The first Shuttle flight – in full glory

An absolutely amazing labour of love – someone has pieced together the video and audio for the entire STS-1 flight, and generated stunning graphics to illustrate the mission in real time. Split over 16 episodes, well worth having a look at.

STS-1 was the first space flight I recall in my lifetime, and it was of enormous influence on my future plans – imagine the excitement of a 5 year old space mad boy of the first test launch of a spacecraft with *wings*. I remember watching both the launch and landing on live on RTE (Irish public TV) – spaceflight was big news back then.

STS-1 truly was the ultimate test flight – not one bit of the Shuttle system was previously flown in space unmanned – and Young and Crippen could easily have met a grisly end. It was, however, a remarkable triumph. The Shuttle, despite all its flaws, was a special and remarkable vehicle, and it greatly saddens me to see the remaining Orbiters retired to museums.


Incoming! Incoming! Possible northern lights this weekend…..

Update #5 (09:00 UT, 13/9/14):
A frustrating geomagnetic storm.

After a brief flurry of activity which saw aurorae becoming visible as far south as the middle of the UK, the Netherlands and northern Germany (and even then, not massively strong – moonlight didn’t help), the direction of the interplanetary magnetic field swung sharply northward, and remained north. This unfortunately has the effect of dampening out any auroral activity, restricting any displays to the polar regions.

What’s really unfortunate is that this was a very, very strong CME – if the IMF had stayed southwards, we would have seen an extremely strong auroral display, reaching as far south as perhaps Spain, the middle of the US and as far north as maybe southern Australia, a once per solar cycle event. Oh well. Sadly par for the course with mid-latitude storms in Cycle 24 – all have been a fizzle.

Here’s a gallery of pictures taken by observers in the UK, and collated by the Aurora Watch UK team. Likewise, photos from the NOAA Aurora Spotters group.

We still are in the effects of the CME, right in the middle of the core, which alas is pointing strongly northwards. The polarity may change southwards once we leave the core, but it’s wait and see, and no guarantee that we’ll have any decent activity tonight in Europe. We’ll just have to wait and see….


Update #4 (19:50 UT, 12/9/14):

G2 geomagnetic storm level.

The Kp index remains at 6, so we are still within a G2 storm level. However, Bz remains stubbornly pointing northwards, so aurora are not visible further south as yet. Still, it’s early and darkness has now arrived in western Europe. Those in northern Scotland and Scandinavia should keep an eye out.


Update #3 (17:50 UT, 12/9/14):

G2 geomagnetic storm level reached!

NOAA reports that the Kp = 6 threshold has been reached – we are now at the level of a G2 geomagnetic storm. Keep an eye out after dark for auroral activity!


Update #2 (16:15 UT, 12/9/14):

CME arriving at the ACE spacecraft!

The NASA ACE spacecraft has detected the 2nd CME en route – the CME is now roughly 30 mins from arrival at earth. Dynamically updated plots available here. We are still in quiet geomagnetic conditions (G0), though this is expected to change. Bz is slightly pointing southwards.

From NOAA: “The second of the expected coronal mass ejections (CMEs) has arrived, and arrived in good agreement with the predicted arrival times (shown here in this ACE solar wind plot as the strong discontinuity near the end of the graph).  As expected, an initial looks shows this CME is stronger than the first.  More to come as this event plays out but the forecast for G2 (Moderate) storming for September 12th and G3 (Strong) storming on the 13th still looks to be reasonable.  The solar radiation storm that is in progress as a result of the eruption on September 10th has increased with the passage of this shock, as it often does, and we currently sit just above the S2 (Moderate) threshold.”


Update #1 (15:45 UT, 12/9/14):

CME arriving!

NOAA is reporting a shock passage at 1530 UT, which indicates that a CME arrival is imminent. The solar wind is picking up in speed (around 670 km/s), and there are now warnings that a Kp value of 6 is expected within the next 3 hours.




