[Lashara Van Heerden | Features Manager]
Bayfordbury Observatory is the University of Hertfordshire’s astronomical and atmospheric remote sensing observatory. It’s where physicists study the stars, moon, planets and even the Earth’s own atmosphere.
With state-of-the-art technology, such as seven large optical, individually-housed telescopes, four radio telescopes; including interferometer and high definition planetarium, it is plain to see that the people at the Observatory are looking up.
Image: M42 – the Orion Nebula
I went up out to the countryside in Bayfordbury to meet with Professor Hugh Jones, the Observatory Director. The campus is located on the outskirts of Hertford, set on the grounds of an old manor house. The lack of light pollution from streetlights, buildings, and cars allows the campus to be submerged in darkness at night for observations.
While being shown the instruments that watch the conditions of the atmosphere for observations I was shown an AllSky camera, Infrared (IR) Radiometers and the Solar and Lunar photometer, which form part of the NASA AERONET network that measures the properties of atmospheric aerosols. By measuring the the sun, moon and sky radiances at a number of wavelengths in the visible and near-IR. Due to a poorly timed gust of wind, the only door, with only a handle on the inside, closed, leaving us locked on the roof for about 20 minutes. This left us with plenty of time to discuss the importance of these devices and I discovered that the Sir Patrick Moore Building is where those observing the sky do analytical work on the computers, drink tea, and eat biscuits.
Image: Optical telescopes
Mark Gallaway is Principal Technical Officer at the centre, and has a PhD in massive star formation. Some of the research at the Observatory is monitoring bright M-dwarfs. M-dwarfs, otherwise known as red dwarfs, are small stars that are far dimmer than our own sun. In fact, because they are so dim you cannot see them with the naked eye. They are one of the most common star and make up a large part of our galaxy. It was during an explanation on the M-dwarfs and the research at the Observatory that Gallaway and Jones started debating luminosity and brightness.
I also learned that the sun looks fuzzy close up.
If you’re wondering what that is, Elizabeth Howell from space.com provides an explanation: “Astronomers define star brightness in terms of apparent magnitude (how bright the star appears from Earth) and absolute magnitude (how bright the star appears at a standard distance of 32.6 light years, or 10 parsecs). Astronomers also measure luminosity — the amount of energy (light) that a star emits from its surface.”
Gallaway gestured to a picture of what appeared to be a cluster of colourful dots – they were in fact galaxies – and said: “This piece will be the size of your fingernail.”
“Just like we look out of our atmosphere, when the clouds are out of the way, or we can look out of our plane of planets,” explained Jones. Gallaway described it as looking out of a forest through a narrow gap until eventually, if the gap was small enough, you would see past the forest and see outside, past the trees.