Advances in Astronomy – Continuing Education Oxford : Second half

This is the conclusion to my previous blog on the “Advances in Astronomy”. The lectures are run by the Department for Continuing Education at Oxford University every year, it is now in it’s 32nd year. More information can be found on their website here. They run various courses throughout the year, across many different subjects.

The first four lectures where covered in the previous blog, this one wil cover the last three lectures:

  1. Advances in exoplanet studies by DR ANDREW NORTON (Open University)
  2. Astrochemistry by PROF NIGEL MASON (Open University)
  3. Extremely large telescopes by DR FRASER CLARKE (University of Oxford)

    Advances in Exo-planet studies

    This was sub titled “Exploanets and how to find them”. It first covered some of the history of planet theory going back to some of the first philosophers 2000 years ago, followed by some of the statistics in current exoplanet numbers. The up to date exoplanet count can be found on this useful website: Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia.

    It then moved on the bulk of the talk which covered how to detect of exoplanets. This covered the techniques: Direct imaging, Radial velocity, Gravitational lensing and Transit. For the last technique, transit, some detail into the Open Universitys project known as SuperWasp. This takes snaps of the sky every night over and over again and then compares them to find a transit occurence. So far 204 million data points have been recorded and this takes masses amount of data processing but they’ve soreted some of this and already located 33 exoplanet (this is changing daily).

    Using these techniques it’s possible to work out the mass, radius, orbit and even the composition of an (if there is one) atmosphere. Finally we had a section on some of the most interesting planers and extra solar systems already discovoered.


    Named (as the lecturer said because it was Sunday) “Astrochemistry and the origins of life” (though it could have been called “Astrobiology”). This lecture discussed the likelihood of life arising on Earth, or whether it arised on another planet or even in space.

    It discussed the creation of molecules in space that are (thought to be) essential parts of Life, and it’s been shown that many basic molecules are produced in space. We also discussed some of the experiments currently being taken, and the possibilities of detecting life on other planets.

    Extremely Large Telescope

    This was subtitled “Extremely large telescopes and future advances” . This begun with the history of the telescope spanning back to Galileo.

    The next section covered the choice of telescope with either the refractor or reflective. Given cost, weight and complication the reflective telescope is easily the better. We then visited some of the largest current and past mirror sizes going up to around the 8 meter mark.

    The ever expanding goal of bigger mirrors then lead is to some of the really large telescopes in particularly the “European-ExtremelyLarge Telescope” (E-ELT) which is a huge 42 meter telescope. It uses a combination of 5 different mirrors, the largest being made of 984 segments of small 1.4 meter mirrors, and together with adaptive optics can produce images of space much more detailed than even the space telescope Hubble.

    Finally the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radio telescope was discussed. This is a large collection of “small” kilometer of collecting areas scattered over 1000 of kilometers


    The lectures were all very interesting, the food excellent a group of interesting people. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in astronomy, but only those who already know some of the science behind the stories.

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