Citizen Astronomy and Scientific Outreach without moving from your room

  • Citizen science, educational and communication initiatives by the Instituto Astrofísico de Canarias helped citizens make the most of their time during confinement in 2020
  • Via the VASCO, Cazasteroides and Contadores de Estrellas, citizens could keep contributing towards the study of the cosmos during the pandemic
  • Outreach and educational initiatives added to the mix, for a full-fledged repertoire of activities bringing astrophysics closer to the citizens

Science communication and outreach efforts are part of the normal activity of scientific institutions. Citizens, as well as scientists, the press, or other stakeholders are subject of the attention of these efforts. During the year 2020, however, those took a special importance. By the end of the first quarter of the year, the COVID-19 pandemic was already present in Spain and stringent measures were put in place. Confinement of the population and other restrictions were put in place, which were to last for weeks, which eventually became months.

At that time, many facilities closed and hence their activity was drastically reduced. No exception were the Instituto Astrofísico de Canarias (IAC) and the Observatorios de Canarias (OOCC), in the Canary Islands. The observatories, key facilities in world astronomy managed by the IAC, include the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory (ORM) on La Palma and the Teide Observatory (OT) on Tenerife, and jointly house the telescopes and instruments of close to 60 institutions of over 20 countries.

The Observatorio del Teide is managed by the IAC. In the picture, a horizontal panoramic showing its multiple observation sites.
The Observatorio del Teide is managed by the IAC. In the picture, a horizontal panoramic showing its multiple observation sites.

It was during those days of the year 2020 that the IAC invited citizens to approach astrophysics with their repertoire of citizen science and outreach projects in which the IAC participates or has the lead. This added to the constellation of voices that during those days made the time at home more pleasant –and instructive-.

Citizen science and astrophysics

Citizen science, in which citizens contribute and have a central role in aspects of scientific research, became one of the three pillars of the activity deployed and promoted by the IAC at the time. Nowadays, many tools for developing citizen science can take the shape of apps, which citizens can conveniently install on their phones.

A first example comes in the area of asteroid monitoring. One of the about 2000 known NEOs (near-Earth objects), or perhaps an unidentified one, could potentially impact on planet Earth at a given time. The disastrous consequences that this would have make clear that the efforts to find and follow these small objects are very important. Alas, the analysis of an enormous amount of images is necessary to find these NEOs in the skies. To the rescue comes the mobile app Cazasteroides (Asteroid Hunter), using which any citizen can collaborate in the analysis of sky pictures, helping to protect the Earth in face of that risk.

Citizen Astronomy, a branch of citizen science intensively cultivated at the Instituto Astrofísico de Canarias
Citizen Astronomy, a branch of citizen science intensively cultivated at the Instituto Astrofísico de Canarias

On a smaller scale, other objects may reach planet Earth at times. Comets, in their orbit around the Sun, leave after them a trail of ice, dust and rock. Then, the Earth, over its cyclic path around the star, passes through some of those clouds of minuscule rock fragments, called meteoroids, giving place to phenomena known as meteor showers. During the year, several dozen meteor showers can take place, of which at the IAC astronomical calendar (2020, 2021) one can check the most significant ones. Observation and counting of meteor showers is an important task to answer key  questions that still remain about some of those smaller objects that travel across the Solar System. The project Contadores de Estrellas (Star Counters) aims to count meteors with the help of citizens.

A step back in time is taken with the project Vanishing & Appearing Sources during a Century of Observations (VASCO), which uses images of ancient military catalogues that once monitored the skies, during the 50’s, and compares them with recent charts. ¿What objects have since then vanished? ¿Could some of those items relate to powerful beams of laser radiation of hypothetical civilizations in our cosmic neighbourhood? The main aim of VASCO is to find stars that have disappeared in order to attempt to trace extreme astrophysical phenomena such as the collapse of black holes and, perhaps, even those signals that could originate from intelligent extra-terrestrial life. VASCO also provides a forum for the interaction between scientists, science aficionados and curious citizens.

Beholding the skies: what new objects may be travelling towards Planet Earth? Will you be the next to spot one?
Beholding the skies: what new objects may be travelling towards Planet Earth? Will you be the next to spot one?

In turn, science explained to citizens –the turn for dissemination

Citizen science aside, the Science Communication and Outreach Unit of the IAC redoubled communication efforts towards the public during the confinement. The initiative (and hashtag) #IACUniversoEnCasa became an umbrella that included, among other actions: the launch of literary lectures in the blog Vía Láctea s/n, videos and cosmos images and various science pastimes. All this was taking place of it while strengthening its commitment with the dissemination of Astronomy to society.

