Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Capturing the Green Flash

I've always been intrigued by "The Green Flash" - but had never seen it until making this video at the Very Large Telescope in Paranal.

I really enjoyed this film because it captures some of the magic and excitement experienced by amateur astronomers - and shows observing is more than just watching a static sky!

And here is a shorter version for those with lesser attention spans.

Pete Lawrence captured a great series of images during the sunset.

But this compilation really shows them off beautifully.

It also shows there was some blue light in there - an even rarer sight.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Chile Diary - Day 6

This will be my final entry from Chile (and I also note it's my 500th blog post).

Today we started early and visited the extraordinary ALMA Observatory.

A vicuna (?) on the road to ALMA
A massive cactus - but there were none at 5000m!

At an elevation of 5000m, its antenna are high on the Chajnator Plateau.

We even took oxygen as a precaution, but thankfully did not need it.

However the altitude was evident - thinking became muddled and physical exertion more difficult.

The array of antenna were an amazing sight, set in a natural amphitheatre of Andes mountains.

But perhaps the highlight of the day was meeting Denis Barkats.

Denis is a Sixty Symbols viewer who contacted me after hearing we were in Chile.

Not only is he a man with great taste in videos (!) he's also a commissioning scientist at ALMA, and knows the place back-to-front.

Denis and me

So Denis joined us for the trip to the plateau and became the star of the video.

He did a great job explaining the facility.

Stay tuned for a slew of great films from this trip, on both Sixty Symbols and Deep Sky Videos.

I'm now back in Santiago and looking forward to getting home (without looking forward to the long flight!)

A special thanks to Laura Ventura from the European Southern Observatory for being a great guide and host.

Chile Diary - Day Four
Chile Diary - Day Five
Chile Diary - Day Six

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Chile Diary - Day 5

Woke at around 3am this morning for a final dose of astrophotography at ESO's Paranal Observatory.

I joined Pete Lawrence - he's the real pro and his images will come later.

Here are some of my efforts, shot on a Canon 650D.

Note the satellite - no doubt breaching the 40km/h limit

The VLT fires its laser into my star trails

The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds

The future E-ELT site - the peak at the centre

Went back to bed around 6am for some rest, then we embarked on a long drive through the Atacama Desert.

(I say "we" - the driving was done by our ESO host, Laura)

Some bleak landscape as we passed some of the world's biggest copper mines.

We also had a quick look at villages that were hastily abandoned as industrial forces pushed and pulled at livelihoods. The village cemeteries seemed particularly poingnant.

But as we approached the Andes, the landscape became increasingly spectacular.

We now find ourselves at San Pedro de Atacama, a charming village at the base of the Chajnantor plateau.

Tomorrow we climb beyond 5000m - so high we take oxygen with us.

There, if all goes to plan, we'll come face-to-face with ALMA, one of the grandest astronomical projects on Earth.

The videos from the trip will eventually appear at Deep Sky Videos and Sixty Symbols.

PS: Although I am away, a few videos were pre-planned and have gone live on Numberphile and Computerphile.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Chile Diary - Day Four

I took this self portrait this evening - it features space, telescopes and a humungous laser.

But I'll get back to this...

Let's go back to the start of a remarkable day at ESO's Paranal Observatory.

We started with a drive from the Very Large Telescope site (at Paranal mountain itself) to a nearby peak called Cerro Armazones.

It is here that the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) will be built.

Artist's impression from ESO (note cars in bottom corner!)

The drive was cross country and on pretty rough roads.

It was a bumpy ride

But we made it to the 3064m summit.

The summit is currently dotted with a few scientific instruments so astronomers have a good record of weather and atmospheric conditions at the peak.

This summit will eventually be blown away to make a nice flat platform for the monstrous E-ELT.

Me at the summit marker

On the way back down we stopped an a nice piece of "Martian landscape" and at that moment the Moon popped over the horizon.

My travelling companion, astrophotographer Pete Lawrence, was beside himself and started snapping away.

Pete and the Moon

He even lay in the desert dust in search of that perfect picture.

