Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Happy Birthday Neptune!!!

It is one year since Neptune was discovered, so join me in wishing the solar system's most distant planet a happy first birthday!!! When I say "one year" I mean one year on Neptune. This is because Neptune has completed its first trip around the Sun since it was discovered in October 1846.
Because Neptune is so far away from the Sun, it takes the planet almost 165 years to orbit the Sun. This means that a year on Neptune is 165 years long. On Earth, a year is 365 days, this being the length of time it takes for Earth to complete an orbit (it's actually 365 days and a quarter - an extra day is added every four years to catch up). Tuesday 12th July 2011 marks the date that Neptune will be in the same place in its orbit around the Sun as it was when it was first found all that time ago.
Despite us knowing about Neptune for 165 years, we still know very little about the planet. We know it is likely to be made up of mostly frozen gasses, and that it is a stormy world with strong winds, but there is more that we don't know about Neptune than we do know. It has only been visited once, and that was by Voyager 2 which reached it in 1989. There are no plans to visit it again in the near future. Maybe things will be different by the time it completes its second orbit.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Pluto still a planet in Illinois

Back in 2006, Pluto was at the centre of a scientific row. Was it a planet or not? It had always been recognised as one since its discovery in 1930, but had also always been the odd planet out. However, within the last decade or so, a number of other objects similar to Pluto had been found scattered about the Solar System in its distant depths. As Pluto was classified as a planet, it would mean that these newly-discovered objects should also become planets. But, it was feared that this would result in the Solar System containing tens, possibly hundreds, of insignificant planets. So rather than classifying them as planets, members of the International Astronomical Union decided at a meeting in 2006 they would be classify the new Pluto-like worlds as dwarf planets. This would also mean that Pluto would have to be reclassified as a dwarf planet, officially losing its status as a regular planet. It is now regarded as incorrect to call Pluto a planet and to state that the Solar System contains nine planets. That is, unless, you live in Illinois.....

In February last year, the State of Illinois passed a bill to re-establish Pluto's "full planetary status" and to declare March 13th 2009 as Pluto day to mark the 79th anniversary of the date that its discovery was announced. The reason for Illinois' defiance of the IAU's ruling? Clyde Tombaugh, the man that discovered Pluto, was born in Streator, Illinois. And, while Pluto passes through the skies over Illinois, it must be a planet. The bill also states that Tombaugh is the only American ever to have discovered a planet. Maybe somebody should point out that many Americans have discovered many planets. Okay, so none of them orbit the Sun. Instead they orbit other stars. Illinois' bill has been met with mixed reactions. There are of course many people who don't want to accept Pluto's new status, including members of the Society for the Preservation of Pluto as a Planet, who encourage supporters to email the IAU in disgust and throw Pluto Parties. Quite what you would do at a Pluto Party remains a mystery but they sound like they could be fun nevertheless! Supporters of Pluto being a planet, including the state of Illionois and the Society for the Preservation of Pluto as a Planet, state that the decision to demote Pluto was made unfairly since only 5% of the total number of members of the IAU actually voted. Other people believe that Illinois' decision, which is more of a way of honouring Clyde Tombaugh rather than being a scientific protest, is silly as it does nothing more than confuse people. Even now, almost four years after the IAU's ruling, many people aren't sure of the true definition of Pluto or know how many objects are officially classed as planets in the Solar System.

Personally I felt it was a shame that Pluto did get demoted but that is probably more to do with the fact that I'd always known it to be a planet rather than not agreeing with the way it became demoted. It was as if somebody had said to me, "You know all that stuff you were told about Pluto being the ninth planet in the Solar System. Well, it's all rubbish." It also made me realise that what we know about the universe is only what we think we know and that any discovery can change our understanding of it almost overnight. The reason we knew Pluto to be a planet was because we didn't know of other objects like it and despite its differences to the other planets, it was more similar to them than to other objects in the Solar System. It couldn't be a star, a moon, a comet, or an asteroid, so it had to be a planet. As soon as other objects were found similar to Pluto, they would need to be put into a group. I agree that grouping these objects into the same group as the rest of the planets could devalue the status of the word "planet" and could eventually lead to too many objects becoming planets, most of which would be quite small and insignificant. Creating a new group for these objects is logical. But it wouldn't be logical to not put Pluto into the group. And I really don't understand why people refuse to accept its new status - the dwarf planet definition was created to make it easier to understand the Solar System. Why oppose it?

