Monday, 30 April 2012

Jolly Awesome - NEAF 2012

The NEAF (North East Astronomy Fair) held in Suffern, which is about 45 minutes up from New York is generally regarded as one of the biggest amateur astronomy shows in the world. With over 130 on site vendors, a plethora of world class speakers, and the annual “solar star party”, for anyone interested in Astronomy in the East Coast USA, it’s one of those “must attend” events.

Much like Astrofest in the UK, but set out over one gigantic sports hall, with several smaller breakout halls for seminars and workshops as well as the main lecture theatre, this year’s event, my second, was another truly memorable experience, but for completely different reasons to last year. In 2011, I was on assignment for UK magazine Astronomy Now, primarily to look for new and interesting equipment to review, but also to meet up and speak to the US/Science Channel TV stars “Meteorite Men”. The article’s I wrote on the show itself and on the Meteorite Men, which was a cover story special came out in 2011, and since then Geoff and I have stayed regularly in touch, becoming good friends online, as we share many common interests in music and space science.

NEAF itself lasts 2 days, preceded by the NEAIC conference for a day, when close to 400 of the world’s leading Astro imagers come together to share tips/tricks and images. The likes of Robert Gendler, Christopher Go, Sean Walker and many many more, give you some idea of the calibre of imaging talent at this event. That I think is something for next year all being well. Hotel’s nearby range in price, but for under £150 you can get a full weekend’s worth of excellent accommodation not too far from the main event hall.

Rockland Astronomy Club run the show each year, with Alan Traino, a man who is probably the busiest man you could ever wish to meet, running around keeping it all together. Alan’s networking skills and ability to marshal people is quite legendary, but you’ll very rarely see him, despite how busy he is without a smile from ear to ear.

This year I’d flown over to lay the groundwork for some work I am working on with the Faulkes Telescope Project, and also to shore up some new writing opportunities with several US publications, but, alongside that, to really also meet up with a great bunch of online friends made at previous shows and events all across the globe.

The Twitter based space community, known affectionately as “The Spacetweeps” is becoming a force of’s as simple as that. These guys travel all over the world to space based events, and generate millions of tweets/retweets etc, which provides the people behind the events (like ESA and NASA) with marketing and enthusiasm passed on to millions of people, the like of which money simply cannot buy.

This year at NEAF, with the draw of speakers like the amazing Dr J (Dr Joe Liske) from the Hubblecast, the superb David Eicher from Astronomy Magazine, along with the Meteorite Men, who quite literally stormed the stage with 2 of the most amazing hours of public speaking I have ever witnessed (some of it from the audience, as Steve decided to join us in the crowd), had the tweeps literally in rapture.

We had two great nights of meals and drinks, the first with Woody, Cassie (two great friends who’d twisted my arm to come to NEAF again in the first place, and who ferried me to and from the airport...thank you!!) and Talking Space star Sawyer (aka @thenasaman) who that day had been on the VIP stand as the space shuttle Enterprise rolled in to JFK airport.

Sawyer (and this guys knows everybody who’s worth knowing!) had given a speech and then hung out with non other than Leonard Nimoy (aka Dr Spock!) who was another VIP guest for the shuttle’s arrival in to New York.

His home (and a big thank you also to his parents for laying on such a great welcome) is like a shrine to NASA, with Apollo era mission patches, shuttle and ISS astronaut signed images and ...probably the coolest thing ever, a signed Werner Von Braun picture with the Apollo flight team...saying thank you for the success of Apollo 11...something which is quite simply priceless.

My second night in NY started with a spacetweep party at a local restaurant, and then, joined by the Meteorite Men, we went over (courtesy of Sawyer) to the Challenger Centre, an educational outreach centre aimed at keeping alive not only the memory of the tragic accident which took the lives of seven astronauts in 1986, but also to educate and entertain young people, with simulated missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond in a realistic flight control and spacecraft environment. Everyone had a truly phenomenal time in the centre, for me, something quite surreal to be working on a lunar landing mission, whilst the erstwhile Geoff Notkin was doing a quite hilarious and brilliant “Darth Vader” impression as the mission commander/capcom. That night was one I’ll never forget, making lots of new friends, and seeing outreach work at its absolute best.

