Thursday, 11 February 2016

Gravitational Waves Discovered!

After a century of searching, scientists have directly observed the first Gravitational Waves!

Scientists part of the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) collaboration, announced today the first direct detection of Gravitational Waves. In a special press conference, scientists described the detection which occurred back in September 2015. The source of the gravitational waves was from two merging black holes, with 26 and 31 times the mass of our own Sun, in a distant galaxy, located in the Southern hemisphere.

LIGO consist of the worlds two most sensitive gravitational wave detectors (and in fact, the most sensitive measuring devices ever built), both located in the USA. The detectors have been searching for evidence of this elusive physics effect for several decades, yet their existence was first predicted Albert Einstein in 1915 in his Theory of General Relativity.

Gravitational waves are invisible, similar to sound waves. They will travel through any space and object that crosses their path. As they pass through an object, they physically squash and stretch it as well as the space around it. It is this effect that allows us to detect them. The two LIGO detectors are able to detect very small changes in the length of two long tunnels at each detector, using lasers fired at right angles to each other. If one laser travels down one of the perpendicular tunnel faster or longer that the other, then a gravitational wave must have passed through it. And this change in time is how gravitational waves are detected.

One arm of the LIGO site on Hanford reservation (By Umptanum - wikip├ędia, CC BY-SA 3.0,
But these gravitational waves are very small. A vast number of them are passing through you this second, yet you probably haven't noticed yourself changing size. This is because they stretch and squash you by less than the size of an atom! This is why it has taken over 100 years for us to build detectors good enough to detect them.

But what creates these ripples in space? Well, any object that accelerates. Black holes spinning around each other, stars exploding or even just you driving your car down the road. The bigger the objects, the stronger the gravitational waves. In the case of the detections today, the gravitational waves were created by two black holes, each around 30 times larger than the sun, which span around each other very closely before merging together. It was this close in-spiralling of the black holes that created the strong signals that LIGO detected.

This discovery is just the beginning of gravitational wave astronomy. Most objects in the Universe can be seen with traditional telescopes. However some objects and events, such as black holes, faint objects and dusty objects, are invisible to normal telescopes. Gravitational wave detectors will allow us future to study these objects and events in the future, making the invisible part of the Universe very easy to see.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Explore Rosetta and comet 67P in my new VR app!

So, I posted a while ago that I was playing around with a Virtual Reality smartphone app that would allow you to explore the Rosetta mission and comet 67P. Well, after several months I've finally finished it! It's up and live on the Google Play Store and you can get it for free here:

There's some really cool features in the app. You can explore a realistic model of comet 67P and the Rosetta satellite, looking around the comet and seeing it in 3D. There's a model solar system which shows the journey Rosetta had taken since it's launch. There's also a virtual tour of Rosetta journey! All of these are ways of showing off how cool the Rosetta satellite and comet 67P look in 3D.

There's already a couple of things I want to add to the app to make it even better, which will be added in the near future. I'm also hoping that the European Space Agency will provide some support and maybe even some cool resources I can add to the app. But, in the meantime I hope you all enjoy the app. Feel free to leave any comments or feedback as I'd love to hear it!

Get out there and explore!

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

The latest John Lewis Christmas advert has gone astronomical!

So, if you live in the UK, you know there are two things that indicate Christmas is here: the Coca-Cola lorry and the John Lewis Christmas advert. It's odd to think that the second one has only been going for a few years, yet every year most of us can't wait to see what kind of moving video and brilliant cover song they have done this year.

This year's advert, titled #ManOnTheMoon, is up to the same tear-jerking, inspiring standard as previous years. But to me it's a little bit more special than previous years as it has an astronomical theme to it. The advert follows a young girl who spots an elderly man living on the moon. She tries desperately to get a card and present to him, but nothing seems to do the job. Then, just as you think everything has failed, a helium balloon carried Christmas present starts bobbling along the surface of the moon. Hooray!

Throughout the advert there's some really interesting science and astronomy, which I can't help but look at and wonder how much of it is possible. Could you see a man on the moon? Do helium balloons work on the lunar surface? I've made a video for my YouTube channel going through the science behind the advert, if you're interested in finding out more!

But despite some of the science being a bit suspicious, it's a beautiful advert and it seems to be inspiring people in lot's of different ways. Some people note that the advert is telling us to think of the older, often vulnerable and lonely, generation at Christmas. Others see it as an inspiration for people to get in to astronomy and to get outside this winter and enjoy the night sky. Hopefully it has inspired you in some small way!

Friday, 6 November 2015

I won an award!

Wahooo!! I won an award!

A couple of months ago I was nominated for an award for early career researchers (PhD students and postdocs typically) for their contribution to science outreach and communication. This was for the blog stuff I do, my Youtube channel, by VR apps project and other things. The award ceremony, which happens every 2 years, is hosted by the organisation Elsevier. Information on the award is at

This year was the first time an award for outreach has been given out, alongside the usual awards for science research. As you can imagine, I am a very happy man! Not only did I get the lovely engraved glass award you can see me holding above, but I also got awarded money to help me do even more cool outreach.

