Guest blog: Ben Palmer on outreach astronomy

Posted by David Eicher
on Monday, June 20, 2016

NGC 6946
You may recall a young friend of Astronomy magazine, Ben Palmer of Queensbury, New York, who won Astronomy’s 2011 Youth Essay Contest. Ben has subsequently become an active part of the Astronomy Foundation. He is a great young man and full of energy and enthusiasm for sharing the excitement of astronomy. I’d like to share his blog here . . .


From Sky to Screen:
Outreach Astronomy in the Digital Age

By Benjamin Palmer

Virtual. Simulated. Instantaneous. The consummate keywords of the 21st century. Dominated by the Internet’s ever-expanding ergosphere, our ideas, actions, and consciousness fuel a culture driven by an insatiable appetite for information. Yet is this an empire with a dark side?  Rooted in this formula of efficiency and virality lies a potential death knell for observational astronomy. It appears a tale of two sciences: connection vs. reflection, big network vs. big picture, computer vs. cosmos. Sounds impossible for astronomy’s survival, right? Wrong. Like the monitor in front of you, there’s more than meets the eye.

Sharing Starlight: The Online Observatory
In the winter of 2003, an astronomical revolution began, not with a bang, but with a click. With a solitary mouse stroke, internet-oriented observers gained newfound access to a startlingly novel cosmic portal. Through profound purpose and a catchy title, Slooh signaled the dawn of outreach astronomy’s digital era. In fully controlling the globe’s first live, web-based observatory, the amateur stargazer could drive real-time investigation to levels unknown.

Electric innovation is hard to stop. Once a solo venture, today Slooh joins a contemporary coterie of virtual observing venues. Growth has been unprecedented as dozens of this energizing breed of observatory now spans the globe. Diverse in location yet united in outlook, astronomers have everything to gain in employing these unique outreach arenas.

So, does outreach astronomy require their presence? How can they best be utilized? What makes these tech-savvy theaters tick? Let’s begin there.

In a nutshell, online observatories are robotic telescopes on steroids. The recipe starts with optical tube assembly and mechanical mount components, all united to CCD imagers. Next, we cable in remote access devices and microcontrollers to allow internet-based command. Throw in some nifty coding with an interactive web interface and presto! You’ve opened a veritable smorgasbord of outreach opportunity. It’s an action based approach---and therein lies the secret of their effectiveness.

Online observatories plug perfectly into astronomy’s prolific in-the-moment nature. Our field’s reflective dynamism stems from an incessant desire to “be there:” real stars, real time. With the physics of photons and distance, cosmology takes that thought process even further. Glance at any astronomical object and bundle past, present, and future into a single image. Talk about a “wow” reaction. Through live streaming, imaging, and datasets, online observatories amplify this traditional eyepiece experience. Applied properly, this factor can have enormously positive outreach ramifications.

The key is selecting the right program. But with a plethora of systems to choose from, how can you, the dedicated outreach observer, craft the right resource blend? Time for an options breakdown.

First on the list, the active observing outlets. These ideally cater to independent-minded observers who don’t shy away from creativity in the outreach process.

Leading off is the Bradford Robotic Telescope (BRT). Nestled atop scenic Mt. Teide, this dedicated 0.35m f/5.3 Schmitt-Cassegrain has opened cost-free cosmic windows to thousands. Promoting a simplistic, common sense layout, BRT’s website offers novice observers a no-nonsense inlet to online astronomy. However, don’t let the ease of use fool you--- sporting three versatile cameras and a Paramount ME mount, BRT is a highly capable platform. Live webcams, real-time data, and a school-based education site will undoubtedly keep BRT on the outreach battlefront for years to come.

Leveling up, LightBuckets enters the conversation from a slightly different angle. Founded in 2007, this enterprising commercial observatory merges amateur and professional astronomy into one collective group. Leaving Rodeo, New Mexico for Hautes-Alpes, France, LightBuckets boasts an impressive 5-instrument array, including a magnificent 0.83m Nasmyth-Cassegrain. This broad choice of scopes permits thoroughly diverse outreach observing, making the LightBuckets’ experience one to remember. A network based system, LightBuckets pitches a slew of unique web options, including telescopic “Practice Mode” and “Easy Imaging.” A stunning virtual gallery, scope schematics and online forum round out the picture, creating a more complex, but rewarding stargazing site.

