Astrophotography: How to shoot the night sky

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Long exposure showing the astrophotography setup (Libby Plummer)

For those of us living in large towns and cities, we rarely get to see the stars due to round-the-clock light pollution so it’s often assumed that photos showing spectacular starscapes have been produced in Photoshop. However, as the stunning pictures of the recent Geminids meteor shower prove, it is possible to capture incredible starscapes on camera, just as long as you step away from the street lights.

Professional snapper Andrew Whyte (@LongExposures) makes a living from doing just that – he’s one of the UK’s leading night photographers and is also well known for his quirky Lego man photos. We tagged along on an astrophotography shoot with him to learn how to shoot the night sky.

Where can I shoot the night sky?

While it’s possible to shoot the night sky in the UK, plenty of preparation is needed and that all starts with the location. Wide-field astrophotography – which involves capturing the night sky with a normal camera, without the need for a telescope – requires a location that’s largely free of light pollution.

These areas are known as ‘dark sky’ sites and can be found all over the country. It’s also a good idea to research the area and find out about any features – like buildings and monuments – that can be used as a foreground to your starry backdrop.

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Long exposure with star trails (Libby Plummer)

We took our shots around Douglas on the Isle of Man, but you can find out which sites are closest to you with a quick internet search. Dark Sky Discovery is a useful place to start.

It’s also important to check the weather, as too much cloud cover will prevent you from seeing the stars at all. Andrew Whyte pro snapper Andrew Whyte, who specialises in long exposure photography which includes astrophotography and lightpainting, offers some advice:

‘I’ve found XCWeather to be fairly reliable for forecasting cloud cover, and timeanddate.com provides my lunar phases and timings. A guy known as @VirtualAstro does a great job of updating Twitter with information like the times of the International Space Station passing over and aurora alerts’.

What kind of camera do I need?

While most cameras offer a range of pre-set shooting modes with some even including ‘night sky’ options, you really can’t hide behind these when it comes to astrophotography, says Whyte.

He argues that you really need to get to grips with your camera’s manual settings to get good results. But what qualities do you need to look for in an ‘astro’ camera’? Whyte explains:

‘Ultimately what makes a good camera for astro is image quality. Current models with a high ISO range, like the Sony Alpha 7S, which has a range of 40-409,000, are especially well suited to low-light photography. This particular camera also has a full frame sensor which is good for dimly lit conditions’…

You can read the rest of the article at Yahoo News UK (originally published 19 December 2014).

Calling the shots: 10 women leading the way in wearable tech

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Ayse Ildeniz, VP New Devices Group, Intel

A feature for wearable technology website Wareable on the ladies that are shaping the future:

Here at Wareable, we’ve already argued as to why we need more smartwatches designed for women, so it’s encouraging to see that an increasing number of female CEOs, designers and influencers setting the wearable agenda are female. Obviously it’s not just women that are emerging as the leaders of the wearables pack, but it does appear to be area of tech with a noticeably large number of females calling the shots. This is important, not just in terms of levelling the playing field in the traditionally male-dominated world of tech, but it also ensures that female consumers aren’t fobbed off with ‘unisex’ products that are clearly designed with only men in mind. So without further ado, we list the ladies flying the flag for wearable tech:

Isabelle Olsson Senior Industrial Designer, Google isabelle-olsson-2-1416486435-hKma-column-width-inline

While it has yet to hit the mass market, it’s fair to say that Google Glass is one of the most talked about products in the wearable tech sphere, perhaps the entire tech world. It was Isabelle Olsson who was tasked with the job of the making the original clunky Glass prototype both comfortable and attractive to look at, defining the look of the most recognisable wearable around. Olsson grew up in Sweden where she studied fine art and industrial design and also worked on Samsung TVs and the Nook Color ereader before joining Google.

Liz Bacelar Founder & CEO, Decoded Fashion liz-bacelar-copy-1416486484-AFnT-column-width-inline

Bacelar founded Decoded fashion back in 2011 with the goal of bringing together tech founders and ‘decision-makers’ in fashion beauty and retail through dedicated events. An Emmy-nominated CBS news producer, Bacelar was quick to spot the the natural correlation between fashion and technology and argues that designers need to embrace tech, not just from a design angle but also when it comes to mobile, commercial and social strategies. While not started as a women’s initiative, Decoded has become a popular platform for pitches from female-led tech startups.

