Over the years I’ve come to appreciate those moments when I suddenly realise I’ve been making an assumption without realising it.
I’m quite used to a poor show of hands when I ask a visiting class whether they’ve eyeballed Matariki in the night sky. This is ‘understandable’, given Auckland’s light pollution, a myriad of distractions and the family effort of getting up before dawn during winter. Children from rural schools are much more likely to enthusiastically raise their hands and tell stories about their viewing of the Pleiades.
However, when I ask about the recent discoveries at Pluto, there are times when just one or two class enthusiasts (not nerds!) excitedly raise their hands (as they will for just about every other question I put to the class). Sadly, there are many classes where the New Horizons flyby of Pluto in July didn’t fly by their radar at all. Sometimes there’s a flicker of recognition about the Rosetta mission when I mention landing on a comet, but the Dawn mission dawned on almost no one.
This astounded me. Missions to the Moon and then the planets fascinated me from childhood. After the race to the Moon was over, NASA and the soviets led the way further afield with flyby missions to all the planets (except Pluto) from the 1970s onwards, and orbiting or landing missions to Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter. The Sun also received its share of attention. News and information about these missions was received at a leisurely pace via newspapers, TV and science magazines.
This changed in July 1994 with the impacts of the 21 fragments of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 into the atmosphere of Jupiter. For the first time, images from space – from the Hubble Space Telescope and theGalileo spacecraft orbiting Jupiter – were available to the public via the internet. These massive impacts woke the world up to the dangers posed to life on earth by comets and other debris whizzing around the Solar System.
Three years later on 4th July 1997 communication had improved so were able to see images from theSojourner rover beamed back from the Martian surface in real time.
With information now accessible any time, from multiple platforms, students have unprecedented access to live press conferences, podcasts, images and up-to-date science news. There is a free NASA TV channel, Twitter accounts for astronauts on the ISS (International Space Station), Facebook pages for specific missions, Flickr albums, Instagram, Tumblr, YouTube – NASA certainly is social! ESA (European Space Agency) also has good outreach and access, but the information from the space agencies in Russia, China, Japan and India is slower to make its way to the rest of the world; this will surely change as their exciting missions develop.
Access to this information makes it easier to bring astronomy and space science back into the classroom, and it is my hope that teachers embrace this social technology and do just that. A live Twitter feed in the classroom or live rocket-cam online during launch viewed on iPads is a great way to engage with students on what is happening right now. Never before have we had these opportunities.
Another hub for astronomy info is the Stardome Facebook page. It’s kept up to date with the latest space and astronomy news ). To get the news straight to your inbox, Stardome has a monthly e-newsletter,Space News – and a regular e-newsletter, School Satellite, for teachers.
Posts about the important and exciting events in space news can be found on our Astronomy blog. There’s a link on the web page to older posts for further information.
The New Zealand Astronomical Yearbook, published by Stardome, can be purchased at leading bookstores and supermarkets and at the Stardome shop. Find out more here.
There are also information and activity resources for teachers on our Education web tab, with more topics added each month. Of course, if you or your students are stumped about an aspect of space and astronomy, our Stardome educators will do their best to provide a satisfactory answer to your query.