Astronomy on the web

The world wide web may well be a by product of particle physics, but its usefulness for astronomy cannot be understated. For people at all levels of interest there is a variety of media available to satiate your appetite. Websites with static content supply facts, pictures, contact information and links. Social network sites bring people interested in diverse things together. Blogs give continuous updates in news and on projects. Twitter allows quick sudden updates in text-message size edible bites. Whatever your interest in astronomy and space in general, there’s bound to be something out there to enhance your experience.

Feeding a mild interest in space news

The first place people may find or start to look for space-based news is in their own general newspapers. This section from the Times for example shows all the science news it reports, which includes space and astronomy things such as launching missions and (as it is today) ancient star charts being dated more accurately.

Perhaps you want to take it a stage further. Rather than a dedicated section from a newspaper, how about a dedicated website, such as a blog (such as here) or even a dedicated magazine such as the Sky at Night or New Scientist, both of which have sections online. If you’ve found a few blogs or news sections you like that provide you with interesting information feeds, why not track them all from one place with a feed-reading website such as bloglines?

Of course, you might want something a bit more than simple text. How about a podcast? These are short videos broadcast over different media, like youtube or itunes. Some websites, like Disco Dave from the Discovery channel, produce space podcasts that are a quick and simply roundup of the latest in space news in a video format that can be downloaded to your computer, watched through youtube or even accessed via an iPod, all very accessible and informative. As part of the International Year of Astronomy, 2009, 365 days of Astronomy has been launched, with contributions from bloggers and podcasters all over the globe.

Perhaps you want a bit of basic education rather than the latest news and gossip to tell you what everything is. There are sites out there for that too.

Following missions

If there’s a particular space mission that interests you, or which happens to cross over to your interests (Mars – the Rovers, Saturn – Cassini, Exoplanets – Kepler etc etc etc) then take a look about for the mission’s website. It will provide the usual technical information on the probe, maybe videos from the launch via Nasa TV, different observations the probe has made etc. If it is a current mission, it may also have its own blog and maybe even be twittering.

As an illustration of the above, the Kepler mission that launched yesterday to investigate planets transiting stars has a blog with detailed mission updates, a facebook fansite, a twitter site with snippets of info every now and again and a website to provide links to everything (known as a Portal) and show the launch video. No doubt as time passes, the website will also have mission results and big pieces of news. The Kepler ground crew also hosted a webcast, where members of the public could log on and ask questions in real time.

Planning observations

You may well have no interest in space missions at all, beyond the occasional satellite passing before your telescope eyepiece. Does the web hold any fascination for you in this case? Well yes. The world wide web’s information dissemination facilities can be harnessed to help you plan what you are going to look for and discover what else is out there to see.

In the case of the positions of the usual Deep Sky objects, stars and planets, why not download from the web something like Stellarium – a planetarium program that does most of the work for you, providing you with up to date star charts customised for your location? It won’t be able to provide everything, but it is a start.

Planetarium programs give you the sky as it is, but they rarely point out things of interest that are happening – such as conjunctions, occultations, meteor storms and the like. Of course, there are blogs to help with this and the Society for Popular Astronomy also has a forum for people to talk about such things and observing sections that’ll send out emails warning of important events. Another thing the SPA put out is their sky diary. There are numerous sky diaries out there such as this from the Times (which includes the weather) and this detailed one from Jodrell bank, which give a good summary of what’s up and about in the night sky over a month or so. If your interest does extend to space missions (as things to look at in the sky if nothing else), then why not use Heavens Above to find when passes and flares of satellites are likely, and which also lists sky charts for occasional visitors like comets that may not be listed in planetaria or sky diaries. Maybe the thing to interest you is the likely hood of seeing an aurora. The Aurora Watch website gives you the present levels of geomagnetic activity and will send out email alerts at times of high likelihood. Both aurora watch and heavens above have a presence on twitter to provide alerts of events you might want to see when they happen.

You might have all the lists of observables in the world, and yet not quite able to observe them. This could be due to the weather, which can also be monitored from the web either as a short forecast or even satellite images of the clouds. Then again, maybe the barrier to observations is something a little more fundamental, such as a lack of equipment. Well, there are places on the web to buy equipment, and you can always go up to the SPA forum for advice and to compare and contrast the equipment out there – the forum membership includes vendors as well as past present and future buyers. Maybe you want to make observations without even buying any equipment? Well read on, it isn’t as fantastic a thought as you might think…

Making observations

When you’re actually making the observations, there’s two ways to involve the world wide web – to put a report or observation online, or to actually perform the act of observing through the web. Both are very possible.

In the simplest way of reporting observations, a blog like mine can be used to write up what happened and add a few pictures. If you have some level of scripting knowledge, or access to someone who does, you may be able to go further and set up a blog with an observing report template that makes the whole process quick and easy to do. Dave P managed it for example. Someone with even greater dedication could use an electronic eyepiece or a webcam to send out the view from the scope over the web. You will see these webcasts popping up all over the place at times of eclipses and other such events.

For making observations via the web, there are various ‘Robotic telescopes’ about. So long as you can find one that isn’t oversubscribed and happy to take you on, then you’ll be able to submit observation plans and receive data, much as professional astronomers do, but with an even larger distance between the telescope and the control room. Examples of robotic telescopes available for schools are the Jodrell Bank 7m radio telescope and the 2m optical Liverpool Telescope, both controlled via the NorthWest of England. We are civilised up here after all.

Sharing the hobby

Now that you have observations to share, or simply want to know more about the hobby from other like you before jumping headlong into it – what do you do next? The world wide web still provides…

For those wishing to get involved with some level of actual science, there are so call ‘citizen science’ projects to do. These include SETI@home, where your computer in its spare time analyses data and sends back reports. Or maybe you want something more hands on such as galaxy classification at Galaxy Zoo, which twitters too.

For those wishing to share observations, images and the like, a forum like the SPA will normally have some sort of gallery. You can also put videos on youtube, such as that below, or videos and images on websites such as flickr, where there are groups you can join to share the images. On top of that, social networking sites such as facebook include groups where much the same thing can be done and more. These groups include astronomy lovers, blog followers and activism. Activists may also add certain causes such as the Campaign for Dark skies at facebook (as well as fan pages for missions such as the Herchel Space Observatory), or visit the website for the campaign, or take part in a global monitoring campaign. If you feel this is all too energetic and just want to sit back and let the best pictures come to you daily, then there is the Astronomy Picture of the Day, which also twitters.

And if social networking offline is more your thing, then as mentioned in the last big post here, there are ways to get hold of your local or national astronomical sites online. Professional societies such as the RAS, dedicated amateur astronomy societies such as the BAA and lighter astronomical societies such as the SPA all have online presences with newsletters to be emailed out, fora to join and information on real world events too. For something closer to home, the Federation of Astronomical Societies and the Sky at Night magazine both have lists of local societies, and for those here in Kendal, why not turn your online hobby into an offline one too via the Eddington Society?


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