Original post

The current solar cycle (the 24th since extensive monitoring of sunspots began in 1755) has been extraordinarily weak: there have been fewer sunspots and solar flares than in recent cycles, with a corresponding lack of strong displays of the Northern Lights (also called auroraevisible from the more heavily populated middle latitudes (such as northern Europe, southern Canada/northern USA). Indeed, I struggle to recall any very strong displays that far south – a combination of bad luck with cloud and the wrong polarity of the interplanetary magnetic field (IMF) have nulled any potential for good displays during this solar cycle.

However, good news! The Sun has woken up in the last few days! An active sunspot region on the Sun has erupted twice with strong flares this week – in the nomenclature of solar flares, a M-class (moderate strength) on Tuesday and a X-class (strong) flare on Wednesday. What’s even better that both flares ejected plasma and high energy particles (otherwise known as a coronal mass ejection, or CME) directly towards us, and it is this material that will trigger geomagnetic disturbances that, hopefully, will allow us to see the aurora at more southerly latitudes.


What are aurorae, and why do we see them?

So first of all, I hear you ask, what are aurorae and what triggers them?

Aurorae are produced when highly energetic particles collide with and excite the atoms and molecules of the Earth’s upper-atmosphere.

These particles, protons and electrons, are of solar origin and travel via the Earth’s magnetic field to form two permanent rings of auroral light centred around the magnetic poles.

The so-called ‘auroral ovals’, during quiet solar activity, are located at arctic latitudes – too distant to be seen from the UK and similar places far to the south. However, following intense solar events (like the ones this week) and the subsequent enhancement of the solar wind, the auroral ovals, under certain conditions, will expand towards the equator.


It is at such times that auroral displays are seen at latitudes such as the British Isles and northwestern Europe. I should state that the auroral ovals are ‘fixed’ in position – they surround the geomagnetic poles, and it is the Earth that rotates under them rather than them themselves rotating, so we are closest to them at the same time every night.

In central Alaska or northern Scandinavia, on most nights you can expect to rotate directly under the oval in the midevening hours, be inside it (poleward of it) around midnight, and pass under it again before dawn. Thus one expects to see the aurora move from the northern sky shortly after dark, to overhead at midevening, and to the south around midnight, then back overhead again in the early hours of the morning.

In the UK and Ireland, we are closest to the ovals at around 22:00-23:00 GMT – magnetic midnight – and usually this time is the peak of activity during storms (though there are additional peaks during storms, depending on the storm intensity).

Being so closely linked to solar activity, the aurora reflects the changing nature of the solar cycle. Generally, it can be said that more aurorae will be seen from southerly latitudes over the few years around solar maxima. During a rare large storm, the oval may expand so far toward the equator that it can be seen from the tropics, while skywatchers at midnorthern latitudes actually find themselves facing south.


So, what should we expect?

To give a little background on the flares and incoming CMEs (and the likelihood of seeing aurora on the 12th/13th, here’s a rather nice space weather forecast by Tamitha Skov, a scientist at The Aerospace Corporation in Los Angeles, California (you can also follow Tamitha on Twitter: @TamithaSkov)

Tamitha mentions that the storm will be a G3 one in intensity – this scaling system is from the NOAA Geomagnetic Storm scale. So it is expected to be a moderately strong storm, as it currently stands (G5 being the strongest).


OK, so what about the timescale? When will this happen?

As I write this now (~11:00 GMT on the 12th), the first of the CMEs has arrived, giving us a glancing blow – we are currently in the lowest of the NOAA storm scales, G1, and activity is still confined to the polar regions. The 2nd CME is due to hit at some point in the afternoon GMT on the 12th, according to space weather models. The arrival of the second CME is expected to push it up to the G3 level – it’s a strong CME and it is fast, a very good sign – and if that happens, and the polarity of the magnetic field in the z-axis (Bz) points southwards, then we are in for a treat.


