Stars in Your Eyes

As a child, I was disappointed to discover that only a couple of thousand stars were visible to the naked eye. With the encroachment of light pollution, that figure is probably rather optimistic. Uber-enthusiastic amateur astronomer Nick Risinger decided to create a massive full sky image combining thousands of images -- the night sky we wish we could see. For optimum viewing, he travelled tens of thousands of kilometres to seek out the darkest parts of the US. The results are awe-inspiring. Our own galaxy extends from edge to edge in a blaze of starry glory, with lanes of gas and companion star clusters clearly visible. He has made large versions (3000 pixels wide) available to the public, plus selling prints on archival stock. 

Robots in Space

With the imminent end of the Space Shuttle program, it is tempting to think space exploration is in decline. But the Shuttle stayed in low Earth orbit, and her robot brethren have been busy exploring an entire solar system. In fact, there are currently more craft orbiting, encountering, sampling, photographing, sniffing and trundling over other bodies than ever before. These devices are using more sophisticated instruments than ever, and returning amazing science results at a fraction the cost of anything containing a human being. We are uncovering a whole new solar system, full of unexpected wonders, and it is a pity that the general public is not more aware of it.
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Mondo Planet Hunting

Recently launched planet hunter Kepler has just sampled its first exoplanetary atmosphere, and the verdict is in: very tasty indeed! Kepler is able to measure the tiny, tiny dip in starlight caused by a planet transiting the disk of its parent star. So sensitive are the measurements, Kepler is able to provide data about atmospheric structure and the phases of the planet in question.  With the aid of Kepler, scientists are on the verge of detecting Earthlike planets, hopefully orbiting in the so-called 'habitable zone' around their star. Kepler is able to sample very large numbers of stars, so it will provide valuable data on the number and distribution of planets in our galaxy, and by inference in further flung parts of the universe. Exciting times for armchair explorers of the universe!
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