For more information about how Pluto was discovered and how it lost its planetary status, visit this page.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Bob's spooky tour

Has it really been four months since my last entry? Where did the summer go? The last few months have been fairly quiet development-wise for Bob the Alien's Tour of the Solar System. I've finally added a new page about the Voyager mission and, er, I think that's about it. The website very nearly became a .com rather than remaining a .co.uk when the .com version of the website name came up for sale - in fact, I came within seconds of buying the new domain, changed my mind to look into it a little more, decided to look again at the options and found out that somebody over in America had gone and bought it. And what have they done with it since? Nothing! Humph!
Other than that, Bob's been getting ready for Halloween and given his website a spooky makeover. He's got his graphic designers to Halloweenify his site. The purples have gone green and his logo appears to have a few additions, and a few substutions. Everything should be back to normal for November though, and hopefully the cobwebs will have been removed!

Friday, 19 June 2009

Moon Landings on BBC archive

Of all events that took place in the Twentieth Century, the Apollo Moon landings were quite possibly the most momentous. As we are now reaching forty years since Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the Moon's surface, the Lunar landings are events that happened before many people on the planet were born. This may explain why more and more people simply believe that the Moon landings didn't happen and that the whole thing was actually faked. But, for the people of the 1960s, the mission to get to the Moon and back was very real.

On the BBC website, there is a now a collection of television and radio programmes which cover the Apollo Moon landings. As many of these programmes were originally broadcast before and around the time of the missions, they allow us to see for ourselves how real the events were for people at the time and their thoughts, hopes and concerns about the missions. The earliest item in the archive is an episode of The Sky at Night broadcast in 1960, just after the first man (Yuri Gagarin) had entered space. There are a further four episodes of The Sky At Night in the collection from 1961 (looking at the possibility of life on the Moon), 1969, 2006 and 2007. Also available are several news reports from the late 1960s, an episode of Panarama from 20th July 1969 which asks whether going to the Moon is a waste of money and a few more recent programmes looking back at the missions.

This is a great opportunity to view and listen to rare broadcasts which tell the story of one of mankind's greatest leaps. As far as I'm aware, they are only available in the UK, but let me know if you know any different!

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

New pages and updates

It's been a busy few weeks here at Bob the Alien towers. While astronauts are up in space fixing and improving the Hubble Space Telescope, I've been adding new stuff to my site. It's also been a record breaking period of time with the website breaking its record for the most number of visitors in one day when it received 1630 visitors on 13th May. So I would like to say a big thank you to all visitors who continue to support this site.

As far as developments go, firstly I've made it easier to send me emails. Selecting the Email option from the top of each page will take you to a page containing a simple form. Fill it in, click on "send" and you're done! There's also a similar form for the Ask an Alien section, so you can send any queries you have about space within seconds, or minutes, or however long it takes to write out your question and press send.

Other recent additions include "The Rise and Fall of Pluto", a page which tells the story of the discovery of Pluto, its recent demotion to dwarf planet and new status as Plutoid and a new page called "Modern Astronomy" which provides information about modern astronomy (believe it or not!). A profile of Edwin Hubble has also been added to the Famous Astronomers section. Currently in development is a page about living in space, one about the future of space exploration and a page about space exploration. After completion, a new page about the lifecycle of stars will finally appear (the page was actually planned when the site was originally created back in 2000 and has always had a presence on the site despite containing no content!).

So that's the plan for developments in the near future. Will update again soon!

Monday, 27 April 2009

Bob the Alien's Tour of the Solar System - How do you solve a problem like Bob the Alien?

Something that has been concerning me for sometime about Bob the Alien's Tour of the Solar System is the site's name. Sometimes I don't think it suits the website's content. Obviously the Solar System part of it is okay seeing as the site is about space, but the Bob the Alien bit of it it can be seen as a bit childish. This wasn't a problem when the site was being planned and initally developed, seeing as it was originally aimed at children in their last three years of primary school (aged 8-11). However, feedback from visitors suggests that the site's users are older than the original target audience, and as such, newer content has reflected this and is more in depth. I wouldn't say it's more complex, but it tends to go into more detail. A typical example can be seen by comparing one of the site's earliest pages (Jupiter's Great Red Spot) with one of its more recent (Journeys to Jupiter). However, the information provided on the Journeys to Jupiter page, which may be useful for anybody wanting to know about Jupiter missions, is likely to get ignored by a lot of visitors simply because as soon as they see the website's name, they instantly think it's for children. Although children are of course the site's primary audience, I think that the amount of content on a page, such as Journeys to Jupiter, may put off that audience too. In other words, who is a page like Journeys to Jupiter aimed at? It may be too detailed for children but at the same time give the impression of being too "immature" for older readers.