Day two of NEAF started with more meetings one of which was a great 30 minutes with IDA director Bob Parks, who is so passionate about the night sky, and maintaining it in all its glory for future generations, that I’ve become convinced to try my utmost to help them in their mission. My dear friend from Palomar, now at the IDA Scott Kardel was there, and it was like we’d never been apart, even though it’s close on 3 years since I last saw him, his ambassadorship of the IDA I am sure will help get attain the goals they seek in keeping our skies visible for all.

The solar star party was next, and I introduced many friends to the best H-Alpha telescope pretty much in the world (ask anyone who looks through it) in a “custom configured” Coronado 90 double stack, which literally tore every other scope (including a 200mm one!) apart with the views it gave.

The owner of that scope is another great friend, and amazing outreach guy, Stephen Ramsden, who runs the Charlie Bates Solar Astronomy project as a charity in memory of his air traffic control and service buddy. If anyone deserves the award for the hardest working man in astronomy outreach, it’s Stephen, and all I can say to anyone who reads this blog is please visit his website, and take a good look at the truly magical work he does. Over 60,000 schoolkids in one year have looked through and been awed at the views with his collection of Solar telescopes, and he does this at the same time as one of the hardest jobs in the world, being an air traffic controller in US airspace.

So after some great meetings with S&T, Astronomy (and they get on really well...a good mantra for the industry I think!), Sky at Night’s editor Chris Bramley (really nice guy) and some of my old colleagues from Astronomy Now (copies of the Meteorite Men issue were flying off the Meteorite Men stand, many of which we (Geoff/Steve and I) were being asked to sign!), nights with the Meteorite Men/Spacetweeps...what was the highlight of the two days? (and no it wasn’t the rubber gloves in the Challenger Centre.... (You had to be there to get that joke!))

Whereas last year, the equipment (and there are some stunning toys there, from the like of Astrophysics, Televue etc) was a major focus, the highlight this year was, what makes the interest in space, be it science, imaging or collecting  so enthralling, so magical and something which can inspire passion in the hearts of young and old.

The highlight was a guy, named Jon, not an astronomer who turned up at NEAF, after being told to go by his mother and wife Alanna. Jon had absolutely no idea that his mother had bought him a meteorite as a graduation present.

This was no ordinary meteorite, this was, in the words of the Meteorite Men themselves, one of the most amazing pieces they had ever sold, and seeing it in the flesh, they were not kidding. Apparently Jon’s mother had spent weeks negotiating a piece, which had come out of the vaults at Aerolite meteorites (Geoff’s business). The meteorite in question being a massive 835.7 gram transition meteorite slice, showing the characteristic Widmanstatten patterns of an Iron type, morphing in to a pallasite laden with beautiful crystals which took on a three dimensional appearance at certain angles.

The look on Jon’s face when he saw it (and this is a multi thousand $$$$ piece) was one of awe, the kind of awe you see in a 5 year old on Christmas morning, the kind of awe you see on the faces of people at a rocket launch. Signed and photographs with the guys, it was a remarkable 30 minutes just watching him take it all in.

Watching a grown man in awe of the gift his mother had presented him, and that gift being a rock, over 4 billion years old from the very dawn of our solar system, spoke volumes for why “space is ace”

When you’re a child, most of us love dinosaurs and space. That element of wonder, mystery and sheer scale, enthrals us as children, we develop inquisitive minds, hungry to find out more, but then, without the right parentage or teachers, many of us lose that passion, and thirst for knowledge.
TV and games consoles have their place in society, don’t get me wrong, but these days, I firmly believe that youngsters need to be introduced to more than a video game, or left for hours in front of mindless cartoons.

I know from my own 6 year old, how much she loves going to science museums, launching rockets, looking at the Moon etc, but I also know that if I could not be bothered to spend the time with her nurturing that passion, that she’d probably be equally as content in front of the TV.
Jon had stated time and again what an “awesome mom” he had, and you could see it, and hear it in his voice, just how much this gift of a rock from space meant to him.

So that was the highlight, because now more than ever, in every way possible, I want to keep the fire burning in the hearts of people, young and old, with regard to a love of science. My own dealings with STEM outreach have shown me that even the most jaded and disgruntled teenagers can have that “wow” moment when you show them something like the prominences of the Sun or the Apollo landing site regions on the Moon through a telescope.