OK! So, how likely am I to see the northern lights?

Of course, the closer you are to the auroral ovals, the better your chance of spotting the aurora. However, the more intense the geomagnetic storm is, the better your chances are at your location to spot something.

You will see that the index Kp is mentioned on the NOAA scales – this is a index of the strength of the magnetic disturbance, with a scale of 0 to 9, with the higher the value, the stronger the aurora. Generally, we need at least a Kp value of 6-7 to see aurora from Ireland and the UK, southern Scandinavia, New Zealand (which is generally what you get with a G3 level storm), and higher the further south you are (north in the Southern Hemisphere) – a G4 or G5. To illustrate what Kp value is required to see the aurora from your location:


North America

Australia/NZ and southern Africa

So, if we do get a G3 storm, I’d expect the potential for spotting aurora across Ireland and the UK, northern Europe, the northern half of North America and most of New Zealand. If we are lucky, and the direction of the z-component of the interplanetary magnetic field goes strongly south, the storm will intensify, and those further south will get the chance to spot the northern lights.


What’s the best way of keeping informed of the likelihood of a strong geomagnetic storm and auroral display?


You can keep an eye on various sites that track geomagnetic/auroral activity, or use apps on your smartphone or tablet. Here are some sites to monitor for real time geomagnetic conditions:

The NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center – excellent European volunteer-run site, good updates & analysis.

The British Geological Survey Geomagnetism Group

Aurora Watch UK – run by Lancaster University in the UK.

NOAA OVATION auroral oval model, with maps to estimate the current extent of the auroral oval.

AuroraMAX – watch the Northern Lights live from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada.

For smartphones/tablets, I recommend the following apps to keep you up to date with auroral conditions and solar activity (I use them myself):

Solar Monitor (for iPhone and iPad)

Aurora Alert (Android)

Both apps are pay-for, but well worth it.

How do I observe the northern lights, assuming there’s a strong display? What should I expect to see?

Find a spot away from street lights and a good view of the northern horizon (southern if in the Southern hemisphere). In Ireland and the UK, I’d expect a peak around 2200-2300 GMT (at magnetic midnight), but activity, if strong will continue throughout the night. This timescale will vary dependent on when the 2nd CME arrives at Earth (it takes a few hours after CME arrival for the aurora to get going – and should hopefully enhance any activity from the 1st CME).

Be patient – auroral activity can be highly time variable, so just keep looking north.

Obviously, places with a lot of light pollution will have a hard time spotting the northern lights. Try to get somewhere dark if you can.

It really is a wait and see approach – there are no guarantees that we will even get a good display! If Bz points north, this has the effect of dampening out any geomagnetic disturbances, so the auroral ovals do not expand, so no aurora.

We also have two additional enemies: cloud (of course), and a bright waning gibbous moon (80% illuminated). However, you can spot aurorae in bright moonlight, but the display has to be a strong one. Only way to make certain is to look!

So, if we do get a strong display, what should you expect to see?

The following notes describe each of the most commonly seen auroral forms. This is taken from the Society For Popular Astronomy website:

Glow (N): The first sign of impending auroral activity is normally a faint glow of light lying low on the northern horizon. Auroral glows are similar in appearance to faint twilight conditions, and can easily be mistaken for the light of a distant town or city.
Veil (V): Bright and active displays can produce a background veil of auroral light covering a large area of sky beyond the main parts of the display.
Rayed Arc (RA): Formation of a rayed arc occurs when vertical columns of light project upwards from a homogeneous arc. Rayed activity often follows sudden brightening of the arc. Again, obvious folds or kinks may be present forming a Rayed Band (RB).Auroral Rays (RR) can also be seen in isolation, stretching up from the horizon in the absence of other obvious activity. This represents the uppermost parts of a display, the remainder of which is being masked by the observer’s horizon and would be much more impressive from a more northerly location. Auroral rays mark the position of the Earth’s magnetic field lines and can extend up to several hundred kilometers above the Earth’s surface.
Patches (P): Commonly seen during the declining stages of a display are isolated patches of auroral light. Like arcs and bands, patches can be either homogeneous (HP) or rayed (RP).
Homogenous Arc (HA): As an auroral storm pushes southward it gradually assumes more definite structures. The homogeneous arc is a rainbow-like arch of light – often green in colour – seen only a few degrees above the north point of the horizon. At times the arc may form twists or kinks, in which case the structure is described as a Homogeneous Band (HB)
Corona (C): Very occasionally the aurora may push into the southern half of an observer’s sky. When this happens perspective effects cause rayed forms to appear to radiate from a single point close to the zenith. This point represents the magnetic zenith which from UK locations lies 18–25 degrees south of the true zenith. Formation of coronal activity often precedes a decline in activity. Thereafter the aurora will fragment and retreat northward. However, on very rare occasions the aurora can penetrate south of the UK and push over the southern horizon.

Some images of the above types.

Auroral veil

Rayed arc


Homogenous arc






A note on the colours above – the energetic particles smacking into our atmosphere are exciting molecular oxygen, which is what causes the white/green colour of aurorae, and this is indicative of the lowest level of excitation. As the storm become more energetic, we move to higher state of molecular oxygen being excited – so we see yellow and red aurorae. Finally, if the storm is severe, we see nitrogen being excited – so you may see blue aurorae!!

If you wish to photograph them, almost any camera―either digital or film―will work for photographing the aurora, as long as you can adjust it manually to take time exposures of 10-30 seconds or longer. An all-automatic camera may not work well for these photos, I’m afraid, but it’s certainly worth trying.

Digital cameras do a great job if you can set them for a fast ISO (200, 400 or faster). Cold temperatures will sap battery strength, so carry spare batteries in a warm place, such as an inside pocket. And don’t worry about using a light meter; it usually will only work for your daytime photos!

Nearly any kind of lens will work for aurora photography but, since the aurora can cover huge areas of the sky, a wide-angle lens would be a much better choice.  Equally important is that the lens be as ‘fast’ as possible (i.e., have a small f/ratio like f/2.8, f/2 or smaller).  Without a fast lens, exposures will need to be longer, and that will tend to blur the aurora more.



Finally, some reminiscing! I spotted my first aurora in 1991 – and I was lucky to see the huge auroral storm of Nov 8/9 1991, where the storm was so intense that the aurora covered the entire sky at its peak with blood-red light, with a glorious corona!!!!! No wonder it used to frighten our ancestors.

It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. Fingers crossed for a repeat this weekend. If you get the chance, go out and look! You won’t regret it.

Clear skies and best of luck!

Dealing with ‘true believers’

Musing on the fluoridation fun and games over the w/end on Twitter. It’s disturbing that people focus on a paper or tiny bit of data that they believe supports their view as conclusive proof that their pet theory is correct – a case in point being this morning’s ‘conversation’ with someone who was trying to claim a conclusion that at complete odds with the ACTUAL RESULTS OF THE PAPER. Likewise the lady at the weekend – who got a bit upset when I pointed out the flaws with the interpretation and usage of stats that she was making her point with.

I’m not a dental health professional, and thus not an expert in the field. But as a scientist, I do know how to look at data critically and dispassionately. And if the data is good, the methodology is sound, then it goes without saying that people who actually know what they’re talking about should be given their dues and have their conclusions accepted. It’s all about the data – that’s how hypotheses live or die by. Proof. And not just over one paper or review – but a mountain of evidence to support these conclusions.

That’s how science *works*.

From my own (non-expert) POV – water fluoridation, based on the data I’ve seen, is highly effective in reducing dental cavities, and is the best way of doing large-scale dental care. And in the concentrations used, there are no public health issues – fluorosis, cancer etc. The data is there to support these findings, and that’s good enough for me. After all, why would I support a practice that would badly affect my own health and that of my children?

One unfortunate by-product of the Internet Age is the ability of people to cherry-pick info that they believe will support their view point, without subjecting it to proper critical analysis. Even more so the phenomenon of attacking someone like myself who tries to rebut them with data and analysis – especially if they hide behind internet anonymity. A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing – especially if it leads to bad public health policy (or indeed, policy in any walk of life). I’m not an expert on a whole range of topics (apart from star formation in low metallicity galaxies, the Dutch football sides of the last 40 years and of course QPR) – so I rely on knowledge from people who *are* experts in their field. And the benefit of being a scientist is that I’m trained to look at data dispassionately – so at least I can critically review what’s been presented to me, and ask questions when I do not understand conclusions. It’s a better way of approaching topics than dogmatically approaching a topic, and cherrypicking/interpreting the data to support a viewpoint. That is bad, bad science – and a disaster in the making.

It also helps if you’re polite, and not an anonymous sock puppet.

So, said my peace on this. I have nothing further to add on the topic, and will let those who actually deal with this professionally to do their job!

A solemn reminder

As I’ve noted below, I’ve just moved my WordPress blog over to my own hosting solution – I bought the domain a few months ago, and sadly, I’ve only done a minimal amount of work getting the website up to scratch. Life, unfortunately, has an awful habit of getting in the way, after all.

One of the main motivations for setting up my own site was to coalesce all my web output within one hosting solution. I had my blog on WordPress, and a web site devoted to my daughter Arily (more of which anon) on Yahoo. While the WordPress site was fine, Yahoo were a nightmare to deal with – the tools were rudimentary, and like Yahoo in general, their web hosting solutions were overpriced and light years behind the competition. So, on the advice of a friend, I moved to Blacknight – an Irish hosting company, and they’ve been superb thus far. I must admit I’ve been drowning in the number of web hosting options and packages available, but the support has been excellent. Highly recommended.

So, over the last two days, I’ve licked the Playing With Dust site into shape – the main site has a bit of a way to go (it’s a placeholder of sorts), but the blog is in superb shape, I’m really happy with it. Of course, I have to actually post a tad more….. but I suspect that will not be a problem going forward.

The activity that has been most important to me though is working on my daughter’s website. My daughter Arily (an acronym for ‘Always Remember I Love You’, she was also known as Lauren) died in 2006 – she was stillborn, as a result of Trisomy 18. Neither my ex-wife nor I were prone to any genetic issues, it truly was one of the those one in a billion instances, not that the thought of that made it any easier. When she passed away in 2006, I put together a simple website so that family and friends could see photos etc., as we were living in Virginia at the time, far from the comfort of loved ones.

It wasn’t much – basic HTML, some pictures and video, plus a guestbook – but it meant a lot to us, as it was a statement that our daughter existed. Far too often, people sweep stillborn children under the carpet, so to speak – but to my ex and I, she was very, very real. She kicked. She responded to us. One of my favourite things was simply to talk to her, and feel her kick in response – she was part of us, our family, and deserved the right to be acknowledged. So the existence of the web site was very important to us – and we were overwhelmed with the response from friend and stranger alike.

As time moved on, we began to heal – and work on the website stopped, apart from moderating comments (spammers have no humanity, it has to be said). We had our oldest son, Conor, moved to the UK, had two more children (a girl, Eimear, and another boy, Liam), and sadly the marriage came apart at the seams over the next few years. Life really didn’t afford the opportunity to work on a website, which stayed idle and neglected.

Until yesterday, that is.

In one of those strange coincidences, I decided to sit down and work on getting Arily’s website back up and running on National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Day. It wasn’t hard work – but because things had been neglected so long, a lot of plugging away was required,  links that didn’t work, guestbook database issues etc.