Use these fine sources inventively. Consider forming categorical observing dockets tailored to your outreach participants. Think an all-planet observing session for solar system education. Or a barred spiral galaxy program to inspire audiences with galactic formation dynamics. For advanced audiences, solicit crowd input for objects that captivate individual interest. You be the outreach judge.

Now the hybrids. Perfect amalgams of astronomical research/outreach, these innovative organizations promote a multi-faceted, interactive avenue to the cosmos. In many respects, they’re the gold standard of virtual observing.

Slooh kicks off the category. Now in its second decade, the “space for everyone” pioneer has grown larger, stronger, and more popular then ever. Fueled by Michael Paolucci’s visionary team, Slooh exhibits a constantly evolving chain of riveting outreach options. The magic begins with Slooh’s robust principle observatories, located in the Canary Islands, Spain (Mt. Teide) and La Dehesa, Chile respectively. Mt. Teide (Northern Hemisphere) takes flagship status with two remarkable Dall-Kirkham scopes, 0.50m and 0.43m in aperture. Down south, La Dehesa totes a 0.35m Schmitt-Cassergrain alongside a wide field 0.09m Apochromatic Refractor. But it doesn’t end there. A dedicated worldwide network, Slooh’s global reach extends much further.

Facilitated by numerous partner observatories, Slooh traverses the planet, stretching from Cape Town and Dubai to Queensland and Hawaii. With so many pushpins on the map, Slooh has brought countless astronomical events to life (think 2012 Venus Transit and 2015 Total Solar Eclipse).

Slooh’s stimulating website echoes this ability. With user-generated live observing programs, interactive multimedia displays, and astronomy experts to guide you, Slooh’s site is, quite simply, fun. If inclined, you can host your own on or off camera outreach observing show, sculpting custom astronomical agendas. And be sure to check out Slooh Space Books, a future project well worth following.

What happens when Harvard, Smithsonian, NASA, and the NSF unite? MicroObservatory is the elegant answer. Officially the MircoObservatory Robotic Telescope Network, this handsome online observatory runs an array of 0.15m reflecting Maksutovs. With a powerful student-based bent, MicroObservatory promotes astrophysical education in compelling fashion. The striking website is home base to “access portals,” each with a unique outreach purpose. “Observing With NASA” offers full telescopic control, while the “Laboratory for the Study of Exoplanets” promotes real-world astronomical research. Particularly riveting, “DIY Planet Search” is now in Beta testing, yet another reason to engage this spectacular venue.

Memorable to many as Global-Rent-a-Scope, iTelescope has rebranded and redoubled their efforts of astronomy awareness. “Advancing Your Horizons in Astronomy” is a fitting tagline, as iTelscope does just that with no less than 19 premium telescopes in California, New Mexico, Spain, and Australia. Including apertures of 0.61m, 0.32m and 0.10m among others, iTelscope’s unmatched collection allows users to observe anything in everyway possible. An engaging website hosts live sky cameras, educational links, and mesmerizing astrophotography. Last year, iTelescope’s outreach program carried two New South Wales students to first prize honors at SciCon15. Tangible proof that online astronomy fosters field leaders of tomorrow.

On an entirely different vector, WorldWide Telescope illustrates large-scale astronomy with unimaginable grandeur. Forgoing live viewing, Microsoft/.NET Foundation’s brainchild gathers imagery from elite earth/space based telescopes to produce a breathtaking universal universe. Mere words cannot describe this system. Visually, it’s a 3-D photographic buffet, with options to navigate astronomical anomalies in multiple wavelengths. Five exploration modes (Sky, Earth, Planets, Panoramas, and Solar System) allow users to seamlessly explore the cosmos from different perspectives, while a jaw-dropping time filter runs events from 1 to 4000AD. The effects are enhanced by volumes of academic papers, specific to each object on your screen. “Community” and “Tour” features allow members to contribute images, data, catalogs, etc. to this cosmic cloud, advancing this striking interface. With ASCOM, WorldWide Telescope becomes a GOTO system for your personal backyard telescope! A creative initiative to the hilt, Worldwide Telescope is a soul-searching look into our place in the cosmos. Seeing is believing; check out the many sub-features for yourself.