I suppose part of the problem does stem back to the original planning of the site. As is explained elsewhere on the website (although I'm not too sure where - I know I deleted a load of old pages recently so may have got rid of it!), where was I? Oh, as explained elsewhere, the site was originally designed as an experiment. Back in the summer of 1999, when I was at University, the internet was becoming more and more important, and the role it would play in education would be vital. My "experiment" was to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the internet in education. It basically came down to the question 'Could computers replace teachers?' Originally I planned to evaluate a load of educational websites and find out what users liked and didn't like about them. However, that seemed too much like hard work, and I couldn't really find a site that suited the aims of my research, so I decided to design my own. I deliberately had to set quite a narrow audience age range, and experimented with different navigation techniques (images, texts, hyperlinks), different kinds of multimedia (graphics, photographs, animation and sound - which is why the site used to play music!) and based the design on the learning theories of the time. The Solar System was chosen as the subject matter primarily because it is a topic I enjoy and one which is sadly under-taught in schools, at least here in the UK. Also the circular nature of the Solar System suited the learning theories quite well since web-based learning was largely thought to be about the user forming their own path rather than being told where to go. Come to think of it, I think I mentioned all this in an earlier entry. Oh well, I shall continue anyway. When planning the site, I decided that it would be good for the site to resemble a spaceship console with a window in the middle of the screen with an image of what can be seen through the window, and information about the image next to/below the image. I then decided that, due to the age range, it would be good if the spaceship belongs to somebody else and the website visitor was a passenger on board the spaceship. I decided that the owner of the spaceship should be an alien and, as a temporary measure, decided to name that alien Bob. My next step was to design a logo for the site (think I had to have one ready as part of my project's proposal) so quickly put together one with the title "Bob the Alien's Tour of the Galaxy" never with the intention of actually using it on the site. And that was it. No more planning of the site was done until development began in early 2000 and since I hadn't really thought about alternative names for it, decided to use its proposed one and got on with putting it together based around the idea that the user was being taken on a tour by an alien. Due to time constraints, I changed it to a Solar System tour meaning that I could narrow the site's scope and only concentrate on the objects of the Solar System rather than the entire galaxy. Originally there was going to be one page about each of the planets, one about the Sun and one about the Moon. As development progressed though, it became obvious that there was too much about each object to squeeze onto one page, so I had to split each planet into sections which would go onto different pages. Broadly speaking for each planet, there would be an introductory page (usually just below the planet's main menu), a page about any of the planet's main features, a page about the planet's moons or its most famous moon and ten facts about each planet. As the site talked about the Sun, it became clear that a page also had to be written about stars and that too then had its own section. This then caused the need for a section about galaxies, although the two sections have since been combined. It was also important not to ignore the minor objects in the Solar System: asteroids, comets, etc, so these received pages. Some of the pages about planets mentioned space missions, so a section was created about space exploration. The site grew rapidly from its original design of 12 pages and, on completion, ended up with 96 pages. Throughout the expansion, it kept to its original aim of targetting children between the ages of 8 and 11. But this was not easy, and I found it sometimes prevented me from going into as much depth as I would have liked. After completing the site, I visited a school to see how pupils in my targeted age range used the site; this was to find out what they did and didn't like about it and to observe how they browsed it. However, because the site was also put onto the internet, it meant that anybody anywhere of any age could visit it. And it quickly became clear that, despite the site's design and targeted audience, it was getting visitors of all ages and one thing they wanted was more detailed information.

After finishing university, the site remained on the Internet and, although I didn't initially do much with it (I think realising that had to do 8 times as many pages as I originally planned put me off going anywhere near it!) I gradually returned and began expanding on information that was already there and began adding new pages. But, because I was no longer doing it as a project, I didn't have to keep to its original design aims of targetting a certain audience and so, as the site began to grow again slowly, newer content tended to be more detailed in response to what its actual audience wanted to know about. As the site has evolved over the years, it has got more and more away from its original audience. Sometimes it has probably gone a bit too far the other way. The Visits to Venus page is rediculously lengthy and detailed. The font has changed and has been reduced in size and the pages have been given a more mature look. But, its name has stayed the same! I suppose its audience isn't that much older than its original target audience (my research shows most visitors are between 10-15 years old) but I sometimes think that even some of them may find it a bit childish to be going on tour with Bob the Alien. Plus I'm not too sure how appealing younger visitors may find the site now that it seems to have grown up a bit. And I also think that there are potentially a lot of older visitors which would benefit from the information provided but are instead put off the site simply due to its title. I recently put a survey on the site which asked visitors what they think of the site. I was actually looking for comments from people who don't like it seeing as guestbook entries tend to be positive (apart from the ones from people who think it's funny just to fill them with swear words and nothing else!). Although the vast majority of comments are positive, there are some that comment that the title is too childish. One person noted that the site was too "kiddish" for him so won't visit it.

So the question is, what to do about it? Renaming the site is an option but could prove disastrous. The site is now fairly popular and, when I look into reports about how people get to it, find it is linked to by many educational sites, particularly schools. It is getting a good reputation based on how the site is now, so it may not be worth changing it. As well as having built up a history and reputation, changing the name would mean registering a new domain and then having to remove all references of Bob the Alien from the site. But could renaming it result it in becoming more popular? And what would I rename it to? Another option is to split its content. Basically, to have two pages for each topic instead of one. For example, one page I wrote a while back was about the Space Shuttle. Originally, the page was very detailed, going into the reasons for designing it, the different designs for it and so on. While writing it though, I noticed it went on forever, kind of like this blog entry, so rewrote it and cut most of the technical bits out. In the end, I was left with a page which, like the Journeys to Jupiter one, covers the subject matter well but probably doesn't have the right audience on this site. So, if I split the content, there could be a page which gives the simple information and a page which gives more detailed information. However, this would mean keeping the name of the site so probably doesn't resolve the problem. Another option would simply be to design a new site. Keep this site as it is. Remove the more in depth pages and put them onto a new site, and replace the detailed content on this site with simpler content. But that would be a lot of work, and I get the feeling that the less successful site would probably get neglected. Oh well, I shall ponder over my thoughts and make a decision. It'll probably be to not change anything, but who knows?!! And just in case you were wondering what it looked like when I mentioned it earlier, below is the original logo for Bob the Alien's Tour of the Galaxy. It doesn't look too much different from the logo that was eventually used.

Bob the Alien's Original Logo (before production of site)

Bob the Alien's first logo

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Spring update

It's been a while since I last updated this blog but that doesn't mean Bob the Alien's Tour of the Solar System has been getting neglected. Towards the end of last year, I began to update the look of the website. Turned out that this was a more time-consuming exercise than I first thought but I've finally got the entire site looking new and fresh. If you see any old-style pages anywhere, let me know and I'll get them sorted.

There have been a couple of new additions to the site. In the astronomy section, there is a section about Famous Astronomers. Every month, a new profile of an astronomer will be added to the site. The page launched (or relaunched - it's actually been half-complete on the site for about a year!) in March 2009 with a profile of Nicholas Copernicus, the astronomer often credited with being the founder of modern astronomy since he provided that best evidence that the Sun, and not Earth, is at the centre of the Solar System.

Also added to the site is a page called Journeys to Jupiter. This page describes the missions that have taken place to the Solar System's largest planet. A similar page about the Voyager mission is currently in development and should be completed shortly. The Space Exploration section, which includes the Voyager mission page, is this section that is the least complete and, in the parts that are complete, out of date. Nothing appears in the Living in Space section, and the page about future space missions hasn't been updated since the site was launched in 2000. It currently shows "future" missions as being between 2001 and 2005!

Other minor changes are more questions and answers added to the Ask an Alien! section, a section that has been mostly ignored since being added but is set to be greatly expanded. The main menu page has a slightly new logo (as does this blog) and the page about the Hubble Space Telescope has moved from the Space Exploration section to the Astronomy section.

Now that the cosmetic update to the website is complete, it gives me more time to concentrate on the content. As well as completing the pages that have links on the site but no content and also adding more content to Ask an Alien!, the Space A-Z is also going to be improved and then, I'll be going through each of the other pages and updating the content of all of them! Looks like Bob the Alien is going to have a busy spring!