Back at Paranal itself, I was very fortunate to be given access to the the "delay lines" under the telescopes.

A lucky peek in the delay lines

I will visit this later in videos about interferometry, but essentially this pristine and precise tunnel is where light is sent to bounce back and forth like planes in a holding pattern!

It was very impressive and real highlight of the trip so far.

Next it was to the adjacent VISTA telescope, on a small sub-peak next to Paranal.

This is like a wide-angle lens telescope, imaging a larger tract of the sky.

We then returned to the main telescope platform, in the shadow of the huge VLT telescopes, for sunset.

Pete was hoping to capture the elusive green flash which can be seen as the sun dips below the horizon.

It is a challenging target and success is not guaranteed.

I filmed the whole process in what I think will be a very interesting and exciting video.

And to slightly ruin the ending, we were rewarded with an extraordinary green flash.

It was clearly visible to the naked eye and Pete captured this image (which is hot from his camera and not yet processed in any way!)

Still glowing with success, and with the stars and Milky Way appearing, we started taking a few night images.

Then another treat. One of the four VLT telescopes, UT4, is equipped with a laser to create a "artificial star" in the upper atmosphere.

It only is used occasionally and in short bursts.

But for reasons unknown to us, it was switched on for an extended period.

It felt like about 20 minutes.

Pete and I scurried about, taking as many pictures as we could.

Imagine if I actually knew what I was doing?

Fire the laser (the Moon also in shot!)

Finally the laser was extinguished and we happily made our way back down the mountain.

As a I type we are considering another adventure into the night for more photography.

Then tomorrow we start a very long drive to the the dramatic and high altitude ALMA observatory.

All the videos from the trip will eventually appear at Deep Sky Videos and Sixty Symbols.

Chile Diary - Day Four
Chile Diary - Day Five
Chile Diary - Day Six

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Chile Diary - Day Three

I thought I was tired yesterday - today is worse!

But that's because it was such an amazing and productive day.

Today was really the start of real work, filming short tours of five telescopes.

We managed to get inside each of the four main telescopes at the Very Large Telescope - known as UT1, UT2, UT3 and UT4.

UT stands for Unit Telescope.

I also filmed the amusing sight of the VLT's ATs (Auxillary Telescopes) being moved around the platform.

They looked like little R2D2s wandering the landscape, dwarfed by the huge UTs.

(But then you get up close and realise the ATs are themselves quite big!)

I also filmed inside the VST (VLT's Survey Telescope) - the VLT's wide-angle cousin that sits nearby. Again a HUGE telescope which looks small compared with its neighbours.

Another treat was taking the camera into the workshop where the VLT's huge 8.2m mirrors are re-coated with aluminium.... What an operation that is!

Fo rthe second night running we were inside UT4 at sunset, filming it being opened for the night.

Then some quick filming in the control room and ended the evening with a cheeky night shot - what do you think?

Tomorrow there is plenty more to do, including a trip to the nearby mountain where the ELT (Extremely Large Telescope) will be built.

All these videos will eventually appear at Deep Sky Videos and Sixty Symbols.

Chile Diary - Day Four
Chile Diary - Day Five
Chile Diary - Day Six

Monday, 12 August 2013

Chile Diary - Day Two

I am rather tired, so forgive my typing?

But there are some great pictures to come...

Today we flew from Santiago to Antofagasta - about 90 minutes.

Then it was a two-hour drive through amazing desert landscape to the VLT site at Paranal.

It really is quite extraordinary.

Before I even discuss the telescopes, check out the "Residencia" which houses people who work and visit here:

It is sometimes called the ESO Hotel, but that name is a bit misleading - it is not open to the public, etc.

And for those who thinks it looks familiar, it was used as the villain's lair in Quantum of Solace.

Our ESO host, Laura, then showed us around the Paranal support buildings before we drove up the mountain to the viewing platform.

I have seen some big telescopes... Some that even outsize the individual VLT telescopes.

But the VLT is special for several reasons, including the fact there are four of them side-by-side.