Other outstanding programs include the Virtual Telescope Project 2.0, SkyView Observatory, Virtual Astronomical Observatory, and the GLORIA Project. These magnificent programs open unexplored cosmic doors. Be it classroom-based astronomical curriculum, or home-grown crowdscience research challenges, such virtual outlets make outreach more engaging and informative than ever imagined.

With epidemic light pollution and conflicting personal schedules, night as we know it has changed. Nothing can supplant the thrill of first light in your own backyard. However, as amplifiers, not replacements, online observatories illuminate a novel road on the outreach astronomy sojourn. Who knows where the journey will take us…

The Nighttime Network: Social Media
1.96 x 109.  Does that expression look familiar? If a negative response comes to mind, brace yourself. You’ve just witnessed a golden number, a contemporary Cartesian plane where science and society collide. From that commanding figure, 1.96 billion, humanity’s unquenched thirst for social media emerges. Everyday, nearly 2/7 of the global populace turns its attention downward; drawn to a virtual universe of “shares, posts, and pins.”

Triviality’s pulse, omnipresent in social media, can seem antithetical to the values we assign astronomy. Harnessing rampant vanity, false truths, and ill-analyzed opinions with unerring ease, social media collects superficiality like a mirror gathers photons. Rather than clarifying, adding society’s filter often distorts the view of this on-screen eyepiece.

But it’s here to stay. Can astronomy cohesively blend with this virtual venue? Does social media offer hitherto unexplored outreach forums? The answers may surprise you.

As a Hertzsprung-Russell diagram scatters stars, so the internet plots social media. Today, a wide sampling of programs, some Supergiants, others White Dwarfs, compete for real estate in the ever-expanding online universe. While many fall short of providing viable astronomical purpose, several adaptable systems have delivered the cosmos to a global audience. In doing so, they have rapidly ignited inventive new outreach methods. Let’s delve into the most potent.

Science has long encompassed multiple ascetic qualities, and astrophysical settings are no different. Astronomy’s transcendent vistas remain an alluring “big hook” to initial cosmological intrigue. Here, social media’s photographic propensity really shines.

Pinterest has embraced the contest wholeheartedly. Since its 2010 origins, the innovative media discovery, idea, and collection site has expanded in both scope and capability. Though not a “true” social media platform by definition, Pinterest’s ability to latch content onto external applications infuse the program with a networking feel. Briefly stated, Pinterest’s free registered users orchestrate photos (Pins) on a personal page (Board), utilizing their own images or those collected from outside sources.

Astronomically speaking, Pinterest can assist the outreach process in several ways. Corporately, NASA Edge, Chandra Observatory, and a growing host of organizations run informative photo boards on all things cosmological, from mission images to research concepts. But at the grassroots level, amateur astronomy designs get really creative. Evolving CCD technologies and computerized backyard instruments allow users to gather superb cosmic snapshots, processed and posted “fresh from the eyepiece.” It’s feasible to establish pages specific to individual outreach sessions, with albums for targeted objects. Additionally, print images postings can share useful observing tips, from instructing users on telescope prep, to ideas for cosmology craft projects. If a team atmosphere suits your style, consider a page run by members of your local astronomy club.

Linking communication and visualization is the holy grail of social media interaction. When sculpted toward astronomy, those same characteristics acquire invaluable ties to outreach quotients.

In the social media family, Facebook claims patriarchal status. And like many parental figures prior, Facebook presents sage lessons in what does---and doesn’t--- fuse well when ideas hit reality. Since 2004, a world without Facebook seems to most, unthinkable. Fortunately, for astronomers, Facebook’s inherent longevity has produced some large-scale capability for outreach endeavors.

Functionality and volume are the watchwords. Blending shares, likes, posts, and comments in a seamless ballet of information, Facebook expedites the social media experience with tremendous speed, while maintaining that simplistic interface the world knows so well. That universal understanding, and Facebook’s unparalleled global numbers, dissipate time and distance interference. That creates an environment conducive to ready-made astronomical audiences.