It was hard looking at the text we wrote – we were heartbroken, utterly utterly heartbroken. Equally so looking at the pictures. The saddest thing of all, for me, was looking at links from other couples leaving posts about their similar stories – and finding that the websites no longer exist. The memories of those children have slipped away, for whatever reason – and that is heartbreaking.It just makes me that much more determined to keep my daughter’s memory alive. It’s still in basic form, but it works, and improvements are on the way. So please, do take a visit to her webpage – it’s not easy reading, but it does mean a lot to me.

The 10 year anniversary.

Just realised that it’s 10 years ago that I had my Ph.D. viva. 10 years ago, today, in fact. Bloody hell.

I was out by this point, having passed it, and on my way to a rather nice lunch in UCD.

I was also relieved to see, later, that the Shuttle launched successfully. I didn’t want the date of my viva associated with a Shuttle disaster….. of course, that Shuttle launch was that of STS-107 – the last launch of Columbia. 2 weeks later, of course, the crew died on re-entry as a result of a foam impact on the leading edge of the left wing, destroying RCC tiles and putting a 10-12 inch gap in the left wing which allowed super hot gases to melt the insides of the wing during the re-entry, leading to the loss of the crew and the vehicle.

I visited the graves of some of the Columbia crew, and the Columbia memorial (and those of Challenger too) at Arlington National Cemetery a few years back, when I lived in the area. A very poignant experience to say the least.

Godspeed the last crew of Columbia, and indeed Hail Columbia herself.



Quite a week

You can say that again, if you’re a follower of the space program and astrophysics.

OK, first up – the final flight of the Shuttle. I’ve already given my reminisces of the Shuttle program below, but given that Atlantis is currently on-orbit, it’s making me somewhat nostalgic. I missed the launch on Friday afternoon as I was in transit and out of internet range at the time, which annoyed me. Looking at images of Pad 39-A after launch though is incredibly sobering – when will the next time be when we see a launch vehicle sitting on top of it? At least post-Skylab and ASTP, the last occasion when the Pad 39 complex lay idle, there was the promise of the Shuttle. This time round, not so much of a guarantee that we’ll ever see them used again. Yes, NASA is planning a new Space Launch System from 2016/2017 onwards, but for those of us who have seen programs founder such as SEI, X33 and the VSE again and again, it doesn’t leave one with much hope that hardware will ever make it to the pad. The difference this time round is that there is poor support for future programs at the top end politically, both in the White House and amazingly, at the top end of NASA – appalling leadership has given the impression of a space agency adrift. It’s heartbreaking – and especially as NASA faces a budgetary onslaught with the benefit of political protection for its core programs. If – and that’s a big if – we ever see astronauts fly on a NASA vehicle, it’ll be nearer the 2020 mark. Question is – to where? No money for the Moon, Mars – it’s a program without direction, or even a purpose. A prime case for cancellation if ever I heard one. The NASA of Apollo is of course long gone – that died one cold morning in January 1986 – but the way things are going, NASA of today will follow very shortly. And indeed, it’s heartbreaking.

The second bit of news is the Appropriations Bill from the House of Representatives regarding NASA’s budget – the headline item being the proposed cancellation of the James Webb Space Telescope. Of course, in the Tea Party Republican dominated House, a troubled and massively over-budget program like JWST was always going to be in trouble, being firmly in the sights of the budget slashers. JWST has had a troubled history to say the least – costs and technical issues were massively underestimated by NASA and the contractors, leading to at least a 4-fold cost overrun and a launch slip from 2013 to, at the moment, 2018 – really poor management exacerbated the problems. Now, as an astrophysicist, I think JWST is/will be a fantastic instrument – however, I’m not the one writing the cheques. Now, it should be mentioned that the House bill is just the first step – JWST has significant support in the Senate, and both the House and Senate need to both agree before the Appropriations can be signed into law, so the battle has only just begun. However, given that the Astrophysics Decadal Review was basically “we can only afford JWST”, the loss of JWST would make the next 2 decades or so extremely barren for astrophysics research. Fundamental research in all areas is under attack in the US, JWST being the prime case at the moment – a crazy situation, almost as if the US is deliberately trying to make itself into a second class nation in terms of research capabilities, all of which is due to political fundamentalism.

