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

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