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Look to the stars

Look to the stars

Look to the stars

Header_Astronomy Astronomy has long struggled to get the airtime it deserves. Every once in a while a story will come along and make the headlines for a few days, but then it fades back to the sidelines again. However, programmes such as Stargazing Live and The Sky at Night have made astronomy much more appealing to the casual viewer and inspired generations just as Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage did on the BBC a few decades ago. As TV programme, Cosmos is making a return on National Geographic by way of revisiting previously covered topics and updating them based on fresh information obtained over twenty years of research, Plusnet thought we would take a trip around the internet cosmos to pull together how our understanding of the universe has been aided by technology, data and internet.  

The World Wide Web

Did you know the facility (CERN) that discovered the Higgs Boson particle, a particle that was fundamental in helping to build the universe as we know it, and where the much maligned Large Hadron Collider is situated, is also where the World Wide Web was born? Whilst working at the European Particle Physics Laboratory, Tim Berners-Lee developed the source code that created the backbone of what we know as the internet today, publically releasing it in 1991. The widget below, from CERN’s website, outlines the history of the web in more detail: Fast track to the present day; the progress the internet has allowed in all fields of knowledge is unimaginably large. In physics and astronomy, it has allowed us to extend our knowledge far beyond what our ancestors could ever imagine. Its development has allowed astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) to Skype and tweet with the station’s reliable internet service. It has also meant that the moon, should we ever decide to build a base on its surface, will have an internet connection comparable to that on Earth. Down here on Earth we are able to poke around on the Map of the Internet, a bit like a deep-space picture of the cosmos, to show us how the internet has grown across the globe in a plethora of subject areas. The website shows the top 350,000 websites based on traffic (larger balloons seeing more traffic). Plusnet is just off centre from the internet universe. Internet Universe The internet is the only library of everything we know about ourselves and the world around us from the smallest molecule to the mysteries of the universe. Meanwhile, growth in technology means computing power is used to untangle complex data to give us an insight to what is beyond our own ‘home’.

Ever-increasing resolution

The camera on your smartphone most likely has better resolution than digital cameras from a few years ago, which is great for your Instagram photos. This increasing resolution also has profound impact on our knowledge of the cosmos – in the past astronomers had to pore through grainy images like the one on the left, which is a photographic plate from around 50 years ago (source). Compare this to the image on the right, which was taken by the Hubble Telescope over a 10 year period. This image shows galaxies that are 13.2 billion years old, and one ten-billionth of the brightness that the human eye can detect! telescope improvements Images of this calibre give us massive insight into the history of our universe and, as imaging technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, so too does our knowledge.

Ever-increasing data demands

The amount of storage required for the data being collected by astronomers is, well, astronomical. A piece on the Atlantic explains how “the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, scheduled to become operational in 2015, has a three-billion-pixel digital camera.” When the average digital camera has between 12 and 24 million pixels, it’s obvious that the images taken from the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope will take more than a standard SD card to store the resulting photos. The article also says that “the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the most sensitive radio instrument ever built, is expected to produce more data than we have on the entire Internet now [in a year]”. Let’s take a step back. The internet was a size of over 672 Exabytes of accessible data (721,554,505,728 GB) in 2013, according to Factshunt. That is everything we can see online. To put that in context, the figures equates to the equivalent of:

  • 1 trillion ordinary CDs.
  • 11.2 billion 64GB iPods.
  • The Plusnet network would have to wait 688,128 days or 1885 years to equal that data based on current bandwidth usage per day.

The SKA, if it works correctly, is expected pull in a few exabytes of data per day going above the amount of data we have managed to collate in a couple of decades in just a single year. Jodrell Bank, where Stargazing Live is filmed, has five telescopes each transferring 30GB per second of bandwidth (or a total of 150GB). To also put this into context, it is 15 times the amount of bandwidth that Plusnet recorded for the London Olympics Opening Ceremony online across our network. It is not just from telescopes where data is transferred. Who can forget space probes transmitting data back to us, notably Voyager I, which it was announced last Autumn as the first man-made object to reach interstellar space (although due to distance and lack of power it will slowly shut down forever destined on a voyage across the Milky Way). We have even used data to increase our understanding of other planets through rovers. It takes eight seconds for the Mars Curiosity rover to transmit 250 Megabits of data to a passing orbiter but it takes twenty hours for the same amount of data to reach Earth because of the distances involved. The dawn of technology has allowed us to break more ground than ever before and it is arguably just the beginning.

The power of visualisation

Not only is more information available, it is also more accessible than ever before. Gone are the days of clunky textbooks being our only source of information on the cosmos. Through increasingly sophisticated web standards and presentation, we can visualise data about the universe around us in ways previously unthought of. Take the widget below, for example. This illustrates the scale of the universe in an accessible and visual way. Fancy something a bit more stellar? How about the Chrome Stars Project, which is an interactive visualisation of our stellar neighbourhood, which provides details of the stars around us. Even Google Earth now allows us to look at the moon and also Mars. also provides visitors with captures of all the imagery around the cosmos, which is truly breathtaking. Mobile technology has allowed us to even transfer this to apps with mobile technology. A quick look on the Google App store shows a variety of astronomy based tools to help in our understanding of the sky around us.

  • Sky Map, created and open-sourced from Google, allows people to point their phone to the sky and identify the constellations that we see every night. Others called Star Chart and Star Finder are also available.
  • Planets allows you to distinguish between planets and the stars.
  • The official NASA app allows people to keep track of the latest videos, images, news and information, whilst they have also released a number of cool apps too.
  • The official International Space Station app provides live streaming data, information on crewmembers and much more.

What can the internet and apps be used to see over the coming months?

In July and August the Perseid Meteor shower will be visible, with a peak period around the 12th August. There are usually 100 meteors per hour during the shower so it can be great viewing under clear, warm summer skies. On the 10th August, the Moon will be at its closest to the Earth making it appear brighter and larger than ever before. The Moon Atlas app could be used to identify the craters of the moon. In the early morning of August 18th, you should also be able to see the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter, which is when the planets are visibly close together. At the end of August, Neptune will also be in opposition to the Earth (the closest it will be), though only the most powerful telescopes will be able to pick up this as a dot. There are many minor meteor showers throughout the year but the year climaxes with the Geminids around the 12th/13th December.

Useful Websites

NASA: Sky at Night Magazine: Meteorwatch: BBC Universe: Jodrell Bank: British Astronomy Association: British Association of Planetaria:


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