On all levels, it’s a week to scratch your head and wonder how we got to the position we’re in and to question our priorities. Then again, that’s obvious. Adult Swim put it best – ‘NASA’s budget = $19 billion. The cost of air conditioning in tents in Iraq and Afghanistan = $20 billion. That’s why we’re not going to Mars”

The Space Shuttle – 30 years on.

STS-1 patch

I’m rather dating myself, but I’m a child of the Shuttle era, and so the combination of the 30th anniversary of the first Shuttle flight with the upcoming final Shuttle flight is making me rather nostalgic.

I remember the first flight surprisingly well given that I was only 5 years old at the time. The launch was big news, given that it was not only the first flight, but the also first American space flight in 6 years. RTE covered the launch and landing live (unthinkable today), with the peerless Leo Enright providing the commentary. I was already space obsessed, so the launch of STS-1 was manna for me.

The early Shuttle program was amazing, racking up first after first – large crews, high flight rate, satellite launches and the first untethered spacewalks. It really was the barnstorming era of space flight. Of course, the warning lights were blinking red – the system was under strain, and eventually gave way with the loss of Challenger.

I remember the day of the Challenger disaster well. I just had walked out the door when the accident happened, missing the news flash on RTE. When I got home later in the evening, I didn’t believe my Mum when she told me – to idealistic 10 year olds, space shuttles simply don’t explode. When the Nuacht came on at 7, I saw the footage for the first time, and even then really didn’t believe it. (My Mum also broke the news of Columbia to me, 17 years later, in a rather odd replay of history).

Of course, the Shuttle program never really recovered from Challenger. NASA became very risk adverse, and became very conservative in the goals of the Shuttle program (until the corporate memory of the Challenger accident was forgotten – leading to the loss of Columbia 17 years later). The program did have its great successes – the Hubble repair flights, Shuttle-Mir, ISS construction – because it is a superb and highly capable vehicle. Yet due to those same capabilities, the inherent weaknesses of the Shuttle also lead to its terrible lows – the strained Shuttle development budget and political compromises involved led to the issues which led to the loss of Columbia, along with poor management both within NASA and from the White House. The Shuttle is a flawed vehicle – but development vehicles always are.

When I lived in the US, I was lucky enough to attend the launch of a Shuttle, STS-124. It was a fantastic experience, and despite the risks, I’d have gladly swapped seats with those on board. I was also fortunate enough to visit Arlington, and paid my respects to the crew members of Challenger (Dick Scobee and Mike Smith) and Columbia (Laurel Clark, Mike Anderson and Dave Brown) who are buried there. The two experiences sum up the Shuttle program for me. Triumph and tragedy. But a necessary step for us to becoming a true space-faring civilisation – and I consider myself lucky to have lived through an amazing piece of history.

The Irish emigrant and the right to vote

It’s been a very busy few months – I’ve had a nagging little voice telling me to spend a bit of time on ‘Playing With Dust’, but one thing or another has gotten my attention, namely work and family. However, the kids are off watching ‘Fireman Sam’, so I’ve got some time to be a responsible blogger. 😉 A belated New Year to you all.

Plenty of cool astronomy related stuff to blog in the short term, especially the wonderful M31 image that SPIRE and XMM produced and shown on the BBC ‘Stargazing Live’ program, but that’ll have to wait till later. Politics today, or more so Irish politics, as I’m a rather angry Paddy at the moment…

As an expatriate Irishman, I watch the events of not only the last few days, weeks and months with increasing anger. The country is a basket case, both politically and financially, and with little hope of either being sorted out in even the longest term scenario. The country is fecked, especially if the same old people end up holding the political reigns after the upcoming general election. While I have no time for Fianna Fail, and in fact detest them, I have no confidence in either Fine Gael or Labour to dig us out of the mess – nor with any of the political parties. However, the thing that really irritates me the most is that despite being an Irish citizen, I have no voice in the future political direction of my country. I am without the right to vote.

