Thursday, July 23, 2009

Why Now is a Great Time for Astronomy

A few things have happened recently with respect to the hobby of astronomy, and these things have made me become a bit more introspective. This year is the International Year of Astronomy (a.k.a. “IYA2009”), as sanctioned by the United Nations. There’s a lot of nifty hoopla around it – astronomy clubs giving public star parties so that the wider public may gaze upon the heavens, a noticeable increase in TV programming surrounding astronomy, space travel and – yes – UFOs, sales on astronomy equipment at both serious astronomy stores and general department stores. Yep, it’s all happening.This time, right now, seems – to me – to be a brilliant time to be involved in the hobby of astronomy, and for so many reasons. Yes, astronomy right now seems to be gaining popularity, due in part to the attention given to it by the assignment of this year as the International Year of Astronomy. But so many other things in existence today, ranging from people’s growing inquisitiveness, to related technology and the rapid increase of scientific knowledge, have made THIS time perhaps THE best time (so far…) to be involved with the hobby.

For example, a few days ago at time of writing, an amateur astronomer in Australia imaged evidence of an impact of a celestial object (comet or asteroid, exact type to be confirmed) using equipment that is readily available to the amateur astronomy community. Within hours, his discovery was beamed around the world via the Internet, and news channels on TV and radio were informing the wider public of his findings. Within a day, I was outside my front garden with my telescope (a large scope purchased at a modest price compared to say a few decades ago) looking at the black impact scar left on Jupiter’s surface. Countless other amateur astronomers were no doubt doing the same. So, within 24 hours, or close to that, of a rare astronomical event, myself and my fellow star-seeking brethren were out with our scopes and viewing something that would no way have been viewable to so many people living before our time.

Here’s another example. This year I have been attending a few public outreach star parties. Greeting hundreds of strangers and letting them peer through my telescope at various objects including planets, star clusters, galaxies and nebula and seeing their reactions is a truly rewarding experience. But the sharing of knowledge, even the ability to share that knowledge, is the interesting thing. Often, someone will ask me a question. “Why do we only see one side of the moon”? “How many moons does Saturn have?” “What really is the Milky Way”? I answer them to the best of my ability, and I’ve somehow helped to broaden the public’s understanding of the night sky. Then, I get questions I can’t answer and fumble through. “How many stars are in that cluster?” “Do black holes really exist”? “When will the Sun die?” Almost during every, single public outreach event, I am faced with a myriad of questions to which I have no clue whatsoever, and these are asked by people ranging from the very young (think 6 year olds!!!) to the old, and from all walks of life. The beauty of living and being involved in astronomy NOW is that the information available to you is massive, and it is very easy indeed to note down such questions, go home and get some answers before the next event. Again, another way to empower the knowledge of the public – and yourself!

Taking photos of the night sky is now more dramatically easier than it has been. Sure, there’s some money involved, but for even little money people can now take photos of our stellar neighbors easily and with great results. Digital cameras can be coupled to computer-driven scopes with relative easy, and amateurs who are just starting out can see near-immediate good results with images of the moon, planets and brighter deep sky objects. While I have a nice Digital SLR and a computerized GOTO scope, the very best photo I have ever taken was of the moon, through a 6” Dobsonian using my wife’s point-and-shoot digital camera – hand-held to the eyepiece! That picture now sits proudly on my desk at work. Even with the most basic of tools, most folks these days can capture lovely images of the skies above us at night.

To take imaging technology a step further, the ability to use modern imaging equipment to share your hobby with others either locally or around the world has also made the hobby that much more accessible. At a recent gathering of fellow astronomers, one chap had a 27” TV available which was hooked up to his scope while viewing the moon. It was a great way to share the experience. On several occasions, I have used my modified webcam, normally designed for taking images of the moon and planets, to share views of the moon from my scope here in the USA with my parents over in Australia via an instant chat client. An astronomer in Italy has recently being hosting online observing sessions, even attempting the entire Messier Marathon by sharing his live images of the Messier Catalog deep sky objects with people who were watching via his web site. Various companies now exist which allow users to control remote telescopes and image any objects they so desire at minimal cost. Where will it end?

My interests in astronomy stemmed from my grandfather. During family get-togethers at his home in East London, he’d sneak me up to his bedroom and show me the moon through his telescope, peering through an open bedroom window. That had such a profound impact on me, and little did I know just how accessible this hobby would become as I grew older. My grandfather passed away in the early 1980s, and my father continued to push and encourage my interests as I grew older and we now share astronomical log notes from opposite sides of the globe. I am certain, though, that my grandfather would be completely stunned by the amount of easily accessible and high quality telescope equipment and astronomical information that is available to today’s observer.

Yes, this is the International Year of Astronomy. But, I believe this is the People’s Time for Astronomy, and it doesn’t have to be limited to 2009. The telescopes available to the general public, the knowledge available on the internet and through current release books and journals, through to the astronomical community’s sheer desire to share their excitement for the night sky with everyone else makes the hobby accessible and enjoyable as never before. Perhaps we can take even a small amount of the enthusiasm being displayed during IYA2009 and keep sharing this lovely hobby of ours, utilizing the myriad of tools at our disposal.

I look forward to what the future brings…


~ Jan ~ said...

Touching post Phil...your Grandfather would be thrilled. :)

Phil said...

Thanks, Jan!

Roopesh said...

Hats off... really impressed..
I am also very much interested in astronomy.. but here in India.. there are very less oppertunity in this area... :(

I have alo started a blog.. to keep my hobbi alive..

Its my good luck .. I find your blog..

Please see my blog and suggest.. how to enhance in this area... check the Astronomy page under my profile on my blog..