Astronomer Galileo Galilei made these drawings of the moon based on telescope
observations made four centuries ago. Could you do any better? The Galileoscope
project is planning a contest for sketchers and photographers.
The International Year of Astronomy isn't just for astronomers anymore: There's a whole constellation of projects aimed at getting regular folks like you and me involved in celestial adventures.
"Anyone can be a space explorer, just by going outside at night and looking up with a little bit of a prepared mind," said Andrew Chaikin, a former editor of Sky & Telescope magazine who wrote "A Man on the Moon," the classic history of the Apollo moon effort.
Chaikin did a little bit of virtual exploration himself, after coming upon 40-year-old Apollo 11 imagery that revealed a little-seen side of moonwalker Neil Armstrong. You can get the details from this updated item about Apollo history, or from CollectSpace's video-enhanced report.
Do-it-yourself space science extends far beyond archival searches. Some of the leaders of the citizen astronomy movement provided status reports on their own missions at this week's American Astronomical Society meeting in Pasadena, Calif. Here's just a sampling:
Galileoscope: Shipments of a high-tech, low-cost telescope, modeled after the instrument used by Galileo Galilei 400 years ago, are making their way from China to the United States and other destinations by boat. About 60,000 telescope kits have been sold in advance, at a retail price of $15 (less for bulk quantities). Buyers should be receiving the kits by the end of July. The next steps include figuring out how many more telescopes should be made before the production line is shut down (get your orders in now!) ... and also setting up a contest for Galileoscope imagery. The idea is to solicit photos of celestial objects taken through the telescope, as well as drawings based on Galileoscope observations (a la Galileo, as shown above). Contest rules and submission procedures will be on the Galileoscope Web site when they're ready for release. The first round of winners should be announced by the end of the year.
Galaxy Zoo: The Galaxy Zoo 2 project has recruited more than 200,000 participants to sort through online pictures of galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and classify them according to their shape - something that human eyes and brains can do much more easily than computers. During the "100 Hours of Astronomy" celebration in April, more than 2.5 million classifications were made - and if you count up all the clicks since Galaxy Zoo 2 started in February, the classifications add up to 32 million. Combine that with Galaxy Zoo 1's results, and you get more than 100 million galaxy checkups. The Galaxy Zoo team says that's the equivalent of a Ph.D. student working for almost 20 years without sleep or a coffee break. The project already has spawned a dozen journal articles - relating to patterns in galaxy rotation, for example, or the effects of galaxy mergers.
Star parties galore: If you thought "100 Hours of Astronomy" was big, just you wait: IYA organizers are planning a collaboration with the Year of Science celebration starting in July, a worldwide moon-watching effort on Aug. 1 (linked to NASA's LCROSS moon-smashing mission), a "Galilean Nights" festival on Oct. 23-24 (featuring Jupiter and its moons). They'll take on a big role in this year's Great World Wide Star Count in October as well. October also happens to be prime time for the year's second round of Astronomy Day celebrations.
Social astronomy: Space fans are really catching on to social-networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter. You can follow updates from Endeavour shuttle commander Mark Polansky, for example, or from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that's slated for launch next week. (Today the plucky probe touts its "new movie trailer.") One idea that's circulating is to create a social network dubbed AstroTwitter to allow telescope handlers around the world to answer the question "What are you observing?" Another idea is to use Twitter as a way for observers to share their skywatching experiences online in real time, as British moon-watchers did during an experimental session last month. Don't forget to check in on the IYA's Facebook page and Twitter updates. I'm tweeting as well from the AAS meeting.
Online astronomy: I've already written a fair amount about online astronomy programs such as the outward-looking side of Google Earth and Microsoft's World Wide Telescope. (Microsoft is a partner in the msnbc.com joint venture.) Watch for further updates and grassroots enhancements in the future, including a fresh beta release for the WWT next month. The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics' MicroObservatory is also coming into play, along with other portals to remote-controlled telescopes.
Virtual-world astronomy: The virtual world known as Second Life boasts its own universe of astronomical projects. The online offerings have pushed light-years ahead in the two years since I first wrote about the virtual final frontier. To see how far things have gone, check out Second Astronomy and the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics.
Stay tuned for further reports this week from the American Astronomical Society's summer meeting in Pasadena. Join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter. And if you really want to be friendly, ask me about my upcoming book, "The Case for Pluto."