‘Huh?’, I hear you cry! Isn’t Ireland a fully developed country with full democratic rights for its citizens? It is – to a point. For those of us who are not ‘ordinarily resident’ in Ireland, we no longer have the right to vote, the argument in favour being that Irish citizens living outside of Ireland are not fully involved in the day-to-day practicalities of Irish life to be fully involved in deciding the nature of the Irish political landscape. Opponents of the rights of emigrants to vote also point out that as we are not paying Irish taxes, we also forfeit the right to vote.


Many of us living outside of Ireland are doing so because we’re forced to – no employment in our field, you see. Can’t support my family on the dole. Leaving Ireland does, however, open your eyes to how badly run the country is – corrupt, parish-pump, tribal politics where TD seats are passed from father to son is a cancer which has debilitated the country since independence. The political parties know that for emigrants, the blinkers are off – and hence the extreme reluctance to allow expats to vote. The political parties fear us. Anything that’ll disrupt the status quo is to be feared by the good old boys back home.

The arguments re. lack of day-to-day interaction and taxation are straw arguments at best. It’s not the 1950’s anymore – thanks to the miracle of the Internet, we can read Irish newspapers, watch Irish TV, and are on Skype to home. The modern emigrant is plugged into home in to a much greater extent than was the case even a decade ago. It’s not like it was in previous diasporas, where apart from the odd phone call/letter and the local Irish paper you’d pick up from the newsagents in Kilburn, you really were cut off. We know what’s going on.

(As an aside, it’s one rule for them and other for the rest of us great unwashed. The then EU Ambassador to the USA, John Bruton (a former Irish Taoiseach), flew home from Washington DC to vote in the Lisbon referendum a few years back. This is actually illegal under Irish law – you can’t vote *at all* if you’re not ordinarily resident in Ireland. Of course, he got off scot free. Expats have been warned that they face arrest if they do the same. I urge any expats reading this to flout this and vote – I know quite a few who will. Alas, I can’t do the same – my name was taken off the electoral register without my consent after I moved to the US, so I’m not registered to vote in any case in my old constituency.)

As for taxes/financial input…. well, we’re sending back remittances to pay loans, mortgages and support families. Hell, as a UK taxpayer, I’m even contributing to the bailout. We’re paying for you to get out the financial crapper. So don’t even try to argue we’re asking for voting rights and offering nothing in return. The attitude of the Government and many others back home is ‘Thanks for the money, now feck off’. Well, no. We’re not going to be quiet.

I want to contribute to the political future of my country, as I have a rather large stake in its political and economic direction. I want the opportunity to raise my kids back home, and for them to have good opportunities in life if they do grow up there – I don’t want to be in the position that my mother was in, watching her son leave for distant shores. I’m an Irish citizen, and despite the incompetent good old boys who’ve run the country into the ground, I’m proud to be an Irish citizen. I just want to be able to exercise my voice as an Irish citizen in how my country is run.

No other EU country denies its overseas citizens the right to vote, now that the Greeks have been forced by the European courts to back down and give their overseas citizens the right to vote. War torn countries like Iraq and Southern Sudan allow their diasporas to exercise their democratic rights and participate in the political future of their countries. The USA allows postal voting. Why can’t Ireland? The answer, the only answer is and can be, that they fear us and that we’ll end their cozy little system of corruption and privilege. With up to 50, 000 Irish citizens expected to emigrate this year and no end to Ireland’s financial turmoil in sight, this issue will only increase in its importance for the years ahead.

I’m either an Irish citizen or I’m not. Give me my vote.