlight of the astronomical year and it would not be a complete account of the event if we did not give a heartfelt vote of thanks to Ian Ridpath, Iain Nicolson and the whole of the staff of Astronomy Now for the excellent organisation of this inspiring yearly conference.


Solar System