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More people are looking up at the sky as interest in astronomy surges with pandemic, James Webb Space Telescope
Dorothy de Souza Guedes
Sep. 13, 2022 6:30 am, Updated: Sep. 16, 2022 2:13 pm
Brenda Funk of Scotch Grove has been interested in astronomy since she was a kid.
“In the car at night driving, Dad would always point out the Milky Way galaxy and the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper. I guess that’s where my interest started,” Funk said.
She has passed on that interest to her children. Her son Dana Funk, 23, said he also has been interested in space from a young age. He’d pore over science books he found on the family’s bookshelves and would watch “Star Gazers” on PBS late at night. