Dr Anne’s Log: First Contact (Stardate 2016.90)

I never fail to be awed by the sheer beauty and scope of nature, how it has so much more depth beyond the superficial surface that can be seen by our eyes. But then again, I guess I wouldn’t be a very good scientist if I didn’t have an insatiable need to explore and understand the world around me – it kinda comes with the job description.

Today the source of my awe was Earth’s atmosphere: soaring high above the clouds I was greeted by a magnificent image of a peaceful bright blue sky above, and raging black storm clouds below. O how I regretted not packing an umbrella. Or a raincoat.

As luck would have it the storm had passed by the time I landed, although the dark grey clouds that filled the Edinburgh sky continued to look ominous for the remainder of the day. So why was I in Scotland? Well today the Royal Observatory was hosting a workshop on GAIA (the new space observatory of the European Space Agency). Essentially, the purpose of workshops such as these are to be a ‘how to’ for professionals, familiarising us with the technological specifications, time-lines to mission completion, known issues with equipment (etc.) in addition to giving us tips and tutorials on effective tools/software to analyse the data. Suffice to say they are pretty invaluable.

In short, I had a great day and learned some pretty important stuff. For example, astronomers can precisely determine the distance to stars by measuring their ‘parallax’ (a star’s apparent movement against the background of more distant stars in the sky caused by the change of the Earth’s position as it orbits the Sun). Normally, the distance of a star is equal to 1/parallax – an equation which is so fundamental its considered Astronomy 101. However, if this equation is used with the GAIA data it will potentially produce inaccurate distances to stars. Thus if astronomers wish to determine star distances from their GAIA parallaxes we will need to employ a more sophisticated approach. As I said, the workshop was exceptionally useful!

Anyhoo, I must get back to my research on finding star clusters within star clusters (more on that in the next blog post). If any non-astronomers out there are interested in finding out more about the GAIA mission, the ESA scientists have written a simple overview of its mission which can be read here: www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Science/Gaia_overview (theres no maths – I promise!)