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The Cosmos: A Beginner's Guide - Violent universe

Updated Friday, 6th July 2007

Until quite recently the night sky seemed cold and calm and never changing - but not any more. In this programme we’ll show you the dramatic events happening right now, from the edge of the universe to uncomfortably close to home.

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Maggie Aderin Pocock at the ice rink Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: The Open University

Adam Hart-Davis presents this episode from the University of Leicester where he meets a team tracking down the most violent events in the universe. Gamma Ray Bursts (GRBs) are the biggest bangs since the Big Bang and team leader Dr Julian Osborne explains how Leicester is at the centre of a worldwide network trying to detect them.

On the frontline is a satellite called SWIFT. SWIFT detects GRBs across the universe, alerting teams on the ground who co-ordinate telescopes to capture the fleeting events. One week in ten it’s Leicester’s turn to respond to SWIFT. Adam talks to team member Dr Kim Page about being on “Burst Alert” and gives her a camera to capture her week - but will they capture a burst?

In 1054 Chinese astronomers saw a massive explosion in the sky, but what was it? If you look at the same patch of sky today you can see the cloud of glowing gas we call the Crab Nebula. We now know this to be the remnant of a supernova, a giant star that exploded hundreds of years ago - the very same star the early Chinese recorded.

Supernovas occur in galaxies across the universe but for many years everyone assumed that our own galaxy, the Milky Way, was relatively quiet. Now something hugely disturbing has been found lurking at its core. It’s a super massive black hole three million times bigger than our sun - but for something so huge it’s been surprisingly hard to find! Professor Reinhard Genzel from the Max Planck Institute of Extraterrestrial Physics tells us how he finally uncovered it.

Returning to Leicester on the last day of burst alert, SWIFT has found nothing. But suddenly there is a text message from space! Kim and the team spring into action to confirm SWIFT’s finding and alert the world. But will the top telescopes interrupt their work to record the burst?

A little closer to home our own star, the Sun, has its own violent nature. Janet Sumner visits a solar telescope in California to discover how astronomers record the Sun’s changing moods. And we talk to the UK’s own solar weather man, Professor Richard Harrison, about the dramatic impact the sun’s violent outbursts can have on Earth. Will a new mission to see the sun in 3D help us see the next storm coming?

Solar storms aren’t the only thing to hit the Earth. We talk to impact guru Pete Schultz about the moon’s boisterous beginning and he explains how its many craters show a history of violent bombardment long erased but nonetheless shared by Earth.

Maggie Aderin visits an ice rink in Leeds to discover how The European Space Agency plans to knock an asteroid out of the sky.

And finally, a week on from the “Burst Alert”, Adam returns to Leicester to find out how telescopes around the globe responded to what turned out to be the brightest GRB to date!

First broadcast: Tuesday 7 Aug 2007 on BBC TWO





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