Camille Toupet Designer, June camille-toupet-1416486986-wRQ8-column-width-inline

Independent french jewellery designer Camille Toupet was responsible for the look of June – a bracelet with a gem-like stone that incorporates a sensor to monitor sun exposure. The wearable was announced at CES 2014 by Neatatmo, better known for its smart thermostat. The wearable pairs with an iOS app to keep you posted on how much sun you’re getting, what SPF you should be wearing and when to don a hat or sunnies. With Toupet having previously collaborated with luxury fashion brands Louis Vuitton and Harry Winston, she has blazed a trail for high-end designer input into wearable design, something we’re likely to see even more of in 2015…

You can read the rest of the article at Wareable (originally published 20 November 2014).

Lomo Instant review

LomoInstant-BannerLomography’s Lomo’Instant is the most advanced instant camera yet, and the result of a crowdfunded Kickstarter campaign.

With the rise of the selfie and concerns over cloud storage of digital snaps, Polaroid-esque instant cameras have made something of a comeback. This model from analogue camera expert Lomography is the latest version to hit the shops, but what sets it apart from the others?

The Lomo’Instant offers far more control than you get with any other instant camera, including a selection of removable lenses, different shooting modes, aperture control and the ability to take multiple exposures.

The first models went out to Kickstarter backers in October, and the Lomo’Instant is now available to everyone.

Lomo’Instant – Design and Handling

The Lomo’Instant sports a pleasingly retro design, although the box-like design means that it’s rather bulky. With the exception of the incredibly cool Fujifilm Instax Mini 90, instant cameras in recent years have tended to feature slightly ugly, uninspiring designs, but the Lomo’Instant is cool and blocky.

The camera sports a similar faux-leather covering to the Lomography Lomokino and Belair models, and is available in black or white. There’s also a model that’s covered real brown leather with a slightly higher price tag of £109. We like the white version best, as its shows off the minimalist design more, but the finish is rather prone to picking up marks and scuffs, and there’s no protective case available to keep it in.

The only accessory that is available – aside from the optional lenses which we’ll look at in more detail later – is a shoulder strap (£8.90), which is good news as it makes the hefty camera slightly less cumbersome.

As with most Lomography cameras, physical controls are kept to a minimum, but these all feel well placed and intuitive.

Lomo’Instant – Controls and Features

The key control that you’ll need to get to grips with is the mode switch, which enables you to choose between having the flash on, off or on auto, where a sensor will automatically set the flash to the most suitable level based on the ambient light…

You can read the rest of the article at TrustedReviews (originally published 23 November 2014).

Why we need more smartwatches designed for women

1128-4085d82021ac12c8436778dee217bb51While a lot of smartwatches claim to be unisex, most of them are clearly geared towards men – something that becomes obvious when you see how comically large they look when worn by women.

This isn’t a complete surprise, as smartwatch technology is still relatively new and men traditionally make up the bulk of early adopters.

However, according to Ofcom’s 2013 Omnibus Survey, a whopping 48% of smartphone users are female, so if smartwatch makers ignore them then they’re effectively ignoring almost half of their potential buyers.

And with recent Juniper Research data telling us that there will be 100 million smartwatch users worldwide by the end of 2019, brands need to take note.

Russell Feldman, YouGov’s director of technology and telecoms, explained: “Wearables are set to grow markedly over the next 18 months. Presently only early adopters own them but as the range of products expand, more consumers will come on board.

“The market will reach its first critical mass over the next year-or so, moving it from niche to more mainstream. So the next wave of wearable owners will be the key group for device manufacturers, retailers and ecosystem partners.”

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While smartwatches are tipped to take off in a big way in the near future, most of the products we’ve seen so far from major tech brands have been ugly as hell. They’re certainly improving – step forward Moto 360 and LG G Watch R – but there’s still some way to go.

What we need to see is more fashion brands and traditional watch makers like Casio, Swatch and Omega getting on board, with designs that look like watches and not what how tech brands thing they should look (usually, chunky, rectangular and absolutely massive). We’ve already seen a few nods in the smart direction, like Casio’s Bluetooth-enabled G-Shock, but not really any true smartwatches.

Obviously style is an important issue for 21st century gent, just as it is for the ladies, but with most tech products designed for men first, the makers need to address this…

You can read the rest of the article at Wareable (originally published 20 October 2014).

Wearables in space

Space selfie by Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide

Space selfie by Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide

From the famous Mercury Seven astronauts to the spacemen and women on the ISS, what these pioneers wear is absolutely critical when it comes to coping with life at Zero-G.

Much of the technology that Nasa develops for space flight eventually makes it into the products that we all use here on Earth, but what about wearables in space? We’ve pulled together some of the space-aged kit that astronauts wear in space and a few things they might wear in future…

Space watch

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While the first watch to make it into space was a Sturmanskie, worn by cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the official watch of the Apollo moon landings was the Omega Speedmaster. But it was the Timex Datalink that was arguably the first smartwatch in space as it was also the very first watch capable of downloading information from a computer.

