Friday, 20 January 2012

Stargazing Live - The Future is in our hands

For the past year, BBC each January have hosted a new and exciting event known as Stargazing Live.

Devoting three nights of prime time television to a niche subject like astronomy was possibly a risk, but on the back of Professor Brian Cox's monumental success with his "Wonders" series, one that was clearly going to come off. The BBC assembled a great, dynamic and young team of people, alongside very familiar, yet astronomically linked faces like the intensely funny Dara O'briain to create a show that, coming from the kudos centre that is Jodrell Bank, home to the third largest fully steerable radio telescope on the planet, was almost guaranteed to succeed from the offset.

For the first show I did some work behind the scenes work on some image processing for Dara and the team at Faulkes Telescope, this year, the involvement levels went up quite a notch, as FT were involved not only in UK wide Big Screen events coordinated by Dr Paul Roche and Dr Edward Gomez of LCOGT (who manage the Faulkes scopes) , but also via the BBC TV program Blue Peter. The BBC, aware that the main live shows were going out late for many young people, were intent on taking the Stargazing Live concept to that younger audience.

Last summer, I coordinated a project trying to see if we could detect new asteroids. Our team at CARA (Comet Research group based largely in Italy) have been working with NASA on the EPOXI mission and are continuously imaging, and trying to find new comets, doing comet recovery programs to detect faint comets coming around again, looking for outburst and fragmentation events and tracking comets over long periods to measure dust and gas values, using both amateur sized telescopes and also the twin Faulkes Scopes. More recently we have been given permission to use the La Palma 2 metre Liverpool Telescope via a formal proposal process, which was a nice bridge again between what amateurs and professional observatories do.

The BBC filming lasted a day at the University of Glamorgan and then on to the really wonderful Hannah Blyth's house, Hannah being the Nuffield foundation student I was working with on the asteroid project. Hannah has since been nominated for two exceptional awards for her part in the project, and Faulkes have seen a massive increase in registrations and use, thanks to various TV/Radio and news items we both did. The Blue Peter show aired this week, and reaction has been really nice from friends, family and also my managers at the European Space Agency, who were thrilled that we got a Blue Peter badge (kind of special in the UK, and it gets you in to hundreds of places for free, which has thrilled my 5yo daughter no end)

Two radio interviews and a set of live talks at the birthplace of photography, Lacock in Wiltshire, to an event hosted again by the BBC to 2500 people ended up an amazing week of Stargazing live for me. I had worked also on a big ESA news release, which made the BBC home page courtesy of their fantastic science journalist Jonathan Amos, and had images I had taken shown on the live TV show, and used extensively on the BBC website.

But the best bit by far for me..and the reason I love astronomy so much...was seeing the looks on not only my own daughter's face, but also on the faces of hundreds and hundreds of kids who attended the stargazing live events, kids who had been dragged out in our case in Wiltshire, on a rainy cloudy night to experience the real wonders of the universe, via planetarium displays, robotics demos, rocket launches... etc. You know that scene in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" where the kids first enter with their golden tickets... that's the best way to describe it.

If just ONE of those young people goes on to become an astronomer or scientist, then we, as people sharing our passion for space, will have made the world a bit better, and maybe given our planet's future the next Einstein, Feynman or Sagan. The spark and flame in the mind of a young person, once lit...very rarely goes out, if you keep feeding it the oxygen it and space are two things most young people love.. its up to us to encourage that...

And this message goes out to all the academics, many of whom I know relish the notion of passing on to a younger audience their love of space, but, sadly not all... to those, remember this fact...

No matter how far up the academic ladder you reach in astronomy ,at some point,someone inspired you to start to climb...and most likely that was when you were a child.

You may never reach the top, you may never achieve whatever it is you reach for.... but so long as you always remember to help those on the rungs below, you'll always make a difference to someone's life, and that is better than any prize, from a Blue Peter Badge to the Nobel.

To watch the Blue Peter piece on BBC's iplayer (UK only), click here.

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