At a Virtual Star Party, attendees remotely look through telescopes located around the world. No matter the viewers' locations or atmospheric conditions, they are treated to views like this one of Uranus and its satellites. The telescope users and hosts appear at the bottom of the screen. // Virtual Star Party/Universe Today/CosmoQuest/Mike Phillips
In this digital age, when you can easily access 3-D panoramas of offshore real-estate investment opportunities and comment on pictures of your high school class president’s second honeymoon to Fiji, doesn’t it make sense that you should be able to look through a telescope online, too?
Many people who love space and love to look at it don’t have clear, dark skies or telescopes to point at the sky even if it is clear and dark. Frasier Cain, the publisher of the website Universe Today, thought that these rained-out and light-polluted sky-o-philes still deserved to see a magnified, brightened view of the universe’s wonders.
At the time Cain came up with the idea of a virtual star party, he was brainstorming ways to augment the prolific “Astronomy Cast” podcast, which he co-hosts with Pamela Gay.
“We had been using Google's Hangouts on Air service for several months to broadcast interviews and live episodes of our podcast,” Cain says. “I was trying to think of ways I could improve the experience and thought it would be cool to show people a live view through a telescope. I made a call for volunteers on Google+, and several astronomers offered to help me figure it out.”
An unlimited number of people now can tune in to a virtual star party “Google+ Hangout” and virtually look through the telescopes of accomplished amateur and professional astronomers all over the world — live.
The experiment has been a success from the beginning. “Once I saw the Moon in a Hangout window, I knew we could do anything,” Cain says. Google seems to agree, as the company featured the star parties in a recent ad, touchingly edited and soundtracked as usual.
Today, a little more than a year after the first online star party, each event boasts a few thousand individual viewers, with several hundred tuned in at a time. Many attendees are repeat visitors.
When asked why people keep coming back, Cain says, “I hope a big part of it is the hangout itself, how we're enjoying ourselves and moving from object to object. It's part education and part entertainment.”
Still, can looking at someone else’s telescopic view on your computer screen ever be as powerful as pointing your own telescope at the night sky and collecting light?
“Nothing can ever be a substitute for really putting your eye to a telescope and seeing Saturn or the Moon with your own eyes,” Cain says, “but if you live in a light-polluted city, or the weather's bad, or you just don't have the gear, we can provide a reasonable substitute — I hope. Also, I think the camaraderie and knowledge we bring helps bridge that gap a little; it's nice to hear-deep sky objects explained by three Ph.D. astronomy professors.”
Cain and co-hosts hold virtual star parties weekly on Sunday nights and when there are special events. The timing varies, so check out the CosmoQuest calendar or Virtual Star Party Google+ page for details. The latter page also has archived “event highlight” photos of objects observed during past parties.
You can see archived video of the events on the CosmoQuest YouTube channel.