Outreach… Sharing the Sky
By Bill Pellerin
Houston Astronomical Society
Don’t miss an opportunity to share the sky with someone. It helps swell the ranks of sky watchers, increases support for our shared goal of keeping the skies dark, and it introduces the public to an activity that can become a lifelong passion. How do you get started? This short article will give you a few ideas.
You will need to find venues for sharing the sky. Some amateur astronomers have been successful doing ‘sidewalk astronomy’ events. These involve setting up their telescopes in high foot traffic areas and inviting passers-by to look through their telescopes. These usually well-lit urban environments don’t provide dark skies, but the moon, the bright planets and other bright objects can be shared.
Other amateur astronomers have been successful bringing telescopes to organized events, to schools, to places of worship and so on. How do you connect your volunteer group to these events?
The Night Sky Network – (http://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/) This web site was set up and is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. If you look on the home page for this site you see the caption ‘Astronomy Clubs bringing the wonders of the universe to the public’. After your astronomy club or volunteer group creates a presence on this web site, anyone wanting to have a star party or other event can request, via this web site, that your group provide the volunteers and the organization efforts to do the event.
In Houston, where I live, we have at least 4 astronomy clubs that provide volunteers for outreach events. To coordinate those activities, we created a single entity on the NSN called the ‘Greater Houston Astronomical Coalition’. Anybody requesting a star party from the GHAC is, in fact, requesting resources from four clubs.
The Night Sky Network provides a lot of resources for organizations doing outreach including materials, presentations and other ideas for outreach. There is no cost to individuals or clubs to participate.
Local Astronomy Clubs – Your club may choose to go it alone, without the use of the Night Sky Network. Often times, requests are made directly to a club member. Recently, I was asked by a non-astronomer friend if I could set up a star party at a camp for children with medical issues. I followed up by creating a Night Sky Network entry and coordinating the event.
Offer your services to groups you know. More than once, I’ve said to someone who is involved with a school group, “Would you like to have a group of amateur astronomers bring telescopes to your school?” I haven’t heard a ‘No’ yet.
You can find a local astronomy club on the Astronomical League web site (yes, here) or on the Night Sky Network web site.
Contact with school, civic groups, Science museums – we all have connections to various groups in the community and it is often surprising how we can be only one friend away from making the contact we need to get the opportunity we want. In the business world this is called ‘networking’ and virtually everyone agrees that this is the way to get things done. Talk to your friends about the outreach activities you’ve done and ask if they know of other opportunities.
We are fortunate to have a very popular Museum of Natural Science in Houston. The museum owns the George Observatory south of Houston which is the site of the annual Astronomy Day event. Our most recent event had almost 3000 visitors and over 100 volunteers. Besides being an outstanding outreach opportunity, the Astronomy Day event allows area clubs to recruit members and to discuss the services the club members can provide to the community. In addition to the 36” telescope in the observatory main dome there were 25 or so amateur class telescopes available to the visitors.
How to organize – getting volunteers
The Night Sky Network – your club members can sign up on the NSN (free) and respond to posted events. There is a calendar on the NSN listing the activities the club has been asked to do and your club members can sign up to assist with those activities on the NSN web site.
List Servers – A list server is an email service that forwards an email you or somebody else sends to the list server’s ‘in’ box. For example, if 10 people sign up to ‘subscribe’ to the list server and one of the 10 people sends an email to the list server, all of the subscribers get the email. These are a good way to contact your club members and let them know of an outreach opportunity. List servers can get a bit chatty, however, so use them wisely.
Your local club friends – You may have to call your observing friends to recruit them for a public event. It gets easier after they’ve done a few of them and see how much fun it is.
Be sure to keep the requestor informed!! You want to be sure that your contact in the group requesting the event is kept informed of the status of your efforts. As the result of my contacting the coordinator at the kid’s camp we were invited to have dinner with the kids prior to the star party!
Some tips on sharing the sky
Keep it simple. You don’t have to take your largest telescope to the star party to wow the participants. I usually take a 80 mm refractor on an alt-az mount to these events and the observers enjoy the views just as much as the views in the large telescopes.
Nothing obscure. Show objects that are easy to see and easy to explain. The Moon, Jupiter, Saturn, a bright open cluster, or a beautiful double star (Albireo works). Dim and fuzzy objects may be of interest to more advanced observers, but they aren’t interesting to the general public. Even some ‘showpiece’ objects, such as the Andromeda Galaxy, require some understanding of the nature of the object to be fully appreciated.
Be a docent. You are not only providing access to an eyepiece, you’re introducing the public to the sky. If your object is Saturn, be prepared to say how far it is from Earth at the time they’re looking at it. Know the distance to any star or other object that you show the public. Have a story to tell.
Bring a green laser pointer. You can use this to point to the object in the sky so the public gets some sense of where they’re looking. Put the object in context. For Albireo, I show the public the constellations Cygnus, Lyra, and Aquila and the ‘summer triangle’. I tell them about Albireo being at the head of the swan and that the swan lies in the Milky Way galaxy, our home galaxy. (Note: the origin of the star name Albireo is the subject of some controversy; although it sounds like it ought to be an Arabic name, it’s not.)
Even if you don’t have a telescope available, you can do a sky orientation tour with your laser pointer. Show some of the constellations (the big and bright ones) and tell some of the legends associated with the constellations. You can also point to some bright objects (Orion Nebula, Pleiades, planets) to indicate their position in the sky.
Observing during the day – You don’t have to wait until nightfall. With properly filtered telescopes (very important) you can show the public the Sun and talk about how it works (hydrogen fusion), how big it is, how far away it is, how long it will continue as a mid-life (main sequence) star, etc. Often, Venus can be seen in a telescope during the day.
What if it is cloudy? Whether it’s cloudy or not, you can plan some indoor presentations. Perhaps there’s a good film you can show to introduce the participants to the universe. Show the participants how to use a planisphere to locate the stars in the sky and tell them where to get one. The Night Sky Network provides a lot of resources to help.
You don’t have to do every event
With a large enough pool of volunteers you can share the load of the effort required to respond to requests. You don’t have to personally appear at each event, unless you want to. Like you, I enjoy doing my own observing in the quiet of my observatory with no interruptions, but I also enjoy large star parties such as the Texas Star Party. Public outreach is just another dimension of the hobby and it’s a lot of fun.