Thursday, 7 July 2016

Juno Tour of the BBC

The last 48 hours have been incredible, emotional, exhausting, and inspirational!  I was really lucky to be involved in some of the BBC's coverage of the NASA Juno mission's arrival at Jupiter.  I'll try to write a post on all the excitement at some point soon, but here are a collection of video clips from my day!

An interview with myself and Glenn Orton on BBC Breakfast at 07.40am, July 5th:

An interview on BBC Breakfast at 06:15am, July 5th:

An interview on the BBC News Channel at 5:20pm on July 4th, before arrival:

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Harold C. Urey Prize

Needless to say, I'm completely overwhelmed and delighted by all the messages of support and congratulations over the past week.  Here's a press release from the University of Leicester about the Urey Prize from the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences.  The original prize announcement can be found here.  To all those colleagues, family and friends who have kept me sane over the past decade, thank you thank you thank you from the bottom of my heart!  It's incredible to be awarded for simply doing a job that I love, and I now have some high expectations to live up to!

International award goes to Leicester planetary scientistInternational award goes to Leicester planetary scientist

The American Astronomical Society has honoured a planetary scientist in our Department of Physics and Astronomy with one of its prestigious prizes.

The Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) has awarded its Harold C. Urey Prize 2016 for outstanding achievement in planetary research by an early-career scientist to Dr Leigh Fletcher in recognition of his ground-breaking work in understanding physical and chemical processes in the atmospheres of the outer planets.

His research uses sophisticated interplanetary spacecraft and world-leading ground-based observatories to study the climate and environment on giant planets.  His work has resulted in insights into such phenomena as the distribution of temperatures, chemicals, and clouds in Jupiter's Great Red Spot; the chemical make-up of Saturn's atmosphere, which reveals clues about its origin; the planetary-scale changes to the banded appearance of Jupiter; the discovery of a major hot vortex in Saturn's stratosphere spawned by powerful storm activity; the implications of changes of Saturn's temperatures and gaseous constituents for seasonal variability in its dynamics; and the distribution of Neptune's stratospheric temperatures and minor constituents.

Dr Fletcher is currently a Royal Society University Research Fellow and Lecturer at the University of Leicester.  He arrived at the University in 2015, after a career moving from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California to research fellowships at the University of Oxford.  He received his PhD in planetary sciences from the University of Oxford in 2007, and is a co-investigator on the Cassini mission to Saturn and future NASA and ESA missions to Jupiter and its icy moons, Europa and Ganymede.

Dr Fletcher said: “I’m completely humbled and overwhelmed at receiving this award, made even more special as it comes from my peers within the planetary science community. I’m so very fortunate to be doing a job that I love, and grateful to all my friends and colleagues for supporting me along the way.

“There’s an illustrious list of previous awardees of the Urey prize from all over the world, so I now have a lot to live up to!

“We have so many exciting projects coming up that will explore the Outer Solar System in new and innovative ways - space probes to Jupiter, infrared space telescopes, giant observatories on Earth - that it’ll keep our team in Leicester at the forefront of planetary research for years to come, and I’m proud that I can be a part of it.”

Professor Paul O’Brien, Head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, said: “It's a wonderful surprise and a great tribute to Leigh. This prize highlights the excellent planetary research being carried out at the University.”

Professor Mark Lester, Head of the University’s Radio and Space Plasma Physics Group, said: “This is excellent news and demonstrates the standing in which Leigh is held in the planetary research community. It is thoroughly deserved.”

The 2016 DPS prizes will be presented at the joint 48th meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) and 11th European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC) in Pasadena, California, 16-21 October 2016.

Win(Mac)JUPOS - Installing WinJUPOS via Wineskin

One of the most incredible things about the amateur astronomy community is that they've attracted some pretty impressive software development to aid in their citizen science projects.  One piece of software has become rather mainstream - WinJUPOS, a program that allows you to map the locations on a planetary disc and use them for a whole host of tasks, including the production of maps.  Whilst we have software that also does this, it's often a handy quick-look tool for new data.  So imagine my endless frustration that it's only ever been designed for Windows machines!

Porting WinJUPOS to MacJUPOS

Step in Wineskin, a porting utility that allows you to run Windows executables on a Mac without setting up any virtual machines.  Here are the steps I followed:

1.  Download Wineskin Winery (v1.7) from here:

2.  As soon as Winery is installed, click on 'update' to update the wrapper - I'm using v2.6.2 for this installation.

3.  Install a Wineskin Engine (I'm using the latest, v1.9.9) by clicking on the '+' symbol in the window.  You now have almost everything required to install a Windows program.

4.  Create a Blank Wrapper - this will churn away for a few minutes, and prompt you to install a couple of windows components, Mono and Gecko - just say yes and it'll all work smoothly, prompting you to view the new Wrapper in the Finder window.  Name it something recognisable (i.e., the executable name).

5.  Next click on the Wrapper in the finder window, choose the option to 'Install software', and navigate to wherever you've downloaded the WinJUPOS application (  It'll churn away and complete the installation in the 'dummy' folders that it's generated, making it look like a Windows file system. Note that the first time you click the Wrapper it might fail to open - just click it again and all will be fine.

6.  Now, when you next click on the Wrapper it should open and run WinJUPOS without any issues.  There's only one peculiarity I found so far - when mapping images with pre-saved measurements (*ims files), I found that the 'finder' didn't see the file, and I had to type in the name manually to proceed.

