WASCZ Astronomy Newsletter

School News September 27, 2019

It’s been a busy week in the world of astronomy, both at Wycombe Abbey and in the wider world. Looking at the outside world first, Chinese astronomers have just announced that the world’s largest single dish radio telescope the Five hundred metre Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), in Guizhou, is now fully operational. At half a kilometre across it has twice the resolution of the previous record holder, the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. One of it’s first observations was of a ‘fast radio burst’ These have been seen by other radio telescopes but the FASTs huge aperture may help astronomers and scientists around the world find out what these strange pulses actually are. They are almost certainly outside our own galaxy and are incredibly powerful. However, exactly what causes them remains a mystery. They may have something to do with collapsing stars or supermassive black holes. One suggestion is even that they may be signals from intelligent aliens! FAST may hold some of the answers, so we’ll try to keep you up to date.

The Five Hundred Metre Telescope in Guizhou

Last week Comet Borisov made headlines across the world, when its orbit showed that it almost certainly is a visitor from another solar system. This week astronomers are studying it to find if its chemistry is any different from comets born in our solar system. Comets are known to carry organic molecules and it is possible that they seeded the early Earth with chemicals necessary for the creation of life. If our visitor carries similar chemicals, then it may tell us a little about the possibility of life elsewhere in our galaxy.

The Path of Comet Borisov

On the subject of life, this week a team of astronomers at University College London announced that they had detected an exoplanet, orbiting its star in the habitable zone and that it had water in its atmosphere. Immediately, the world’s press reported that the water meant that the planet was habitable, Earth-like and that this was the best chance yet of life beyond the Earth. Mr. Norfolk contacted a former pupil who works with the group. Dr. Barstow said that the press had misrepresented the evidence; far from being a ‘super-earth’ the planet is more like a ‘mini-neptune’ and has huge quantities of hydrogen and helium in its atmosphere. The planet’s star is also a ‘red dwarf’ that will give out massive solar flares that would regularly sterilise any life that managed to emerge. The research though proves that it is possible to detect habitable Earth-like planets and that finding genuine examples is only a matter of time.

Closer to home, we have enjoyed several reasonably clear nights and we have been out observing on every one of them. Pupils can now set the telescope up to track the stars. By identifying the locations of two bright stars the telescope can be instructed to move to any object that they want to observe and follow to it. Our next step is to attach our dedicated astro-imaging camera and start to photograph the heavens at high resolution.

An interest in the skies is not limited to senior pupils either. Earlier in the week a class of year 6 pupils dropped by and spent about an hour observing Jupiter and its moons together with the rings of Saturn. Some are already asking when they can come back and observe the Moon.

Miss Mellor’s Grade 5 class, Observing Saturn’s Rings

So, if you are visiting school and the skies are clear, perhaps you might like to drop by and look up at the heavens. Be prepared to join a large and eager queue though!

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