While during some time moving much away from home proved difficult, today, more than ever, home windows can become observatories of the sky. The Starlight Foundation, with whom IAC members had yet collaborated before, shared with grownups and children alike, for all parts of the world, initiatives related to the dissemination of astronomy. Also relating to the window sill (if the opening allowed a view of the open sky), there were no excuses to miss the astronomy spectacles by the Museum of Science and the Cosmos (MCC) of Tenerife, via their CosmoCrónicas (Cosmo Chronicles). From the passage of the Starlink satellites to the observation of Venus at full daylight, one could find plenty of information useful to appreciate the phenomena that the Cosmos put on display.

IACUniversoEnCasa was born during the COVID-19 pandemic aiming to bring some confort, and also astrophysics, closer to citizens

The scientific news kept running also at the science podcast Coffee Break: Señal y Ruido (Coffee Break: Signal and Noise). About four years after its launch, programmes were starting to be recorded at the Science and Cosmos Museum of Tenerife, which during the pandemic was followed by a shift towards streaming from home. To the previous adds the cycle of talks Talk to them: Women in Astronomy, that aims to make visible the work of women working in science, via talks talks by researchers of the IAC and the Universidad de La Laguna.

Also connecting with the #IACUniversoEnCasa initiative, the channel made daily live broadcasts about various aspects of astronomical events and astronomy and astrophysics-relates pieces such as the release of the second video about the Cherenkov Telescope Array (CTA) in June 2020. In the broadcasts specialists in numerous areas of astronomy were interviewed, giving chance to the public to ask the speakers the questions coming to their minds.

The place for schools, teachers and their pupils

IAC educative projects continued their support to educational institutions to approach science to students in a practical way. Educational projects in fact intensified during the toughest weeks of the confinement.

To make visible the work of women in astronomy and provide children with inspiring models in order to advocate for their scientific and technological career is the objective of Habla con ellas: Mujeres en Astronomía (Talk with them: Women in Astronomy). In this initiative female astrophysicists and engineers offered talks to Spanish schools, which during the times of confinement and teleworking meant reaching both the homes of students and teachers. During the 50-60 minute conferences, students learned about the work at IAC and the observatories of the OOCC at the Canary Islands, with room for questions by the audience regarding not only the Universe but also, more generally, about the science and technology career.

One of the talks by astrophysicists: Nayra Rodríguez Eugenio spoke about the cosmic origin of the chemical elements.
One of the talks by astrophysicists: Nayra Rodríguez Eugenio spoke about the cosmic origin of the chemical elements.

Are you a teacher? Have ever your students wondered how it would be to handle a real telescope –remotely-? The Proyecto Educativo con Telescopios Robóticos (PETeR, the Educative Project with Robotic Telescopes) is an online lab that allows secondary school students to do their own observations and astronomical research using professional robotic telescopes. Some of these instruments, designed to work in a completely autonomous way, remained available and open to Spanish schools. This was the case of the Liverpool Telescope, at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory (with a two-metre diameter mirror), which is one of the largest fully robotic telescopes in the world, as well as the smaller 40 cm telescopes of the Observatorio de las Cumbres located in Hawaii and Australia. With PETeR one can discover supernovas, variable stars… or even exoplanets!

Teachers can register online for their students to use the telescopes available to PETeR. The project also has some didactic activities open to everyone interested, which make use of real astronomical images and cover subjects ranging from the Solar System to how distances in the Universe are measured.

Finally, even if classes where displaced virtually from schools towards homes, CosmoLab project training courses for teachers remained active, with special mention to the course “CosmoEducation and Discovery of the Universe”, taught remotely by experts and communication/dissemination experts of the IAC. This course aims to spur in teachers the interest for astrophysics and provide didactic tools to work with students on those contents -interactively and in a motivating way-. When the time for picking up again normal activity would come, teachers would have renewed knowledge for their teaching at primary and secondary school students. Educational materials for primary and secondary school teachers, were shared via the CosmosLab portal.

Each one of these efforts, small and large, helped to bring the fascination for the Universe closer home with the teachers, who would do the same later on, sharing with numerous students in the island of Tenerife, the Canary Islands and of the whole of Spain.

Image credits:

Observatorio del Teide picture was downloaded from Wikimedia Commons and licensed via a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license.

Picture of person looking at the Milky Way is in the public domain and was downloaded from HyppoPx.

Astronomía Ciudadana, #IACUniversoEnCasa and Nayra Rodríguez talk pictures kindly provided by IAC and re-used with permission.