Made in conjunction with Microsoft, the watch has been approved by Nasa for space travel and has been worn by many astronauts since, but the Speedmaster remains the only watch certified for spacewalks.

Health monitoring

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Wearable health monitors have been a big part of human spaceflight from the start, with all of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts wearing biosensors ranging from a belt-like harness to a full biosuit comprising heart rate, body temperature and blood pressure monitors.

Nasa recently tested out Google Glass and Bluetooth heart rate monitors during simulated space walks on its Neemo (Nasa Extreme Environment Mission Operations) underwater facility for potential use on the ISS in future.

GoPro

Space selfie by Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide

Space selfie by Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide

Action cam specialist GoPro was named ‘official on-board camera of Nasa’ in 2011. Used by astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS), and famously by Felix Baumgartner in his epic space jump, the brand’s Hero 3 is compatible with a huge selection of mounts, ideal for keeping the action steady in zero gravity.

This spectacular selfie was above was snapped outside the ISS by Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide…

You can read the rest of the article at Wareable (originally published 28 September 2014).

The Great British Take-Off: Brits in Space

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ESA astronaut Tim Peake

Next year Tim Peake, a former Major in the British Army Air Corps, will be Britain’s first official astronaut to make it into space. Selected by the European Space Agency (ESA), Peake will fly to the International Space Station (ISS) where he’ll spend six months carrying out experiments on the ESA’s Columbus laboratory module.

While he’ll be our first official astronaut, he won’t be the first Briton in space – that honour goes to Helen Sharman, a chemist who was selected from 13,000 hopefuls for Project Juno – a joint mission between the Soviet Union and a consortium of British companies in 1991. Sharman was also the first woman aboard the Mir space station.

A handful of Brits – albeit ones with American citizenship – flew missions aboard Nasa’s space shuttle programme before its retirement in 2011, while two other astronauts with dual nationality took self-funded flights on the Russian Soyuz. Bizarrely, English soprano Sarah Brightman is in training for a privately funded seat aboard the Soyuz in 2015.

However, Peake is the first to boldly go where just a handful of Brits have gone before as part of an official astronaut corps and is due to blast off on Soyuz TMA-19M in November 2015 as part of Expedition 46, alongside Russian Commander Yuri Malenchenko and Nasa’s Timothy Kopra.

As a home-grown space adventurer, clearly Peake has the potential to become something of a celebrity, in a similar vein to Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield), whose Tweets from the ISS managed to captivate the Twitterverse and make being an astronaut look like just about the best thing in the world (and beyond).

Peake has already made a great start as poster boy for the British space contingent on Twitter (@astro_timpeake) and Flickr and he hasn’t even left the planet yet.

Naturally, we’re all hoping that the ESA has already been in touch with David Bowie to enable Peake to do a rendition of Space Oddity on the ISS, just as Hadfield did. However, he’s already cast doubt on our dreams, quipping:

“I do play the guitar, but very badly, and I wouldn’t inflict my singing on anybody.”

Come on, Tim!

While he might not be blessing us with his vocal talents (or lack thereof) any time soon, Peake has teamed up with maverick chef Heston Blumenthal to launch the Great British Space Dinner – a competition to invent a “tasty meal with a hint of Britishness” to offer a cosy slice of home while he’s on the space station.????????????????????????????????

And while we’re on the subject of taste, it’s no secret that Lavazza recently unveiled the first coffee machine designed for use in space – the superbly named ISSpresso – which will make its way to the ISS in November 2014. But wouldn’t Brit Peake prefer a nice cup of tea?

The Sussex-born spaceman sets the record straight:

“Tea in the morning, and a cup of coffee at 11 o’clock”.

He didn’t say what biscuits he prefers with his cuppa, but his quintessentially British precision when it comes to hot beverage timetables is admirable.

Space-friendly coffee machines aside, the list of innovations that filter through from space exploration programmes to consumers is, well, astronomical.

From new ways of improving commercial flight safety and superconductors that enable lower cost MRI scanners, to producing more realistic terrains in video games and making your car seats more comfy – it’s almost certain that you will have benefitted from these advances in some way.

Nasa estimates that over the last ten years alone, its spinoff innovations have created 18,000 jobs, reduced costs by $4.9bn, generated $5.1bn and saved 444,000 lives.

But if spaceflight is so beneficial to us down on Earth, then why has the UK never made any plans to put together a British astronaut corps? As you can probably guess, it all comes down to cost – with a manned spaceflight programme deemed prohibitively expensive for our frugal country’s wallet.