My friend Stephen Ramsden, who gives so much of his time and energy to outreach, travelling, coast to coast in the USA pretty much summed it up though “With all the bad stuff in the world today, wars, economy, politics etc, I just want to give people some magic, and you show them something cool in the sky, and for a moment at least, and sometimes for a lifetime thereafter, all that anger, worry, sorrow etc.. just melts away”

And looking back at the people I met or hooked up with at the show, every single one of them, in their own way, wants to do that. They want to bring that magic to people, young and old...and that, to coin the phrase of this blog and the show is “Jolly Awesome!”

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Social Media and Astronomy - A Force for Good

What a month March 2012 was. I'd been invited over to ESTEC which is the ESA Centre in Holland, home to around 2000 of the most brilliant minds on the planet working on all aspects of space science and research. My work as a science writer with the European Space Agency meant that I had to visit for some training in software applications they use, so I combined this, with a planned visit to meet up as part of my role with the Faulkes Telescope project with ESA's Space Situational Awareness team. These guys are on the hunt for dangerous or potentially hazardous near Earth objects, and use a 1m telescope in the Canary Islands to hunt for them.

As my projects with Faulkes are primarily based around comet and asteroid detection and follow on work, measuring light curves, rotation rates and dust/gas ratios with two fantastic colleagues in Italy as part of the CARA projecdt group, it seemed like a sensible idea to suggest that ESA's SSA team and Faulkes collaborate, and that is why we met.

A very positive and good meeting occurred and we're starting to work together on some known NEO's to tr to refine the orbits.

Faulkes being co-located in Australia and Hawaii, combined with the access I also have to the 2m Liverpool Telescope in La Palma, where I am running a comet monitoring program, ahead of another ESA mission we're involved with is ideal to complement the ESA SSA 1m telescope, as we have deeper magnitude capabilities and also more scope time, which the SSA team can now request access to via our students and my programs to either access data or request follow on observations of objects.

Whilst at ESTEC, literally the morning I arrived, I learnt that my beloved grandmother had passed away. Whilst it was utterly devastating news, I took great strength from her mantra throughout life of "just keep going". As she'd got me in to astronomy in the first place, I felt it only right to carry on that day, to "do her proud" so to speak. So the day of meetings went on, with everyone oblivious to the news I'd learnt. I felt it unfair to share a burden with people I was just meeting, the end of the day, could call many "friends"... such was the day, full of laughter and great conversation.

I took a week off work, and from Facebook and Twitter, just to be with family and close friends, many of whom, when I got back online had left really wonderful messages of support. To all of you, I say a huge thank you, it really meant a lot, also re-enforced for me what is great about social media...and to my nan, whom I miss terribly

When you feel at your lowest, true friends will always be there for you, in spirit if not in person, and the messages, some as long as an essay really did help.

Almost straight after the funeral, I was then off to CNES, the French Space Agency in Toulouse in conjunction with ESA had set up a "Tweetup" where 60 space fans had been invited to be at the mission control centre for the docking of the ATV (Automated Transfer Vehicle) with the ISS.

It really was like being on the set of Apollo 13, sitting behind the mission control team, whilst members of CNES and ESA gave us an in depth insight in to how things worked, and a detailed overview of the mission itself. But again, what was great, to me anyway, was the sheer passion, enthusiasm and will to share and talk about space by all the "tweep" (Tweetup attendees).

Academics sometimes moan about "social not-working" sites like Twitter and Facebook, but used in the right way, as a means of communicating good things, be they life events, general day to day good stuff, coordinates for a comet (done that!), or whatever it is that fires your soul, they can be a force for real good, and real change.

At the first Tweetup I attended, the statistics showed that from just a few dozen people, the message of "space" reached a potential audience of 19 million people. In these difficult times, when the news is full of stories of woe almost every day, how incredible is that, that 60 people, who all share a passion for space and space science, could reach the population of Australia almost with messages of positivity...

I know for a fact that social media, and the many outstanding friends I have made through it have got me through the tough times, and been there to share the good ones....long may it continue