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Missed opportunities: cloudy transits, not-so-fast neutrinos and a spare Hubble or two

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The International Space Station had no cloud issues. Credit: NASA

I woke up early on Wednesday morning, half feeling like a kid on Christmas morning, half feeling like I’d rather just stay in bed. While most people in the UK were sound asleep, amateur and professional astronomers alike got up before dawn to witness an astronomical spectacle that won’t happen again until the year 2117: the transit of Venus.

The whole thing took around seven hours. Only the last hour or so of the transit was visible from the UK, right after the sun came up. During the event, observers saw Venus as a small black dot crossing the face of the Sun. Or at least some of them did. I was prepared, with multiple alarms set and my pinhole camera made, but things didn’t work out – I woke up to find the sky blanketed in cloud, and not having enough time to try and scope out a better observing spot, promptly went back to sleep.

I won’t bore you too much with the history or scientific implications of the transit. Those have been covered extensively elsewhere. And there are many amazing photographs and time-lapse videos (my fellow SciAm blogger Caleb Scharf has some time-lapses from NASA’s SDO which are pretty cool).

Suffice to say, though, that the extra hour I got in bed was little consolation for missing the show. Live streams and time-lapses are impressive, but don’t quite capture that this-is-really-happening feeling when you see something like the transit of Venus for yourself. So, the only thing for it is to make sure I’m still around for the next one in 2117. Better start knocking back those espressos

After the failed transit viewing, Wednesday perked up. I co-presented a radio show at Imperial College, which was a lot of fun. It’s called Mission Impossible and is a mix of science chat and music. You can listen to it here – just make sure you skip the bit where I complain about missing the transit if you’re already, rightly, sick of that.

Jumping forward to Friday, at the 25th International Conference on Neutrino Physics and Astrophysics in Kyoto, Cern’s research director, Sergio Bertolucci, announced that those speedy neutrinos first reported last September were not traveling faster than light after all.

“Although this result isn’t as exciting as some would have liked, it is what we all expected deep down.” said Bertolucci. “The story captured the public imagination, and has given people the opportunity to see the scientific method in action – an unexpected result was put up for scrutiny, thoroughly investigated and resolved in part thanks to collaboration between normally competing experiments. That’s how science moves forward.”

So that’s that then. If you want to relive the early days of the slower-than-light neutrino saga, as it probably won’t now be known, have a look at a timeline I made of the events. Bear in mind, though, that it needs a little updating towards the end…

And earlier in the week the US Department of Defense gave NASA two telescopes at least as good as Hubble that it apparently had in a store cupboard somewhere just gathering dust.

NASA was grateful for the gift, especially with Hubble itself beginning to wind down. But the new telescopes are not yet ready to go into space: NASA needs funding for cameras and other instruments, staff, office space, etc… 2024 is likely to be the earliest launch date.

“NASA does not have in its current budget the funding necessary to develop a space telescope mission using these new telescopes,” NASA astrophysics director Paul Hertz told the Washington Post. “We don’t at this point in time anticipate ever being rich enough to use both of them, but it sure would be fun, wouldn’t it?”

Kelly Oakes About the Author: Kelly Oakes has a master's in science communication and a physics degree, both from Imperial College London. Now she spends her days writing about science. Follow on Twitter @kahoakes.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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