However, while the UK Space Agency doesn’t have its own crew of astronauts, it is a member of the ESA, providing a rather modest 6% of the European collective’s budget (although it doesn’t supply any direct funding for the ISS).Tim Peake

Further adding to Blighty’s space credentials, the UK Space Agency recently announced the eight coastal locations – six of which are in Scotland – that are under consideration to become the UK’s first spaceport. Due to open by 2018, the first site would provide a base for satellite launches as well as defence and military applications. It could also provide a lift-off point for space tourism companies like Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

Of all the suggested sites, my personal preference for a ‘local’ spaceport would have to be Glasgow Prestwick Airport, purely as it was the only place where Elvis Presley ever set foot in the UK thanks to a refueling stop en route from his army service in Germany. Just imagine the crossover merchandise possibilities in the gift shop.

In the meantime, Tim Peake will be flying the flag for the UK, and hopefully learning the chords to Space Oddity, if only because the lyric “Ground control to Major Tim…” is simply too good to waste.

Let’s all raise our bone china teacups to the Great British Take-Off.

This article was originally published on 17 July 2014 on The Huffington Post UK.

Buran: The forgotten Soviet space shuttle

Buran HPIt’s been just over two years since Nasa mothballed the Space Shuttle, but did you know that the Soviet Union built an almost identical shuttle known as Buran?

Development on Buran (‘snowstorm’ in Russian) started in 1974, primarily for defence purposes in response to the perceived military threat posed by the United States’ shuttle programme.

With the US winning the race to put the first man on the moon, it’s easy to forget that it was the Soviet Union that managed to get the first man into space (although Yuri Gagarin beat Alan Shepard by just a matter of weeks).

In 1963, the USSR’s Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space – a milestone which, wasn’t met by the US until 1983, courtesy of the late Sally Ride. However, with Buran, it was the Americans that led the way, with the Soviets following their lead.

The Buran, superficially at least, was practically identical to Nasa‘s shuttle, almost certainly as a result of Cold War espionage. Having said that, the US didn’t make things particularly difficult for the KGB – all of the technology that went into the space shuttle programme was, inexplicably, unclassified and open to anyone.

The ‘shared’ data from the US meant that Buran was very similar to the American vehicle in terms of size and shape. However, with a strong heritage in space flight, the Soviets had also been working on a form of reusable space plane as far back as the 1960s, so they also had plenty of their own homegrown tech to deploy for Buran. The main difference was that Buran’s main engines were housed in the standalone Energia launch vehicle, rather than on the shuttle itself.

STS-Buran-petitThe propellant used in both the boosters and the shuttles’ manoeuvring systems was also different, and the thermal protection tiles were laid out differently on the two vehicles. The Buran was designed with an automatic landing system, which was only later fitted (and never used) on Nasa’s shuttle as a precautionary measure. The Soviet shuttle was designed to take a maximum crew of ten, as opposed to the space shuttle’s seven and crucially, the Soviet version was fitted with ejector seats.

The USSR built a total of eight test models and five production models and on 15 November 1988, the first flight-ready Buran shuttle was launched from the famous Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Although the flight was unmanned, the shuttle spent three hours in space and made two orbits of the Earth before landing safely.

The timing of the Buran’s 1988 maiden flight was unfortunate. With Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika reforms in full swing, the Soviet Union was crumbling, with the fall of the Berlin Wall only a year away. The state and its economy eventually collapsed in 1991, with the Buran programme being officially cancelled in 1993 by President Boris Yeltsin, a year before the first planned flight with a crew on board.

While the US may have won the shuttle race, with the programme ceased after 30 years of service, US astronauts have had to hitch lifts to the International Space Station (ISS)aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft – at around $63million a seat.

While both the Buran, and the more successful Space Shuttle both led to technical advances for their respective space agencies, many of which are now in commercial use, the orbiters themselves now live out their days as museum exhibits.

Buran_Launchpad_12_medNasa’s four remaining shuttles (including test vehicle Enterprise) are spread out at various museums across the US. Sadly, the only Buran that actually made it to space – OK-1K1 – was destroyed in a hangar collapse in 2002.

Test vehicle OK-GL1 is displayed at the Technik Museum Speyer in Germany, while another test unit is displayed in Moscow’s Gorky Park, serving as a tourist attraction and a relic of the Soviet era.

Having made it my mission to see all of Nasa’s decommissioned space shuttles – I’ve already ticked off Enterprise, Discovery and Columbia (the last of which I saw on the launch pad ten years before its tragic demise) – Buran has now been added to the list. Next stop, Gorky Park.

For some great images, head over to russianspaceweb.com and buran.su

This article was originally published on 30 July 2013 on The Huffington Post UK.