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Scientists lead the way in measuring distances in space

The galaxy Credit: Press Association

A new way of measuring precise distances to galaxies tens of millions of light years away has been developed by scientists from the University of Southampton. Dr Sebastian Hoenig has created the method which is similar to what land surveyors use on earth, by measuring the physical and angular, or "apparent", size of a standard ruler in the galaxy, to calibrate the distance from this information. The research,which is published in the journal Nature, was used to identify the accurate distance of the nearby NGC 4151 galaxy, which wasn't previously available. The galaxy NGC 4151, which is dubbed the Eye of Sauron by astronomers for its similarity to the film depiction of the eye of the character in The Lord Of The Rings, is important for accurately measuring black hole masses. Recently reported distances range from 4 to 29 megaparsecs, but using this new method the researchers calculated the distance of 19 megaparsecs to the supermassive black hole.

One of the key findings is that the distance determined in this new fashion is quite precise - with only about 10% uncertainty. In fact, if the current result for NGC 4151 holds for other objects, it can potentially beat any other current methods to reach the same precision to determine distances for remote galaxies directly based on simple geometrical principles. Moreover, it can be readily used on many more sources than the current most precise method. Such distances are key in pinning down the cosmological parameters that characterise our universe or for accurately measuring black hole masses. Indeed, NGC 4151 is a crucial anchor to calibrate various techniques to estimate black hole masses. Our new distance implies that these masses may have been systematically underestimated by 40%.

– Dr Hoenig, University of Southampton

A university spokesman explained that the method involves measuring the dust rings that form around supermassive black holes. The hot dust forms a ring around the supermassive black hole and emits infrared radiation, which the researchers used as the ruler. However, the apparent size of this ring is so small that the observations were carried out using infrared interferometry to combine WM Keck Observatory's twin 10m telescopes, to achieve the resolution power of an 85m telescope. To measure the physical size of the dusty ring, the researchers measured the time delay between the emission of light from very close to the black hole and the infrared emission. This delay is the distance the light has to travel (at the speed-of-light) from close to the black hole out to the hot dust. By combining this physical size of the dust ring with the apparent size measured with the data from the Keck interferometer, the researchers were able to determine a distance to the galaxy NGC 4151. Dr Hoenig, together with colleagues in Denmark and Japan, is currently setting up a new programme to extend their work to establish precise distances to a dozen galaxies in this new way and use them to constrain cosmological parameters to within a few per cent. In combination with other measurements, this will provide a better understanding of the history of expansion of our universe.

Timelapse video offers guided tour around UK airspace

The skies above the UK have been brought to life like never before in a timelapse video capturing a day of air traffic in less than three minutes.

Created from actual radar data showing over 7,000 flights, the video graphically illustrates the daily task facing air traffic controllers and the airspace features that help make it all work.

Created by air traffic management company, NATS, the video takes viewers on a unique tour of some of the key features of UK airspace – from the four holding stacks over London and the military training zones above Wales, to the helicopters delivering people and vital supplies to the North Sea oil and gas rigs.

It finishes with an overview of the structure of UK airspace, highlighting the major air routes and showing how this ‘invisible infrastructure’ helps underpin the entire operation.

Matt Mills, NATS Head of Digital Communications, said:

We’ve made data visualisations in the past, but we wanted to now take people on a deeper journey into what makes UK airspace work and some of its important features.

Airspace might be the invisible infrastructure, but it is every bit as important as the airports and runways on the ground.

– Matt Mills

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Duke of York visits Orion laser facility in Berkshire

His Royal Highness the Duke of York has visited the world-leading Orion laser facility at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) in Berkshire.

Orion is a high-powered laser, the size of a football pitch and is one of the largest capital science investments in the UK

The Duke toured as UK Patron of the International Year of Light 2015. Credit: AWE

It is not often that people get the chance to really appreciate the work that goes on at AWE. What you are doing is absolutely important. Your establishment and in particular Orion, present an exciting opportunity for young people interested in a career in science and technology.

– Duke of York

The Duke, who is a UK Patron of the International Year of Light 2015, met with scientific figures who explained the workings of the laser.

Critically endangered cotton-top tamarins born

It's double trouble for one zoo in Winchester where two baby monkeys have been born.

The twins, which have not yet been named, are cotton-top tamarins and were born at Marwell Zoo.

Their parents, Inca and Roca,have been teaching their one week old babies how to look after themselves but it could be up to five weeks before the babies venture out on their own.

It's not yet known whether the proud parents have given birth to boys or girls.

Tamarins are on the critical endangered list and it's estimated their numbers have decreased by 80 per cent over the past two decades.

"Inca and Roca are first-time parents and they are doing a fantastic job for caring for the twins. Dad takes on most of the carrying duties and Mum takes over to feed them. Cotton tops are generally a bold species so we are looking forward to the babies becoming more independent and causing trouble."

– Claire Mound, Senior Zoo Keeper

Sir Richard Branson vows to continue space mission

Britain's most famous entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson has vowed today that both he and his Oxfordshire-based family WILL be going into space. That's despite the death of one of his pilots - killed when the Virgin Galactic spaceship crashed during a test flight in the United States. Juliette Fletcher has more

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Branson: People still signing up to fly in space-plane

Sir Richard Branson has said that people have continued to sign up for his plan for space tourism, despite the crash over the weekend. The Virgin boss said he even had two people sign up for a space flight on the day of crash.

Responding to safety questions raised by from former employees, Mr Branson said: "We have 400 of the world's best engineers working there, we have very few engineers ever leave us because they love working for the company.

"We're going to achieve some incredible things and I think we are going to make a radical difference to this world," he added.

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Branson: 'Self-proclaimed experts wrong about explosion'

Sir Richard Branson has told ITV News that he felt "uncomfortable" over the weekend as "self-proclaimed experts" said that an explosion brought down the Virgin Galactic space-plane.

He said: "We knew there was no explosion. We knew that the fuel tanks and engine were all intact, and we found it uncomfortable over the weekend when so many self-proclaimed experts, particularly in the UK, came out saying there had been an explosion."

For the full interview with Sir Richard Branson watch the lunchtime ITV News at 1.30pm.

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Branson's space travel dream inspired by kids' phone-in

Sir Richard Branson revealed in March that his dream to turn commercial space travel into a reality began 26 years ago with a phone-in on a children's TV show.

The billionaire entrepreneur said he registered the name Virgin Galactic Airways after a viewer asked if he would like to go into space during BBC Saturday morning show Going Live in 1988.

Speaking on ITV's The Jonathan Ross Show, he said:

Over the next decade I started travelling around the world meeting technicians and engineers to see if we could find a genius who could build a spaceship that could take you and me into space.

I think it’s going to be the beginning of a whole new era of space travel. Initially we’re going to be giving people a taste of space.

It’s going to be absolutely magnificent. People will become astronauts, they’ll be able to experience zero gravity. They’ll be able to check the world is really round and they’ll have the ride of a lifetime.

In our lifetime I really do believe that we will be able to do London to Australia in a couple of hours. We’ve got 300 wonderful engineers at Virgin Galactic and their dream is to pull that off.

If we can get enough people wanting to fly in (SpaceShipTwo) then we can start building Virgin hotels in space, we can start doing trips to Mars.

– Sir Richard Branson
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Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo crashes

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo has crashed with the status of the two pilots currently unknown, NBC News reports.

The vehicle suffered a "serious anomaly resulting in the loss of the vehicle" during the powered test flight at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, the spaceflight company said.

"Our first concern is the status of the pilots, which is unknown at this time," a statement issued to NBC News said.

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