How you reach that crowd matters. Thankfully, Facebook yields astronomers varied angles for outreach attack. Amateur astronomers can freely post observing results (text or image- based), and start rewarding conversations in the comments section. To ratchet things up a notch, do this live from the eyepiece via a scope-side laptop or Smartphone. Additionally, Facebook’s news organizing ability compiles user-oriented articles, meaning astronomy enthusiasts can quickly retrieve relevant information. Don’t hesitate on the passionate, involved debate stemming from live astrophysical revelations (think Higgs Boson and LIGO discoveries). Some of the most memorable discussions stem from initial reactions, something Facebook provides in spades.

Notably, nearly every significant observatory (Kitt Peak, Mt. Wilson, ESO, etc.) hosts a Facebook domain, as do outreach-guided programs such as Night Sky Network and Astronomy Foundation. Gleaning knowledge from such resources is both efficacious and interactive, a great start point for aspiring observers.   

An intrinsically robust social media mechanism, Google Hangouts is perhaps the best tailored avenue for cosmic adventure. The merger child of Google Talk, Google+ Messenger, and Hangouts, this cutting-edge program stirs SMS, VOIP, video chat, and messaging into one tidy database. It’s networking 2.0, and incredibly, the tech is free. As such, Google Hangouts takes center stage in online astronomy’s premier endeavor: The Virtual Star Party.

To summarize, a virtual star party is any venue that actively engages participants via remote technologies. As you can guess, these events take a legion of forms, and Google Hangouts embraces them all. Want to host a solar observation jam? Activate desktop Video Messaging and share your home star with up to ten individuals at a time. That VOIP feature comes in handy here as well, allowing you to voice call non-video observers. If darker skies call your name, SMS and live messaging give star party coordinators instant access to their participants. With some adapted low-lighting, video features have evening bearings as well, particularly if you’re streaming with a webcam or USB eyepiece camera.

But what if cloudy conditions hold you hostage? Small blip on the radar for Google Hangouts. Delving briefly into the personal, I’ve utilized some engaging methods to counter those frustrating weather gods. After scheduling a function (either outdoor or purely virtual), send your participants a link to free planetarium software (Stellarium remains my preference, although Celestia, C2A, and Skychart aka Cartes du Ciel are admirable stand-ins). After some basic usage instruction, when your event comes, simply activate Google Hangouts and guide participants through the cosmos from the convenience of their PC. In my experience, attendees love the hands-on control aspect, plus incorporation of astronomy in busy schedules. If you can’t bring people to the universe, bring the universe to the people. Be original. Thanks to Google Hangouts, the task is both streamlined and rewarding.

Twitter echoes many of Facebook’s features. While preserving a stable platform for imagery, Twitter’s 140 character cutoff limits the raw amount amateur astronomers can accomplish. However, by “live tweeting” an observing run/outreach event, Twitter users easily overcome word counts and sculpt fruitful experiences. With a little tweaking, you can apply the same methods from Google Hangouts to a Twitter-based medium.  

Closing out our social media voyage is Tumblr, a novel microblogging platform. Yahoo! owned since 2013, Tumblr permits members to shape text and multimedia postings into miniature blogs, generating a self-published vibe for personal completion. You can even alter the HTML to custom code your section’s design.

United with astronomy, Tumblr becomes a viable tool to encourage enthusiasts to discuss their efforts, novices and veterans alike. Outreach astronomers: Record daily entries on thought-provoking Stem topics. Or challenge newcomers to create digital logs of viewed objects and cosmic perspectives. The opportunities are ripe for the picking.

Over the last millennia, we’ve optimized optics, magnified mathematics, unlocked solar systems, mapped galaxies, charted the Big Bang, refined relativity, and established an astrophysical order…a sequence that occurred without scripting hashtags on Latin scrolls!

But evolving knowledge means vocal new outlets. Annexing social media dockets, outreach astronomers spearhead virgin audiences and dynamic technology, primed and wired to develop the scientists of tomorrow.

Follow Dave Eicher on Twitter, and please check him out on his Author Page on Facebook.

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