Quick Start Guide with WinJUPOS

The software isn't entirely intuitive, but is OK when you get set up and running.

1.  Start with Recording > Image Measurement to load up your new image.
2.  Add the date, time, longitude and latitude of the observation to the 'Image Tab'
3.  Then go to the 'Adjust tab' to fit the limb of the planet - PgUp/Dn makes the limb larger or smaller; the arrow keys move it around, and P/N move the silhoette clockwise or anticlockwise.
3.  Click 'save' to save the image measurement file (*ims) associated with this image.

Then you can move onto the mapping:
4.  Go to Analysis > Map Computation, click on 'Edit' and add the *ims file (noting that this might have to be typed in manually on the Mac version, for some reason).
5.  Choose the parameters of the map you want to generate (planetographic latitudes and System III west longitudes with equirectangular cylindrical projections or stereographic polar projections for professional use).
6.  Compile the map and save as a JPEG.

This forms the basics of what I intend to do with the software, purely for presentation purposes, but there are tonnes of other tools within Win(Mac)JUPOS that can be helpful, all described in the documentation.

(PS.  I've also been able to use Wineskin Winery to install Autostakkert on the Mac, another excellent free tool for stacking lucky imaging, following essentially the same process as that above).

Note:  In the map computation window, you can change the output map quality by changing the map width. When you enter an image measurement file, an optimal map width is proposed. If you enter a smaller width, you will lose small details because of interpolation.

Friday, 11 March 2016

Amateur Observations of Mars

With Europe about to launch the EXOMARS mission this coming Monday, I'd been asked by some colleagues about amateur observations of Mars that might support such a mission.  There are plenty of observers out there who turn their attention to the Red Planet near to opposition (May 2016), but unfortunately there's no single repository for this information for researchers.  I've found several possible locations:

A mysterious cloud over Mars observed by amateur observers.
Many of the most active planetary observers tend to post their images via FaceBook too, in the Astronomy Planetary Imaging group.  

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Clouds on Pluto....? Maybe....

In an email found by New Scientist, John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, pointed out a cloud that seems to stand out from the surface in a photo taken by New Horizons. If Pluto has clouds, it means there is an active cycle like the Earth's water cycle or the methane cycle on Saturn's Titan

Yesterday I was contacted by a reporter from the Daily Mail regarding claims that the recent tentative detection of clouds on Pluto (which may or may not turn out to be real) should re-open the debate on Pluto's planet status. Here's what I said, but before we get into it, we should note (i) I don't approve of the clickbait headline used in this article, as the answer is obviously 'no', and (ii) I'm pretty disappointed in New Scientist for distributing these details from an email sent by New Horizons team member John Spencer.  The team must be pretty miffed that this speculation was put out there before there was time to do any proper analysis of the data, and there's several commentators out there that are sceptical that we're seeing clouds at all.

So here's what I said: "The answer is a resounding no, I’m afraid - the presence of aerosols within Pluto’s atmosphere is extremely exciting, hinting at chemical production of hazes and condensation of gases in its very thin (10 microbar pressure) nitrogen-methane-carbon monoxide atmosphere.  If the detection of clouds turns out to be true, it’ll keep solar system scientists intrigued for years to come.  But it makes no difference to Pluto’s lack of planet-status. Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, exhibits even more complexity in its atmospheric processes, and it is quite content to be a fascinating planetary satellite.  The formation of clouds in certain locations can tell you how the air is moving and how it interacts with the surface features.  So the challenge to Pluto scientists is to determine whether these are real features, what they’re made of, how they formed and whether there’s anything special about their location.  Pluto’s status as one of the largest Kuiper Belt Objects remains unchanged.  You don’t have to be a planet to be an incredibly breathtaking place to explore."

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Secrets of the Ice Giants: Science News

An article on new missions to the Ice Giants appears in the February 20, 2016, issue of Science News with the headline, "Secrets of the ice giants: Time to shine some light on Uranus and Neptune, our two most far-out planets."  I had a great conversation with their reporter, Chris Crockett, on the European perspective on this future mission, particularly now that a NASA Science Definition Team has been formed to consider the science case for such an ambitious project.  Take a look at the great write-up here:

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Planetary Science PhDs at Leicester

Interested in joining us here at the University of Leicester?  Applications are now open for PhD projects within our group to explore the extreme climates of the giant planets.  You'd be joining a friendly research environment with broad-ranging expertise from the complex churning atmospheres, to the rarefied upper atmosphere and ionosphere, to the powerful magnetospheres and beyond.  Leicester is intricately involved in the Cassini mission to Saturn, the Juno mission to Jupiter, and future plans for Europe's first mission to Jupiter and its moons (JUICE), providing plenty of future opportunities in the planetary science community!  Plus you'd get to spend 3-4 years in the heart of the UK, well-connected to both the North and South from the Midlands powerhouse (Leicester, Birmingham, Warwick, Nottingham, etc.).  Please get in touch if you're interested.

This year's projects include:
Exploring Jupiter’s Climate Variability during the Juno Mission (with myself and Emma Bunce):

Revealing the Chemistry and Circulation of the Ice Giants (with myself and Tom Stallard):

...among other planetary, exoplanetary and planet formation project ideas.  Please drop me a line if you'd like any further information, deadline is February 3rd 2016.