If they read this, I want to thank everyone on the judging panel and those involved with the awards. It's great to be recognised for the extra work I put in to outreach and I know it will encourage me to keep on doing it!

Friday, 30 October 2015

Showing of our VR apps at Techniquest

Last night was our second public demonstration of our Virtual reality apps. Here in Cardiff there is a fun science centre called Techniquest. Every month they do an adults only evening where over 18's can be kids again and play with fun science demonstrations and experiments, whilst also having a beer! Normally alcohol and science would be a bad thing, but here it is most certainly a positive!

Techniquest very kindly let us go along to show off our two astronomy VR apps, 'Our Solar System VR' and 'Our Universe in Light VR'. To say the event was successful would be an understatement. In just a few hours we reckon we showed the apps off to around 150-200 people! We had a queue out of the door of people wanting to use the apps, they were that popular!

The feedback was really great (my job today has been to go through all of our feedback forms, which is no easy feat!) and people commented how great the VR apps were. The 'Oohs' and ''Wows' are probably the best indication of just how much people enjoyed them.

Over 200 people have already downloaded the solar system app from the app store, which is fantastic. We're hoping to get this even higher, so if you haven't got it already, what are you waiting for!?!

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Science Cafe Cardiff - Showing off some VR!

I'm shattered!

Last night I was one of the speakers at Science Cafe Cardiff, as part of their monthly events where scientists, engineers, mathematicians and general STEM people give informal public talks in a pub! I was lucky enough to be able to talk about the Virtual Reality project I'm running, showing off the Solar system and Universe in light apps. Luckily the whole event didn't finish late, but there's something about organising and giving public demonstrations that tires you out!

I gave a presentation on the project, the apps and the reasoning and science behind them, but the main aim was to let people play around with the VR headsets. Virtual reality seems to futuristic. 6 months ago I had never used VR, but now I can't imagine being without it. It's great to see people using it for the first time, slowly and cautiously moving their head as they realise they are able to look around. The best bit is when people put their arms out to try and touch a virtual planet, so immersed in the VR world that they almost think it's real.

We got loads of great feedback and questions at the end. I have about 30 feedback forms to work through and see what people thought, which is really good. Next week I'm at the Techniquest science centre demoing the apps as well, which should be really fun and hopefully a bit more relaxed!

Monday, 28 September 2015

NASA has found water on Mars

Today, on the 29th of September 2015, we have found water on Mars. This is the first time the life giving liquid has been confirmed on another body than our own planet. To say this is one of the most amazing discoveries in science is an understatement. Life has existed on our planet for billions of years, only possible by the liquid water which covers two thirds of our planet. If we are to ever discover life out there in the Universe, the day we first found water on a planet other than our own will be remembered as the first step!

But let's calm down. What exactly has NASA found? Well, NASA has been looking at the large slopes on the surface of the red planet and have noticed something interesting. Using the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a satellite orbiting Mars, scientists have been studying these slopes and specifically looking at the chemicals present. What they've found is that in the summer months, long trails of salt appear, cascading down the slopes. The cause of this? Salt water trickling down the slopes, depositing the salt behind, before disappearing. The fact these only appear in the summer and disappear in the winter suggests Mars is warm enough in the Summer so that salt water can exist in liquid form. This is therefore evidence that liquid water does still exist on Mars!

Streaks of salt down the side of slopes on Mars are signs of water flow.
But where does this water come from each summer? Well we're still not quite sure, but it could be that the salt itself absorbs the water from the atmosphere. Whatever the reason, water is some how collecting in large enough quantities to create these metre long streaks down the sides of slopes on Mars.

But think back to your school days. Remember when your teacher told you Mars was beyond the orbit of Earth, beyond the goldilocks zone, where less of the Suns energy reaches the surface of the planet. Here, without a thick atmosphere like Earth, any water on Mars is frozen solid. We know this because we can see frozen water ice caps at the poles of Mars. So, how then has NASA found liquid water? Well, some months ago NASA found deposits of salt on Mars and this is the key to the freezing problem. Salt water, like in the oceans on Earth, has a lowest freezing point than pure water. This means whilst pure water on Mars is frozen solid, salt water will remain as a liquid.

We believe that Mars was once covered by a huge ocean of water, millions of year ago when it was warmer. This is far from the case today, but it now seems that at warm points on the planets surface, small trickles and steams of water exist on the surface.

So, if there is water on Mars, is there life? This is a tricky question. We know complex life doesn't exist on Mars (unless there's a colony of super animals living beneath the surface) (which there isn't), but simple life like bacteria is more possible. Whether they could live with such infrequent amounts of water is unknown. The harsh conditions on the surface, a mixture of radiation and extreme temperature, mean that even with a constant supply of water, life might still be impossible.

But this is a problem for another day, today is all about celebrating the discovery of liquid water on Mars. NASA and other space agencies have spent billions of pounds and dollars sending satellites and rovers to Mars, some designed specifically to find evidence of water or life on the red planet. And today all the hard work, by the thousands of NASA and space workers, has been a success. With several rovers still going and even more set to land on Mars in the future, there is still lot's of work to be done to understand this lone little red planet and find out whatever mysteries it still holds!

Want to find out more? Watch my latest YouTube video: