TV crew in Belfast to get to the bottom of out-of-this-world mystery

The Sky At Night filming at Queen's University. Picture by Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press
The Sky At Night filming at Queen's University. Picture by Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press

A TV crew from one of the UK’s most famous shows visited Queen’s University this week to get to the bottom of an out-of-this-world mystery.

The News Letter tagged along to find out more about the next episode of long-running BBC programme The Sky At Night which deals with the discovery of an object from another solar system and the research on it carried out by a team of Queen’s astronomers.

Researcher Michele Bannister told of the moment last October when her team learnt of the ‘foreign object’ in our solar system.

She said: “A circular was sent out to members of the astronomical community at about 6.30am saying that there was a very good chance a group in Hawaii had observed the first interstellar comet.

“For people like myself who have spent many years trying to understand what exists in our own solar system, this was so exciting – another little piece of a solar system that is not our own that has come to visit.”

She said the team of eight from Queen’s then scrambled to gain access to telescopes in the Canaries, Hawaii and Chile which can be programmed over the Internet and viewed remotely.

The tiny dot represents the mysterious 'Oumuamua

The tiny dot represents the mysterious 'Oumuamua

“We know it’s from another solar system because of the path it took,” she said.

“What we’ve learned is it’s about twice the size of the Europa Hotel and it’s quite elongated, vaguely cucumber-shaped. It’s travelling twice as fast as the fastest spaceship to leave planet earth.

“If you were able to stand on its surface – which you couldn’t do – it would be a bit like the texture of merengue.

“We have no idea which solar system it came from – that’s the fun part.”

Christopher Lintott, Professor of Astrophysics in the Department of Physics at the University of Oxford, was at Queen's University in Belfast to film the next episode of The Sky At Night.'Picture by Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press

Christopher Lintott, Professor of Astrophysics in the Department of Physics at the University of Oxford, was at Queen's University in Belfast to film the next episode of The Sky At Night.'Picture by Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press

In the stacked infrared image that we’ve printed above, Ms Bannister explained the object known as ‘Oumuamua is a dot of light in the centre, the long streaks are stars and the little curls are cosmic rays.

Sky at Night presenter Professor Chris Lintott said: “I think the most exciting thing is that it’s a mystery story.

“It’s astronomy at its most exciting – something has arrived in our solar system, it’s a dot in an image and no one knows what it is. I’m very excited to be [at Queen’s] because the people here were the ones chasing that story down.

“We’re telling the story of Alan (Fitzsimmons) in a hotel room desperately sending emails asking for telescope time, or Michele calling colleagues in Hawaii to work out what to do. I think that really makes the science come alive.”

The Sky At Night's long-running presenter Sir Patrick Moore

The Sky At Night's long-running presenter Sir Patrick Moore

The late Patrick Moore presented The Sky At Night from 1957 until 2013, making it the longest-running TV programme with the same presenter of all time.

Prof Lintott said: “There’s an episode from the sixties where they talk about the possibility of an astroid from another solar system coming into ours, but I don’t think anyone actually thought they’d see one. This is completely unprecedented.”

Post grad student at Tom Secull, 24, said: “Of all the humans on earth we’re the first to get to observe and work on this kind of project.”

Fellow post grad student Meabh Hyland, 25, said: “I’ve always been interested in astronomy since I was very young. It’s exciting to be able to work on these sorts of things.”

• Queen’s University features in the episode on Sunday, February 11 on BBC Four at 10pm

Michele Bannister, researcher in the Queen's Astronomy department

Michele Bannister, researcher in the Queen's Astronomy department