While astrophotographer Pete Lawrence set-up before sunset, I went into the 4th telescope and filmed it being prepared and opened for the evening.

Then, after a pretty amazing sunset, the stars came out.

The first thing we saw (after the Moon) was Venus, then Saturn, then starting popping into view - Alpha Centauri, the Southern Cross, etc.

Pete - who has never imaged in the southern hemisphere - was like a kid in a candy store.

More of his photos will follow in the weeks to come.

But here are just a few I took with no expertise and an inferior camera!

Milky Way

Self portrait

Pete at work

I have retired to my room for some sleep - a long day of filming tomorrow.

Pete is still out there, snapping away.

Chile Diary - Day Four
Chile Diary - Day Five
Chile Diary - Day Six

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Chile Diary - Day One

I will try to keep a blog of my current trip to the European Southern Observatory in Chile.

I kept a similar blog for my telescope trip to La Palma in 2011 - see it here.

The purpose of this trip is to make loads of videos for two of my video projects - Deep Sky Videos and Sixty Symbols.

I previewed the trip in this video:

As you'll note in the film, I was to be joined by Professor Mike Merrifield and Pete Lawrence.

But unfortunately things started on a sour note... Mike was struck down by illness the day before departure.

He was too sick to travel and had to stay behind.

This was especially unfortunate because Mike was the driving force behind the trip - it was his idea and he arranged it with ESO.

But with flights booked and plans afoot, Pete and I went ahead and flew from London to Santiago (via Madrid).

Mike agreed to stay in touch from the UK with suggestions and advice, and he will record many of his interviews when I get back.

(More than anything, I think he really wanted to se the VLT and ALMA (right) with his own eyes)

Mike's a big loss - but we can improvise and there's still plenty to be done. And both Pete and I are still very excited by what lays ahead.

As I type, Pete and I have checked into ESO's Guest House in Santiago, which seems a very quiet and charming place.

Lovely old-fashioned rooms, but amazing astronomical images hanging on the walls!

I am guessing the guest house acts mainly as a holding pen for astronomers as they prepare for the short hop to the observatories themselves.

Here are some pictures:

Santiago itself seems a dramatic location, snow-covered mountains overlooking the sprawling city.

Unfortunately I won't see much of it - we head straight out to Paranal early tomorrow.

Now it's time to check all the cameras are ready, batteries charged and SD cards emptied!

I might write more about the equipment we have brought at a later date!

Chile Diary - Day Four
Chile Diary - Day Five
Chile Diary - Day Six

Monday, 5 August 2013

Six videos at once

Today I put up six videos for the "Brainiac Day" of YouTube's Geek Week... (I don't name these things)

Apparently I had to put them up at 7am (I also don't make the rules), so I woke up early and had a busy and bleary-eyed half hour!

The videos are (in the order I would suggest watching!?)

1. The Scale of the Universe - an epic song featuring Dave Lens and ViHart

2. What if the Death Star was real?

3. What if the Universe is just a Computer Simulation?

4. What if ice did not float?

5. The Making of the Scale of the Universe (behind the scenes at CERN, etc)

6. Extra footage from Phil Moriarty on the Universe Simulation stuff!

Still going? Here is Dave's spoken word version of that song!

Here you can get it on iTunes.

Oh and a couple of our guys (Professors Poliakoff and Merrifield) had cameos here.

When you're done with them (?!), I see the always amazing yet truthful Veritasium just put up a cool Geek Week video too!

Friday, 2 August 2013

Refraction Videos

A while back I filmed two interviews with Professor Mike Merrifield and Professor Phil Moriarty on the topic of refraction.

Rather than cut them down and splice them together, I tried something different - uploading the interviews essentially uncut.

Here is the interview with Mike.

Wen it came to Phil's interview, I decided to upload it as an unlisted video.

The reason being that it made a bit less sense without context. I thought some Sixty Symbols subscribers might be baffled by it as a stand-alone video.

I think it is good nonetheless and Phil raises some interesting stuff.