Yesterday saw a very interesting and unusual experiment in social networking. MoonTweet, or the Twitter Moonwatch saw amateur astronomers put on the web as they observed to show what they were looking at, explain what they were doing and answer questions related to all of this.
Arranged by BBC Journalist Maggie Philbin and the Newbury Astronomical Society after a joint radio broadcast last week, the idea was as simple as we’ve got the tools, weather should be nice, why not do a Moonwatch and broadcast it over Twitter? Sounds a nice simple idea, and such ones are often the best. Especially with recent reports that the public have an interest in astronomy, but little knowledge of what it is that astronomers do. Why not then bring the public along for the night?
Twitter is a website that allows users to exchange messages of 140 characters or less, kind of like text message broadcasting, with each message visible for all to see. Links can also be posted as well as pictures through sites like twitpic, which hosts them and allows a link to the image to be sent back through twitter itself. Sounds interesting, but how do you relate it to astronomical observations? Pretty easily as it happens.
As any trained astronomer knows, astronomical logbooks are a long list of quick observations made – what is the target? What are the weather conditions? Who’s observing? What equipment are you using? Eyepiece and so magnification? Where in the sky is the target? What is there to see? The orientation of the target? And of course some kind of a render of what you can see – a sketch or a picture with a CCD or digital camera at the eyepiece. Each one of these and any additional thoughts and observations can be a separate tweet, each one can solicit questions and each one you can ask about others joining in the Moon watch. Comparisons of weather and instruments were rife.
On this basis, just having a few observations of the Moon would be quite a full program for the planned two hours or so of the Moonwatch. As it happens, Saturn was also near to the Moon and made an appearance part way through the evening, as did the planetary nebula M57 (The Ring Nebula), the vast arc of the Milky Way and even Jupiter for those who stayed the course until dawn started to break.
I was brought into this melee by Trea, UCL’s Undergraduate Teaching Secretary, in order to help answer the many queries that would be coming through. Adrian at the keyboard for NewburyAS would have his hands full receiving pictures from the guys in the field and posting them as well as posting info and answering questions.
An hour or so before the Moonwatch launched, I took a couple of pictures of the Moon in daylight as it played hide and seek in the wispy clouds passing over Kendal, both in terms of what could be seen with the eye and the telescope.
At 9:30pm, the Moonwatch began. NewburyAS reported the first Moon shot of the evening and also tweeted a sky chart taken off stellarium, giving the positions of the Moon and Saturn. Many people were wondering when they would first see Saturn, so I started off with a bit of Planetary Bingo, who would see the planet first? It was at this point that people started tweeting equipment and locations. The UK International Year of Astronomy, 2009 twitter account had joined in from Glasgow and for once every location from Scotland to London were reporting clear skies and a warm evening breeze.
At this point, the questions were coming in thick and fast. The Moon’s orbital dynamics – do we all see the same face? does the Moon come closer and does it affect tides? why do different locations see the Moon rising at different times? – as well as some about Saturn – Can I see Saturn’s rings with my binoculars? will I be able to see Saturn next month? what star is that near Saturn? Where is it? – and more general astronomy questions – where can I get a starter scope under £200? Keeping up with the night sky outside and the questions inside was quite exhausting at times. NewburyAS posted a picture of Saturn that soon made its way round twitter.
Once the official two hours was up, Newbury staked a claim for the rest of the night with a late breaking full colour image of the Ring Nebula. With the Milky Way arching above observers in good skies close to midnight, satellites passing overhead and eyes already on the sky, it seemed UK amateur astronomy had picked up quite some momentum for the night. As dawn began to light up the sky and fade away the band of the Milky Way, Jupiter rose in the East. Low on the horizon, the enormous disc of the giant planet seemed to boil and bubble in the disturbed atmosphere. The four Galilean moons were all on show and lined up fairly equally space with one to the left of Jupiter and three to the right through my eyepiece.
All in all, it was an enjoyable night and a good excuse to make use of the telescope. A fair few people learnt a little more about astronomy, where to look and what to look for. Today saw a few people still talking about the Twitter Moonwatch, including in the US where the action rolled onto as our night came to an end and theirs rolled in. If you want to look for related tweets? Go to twitter and use the search function on the right to look for #moonwatch – our topic string for the night – or just click here.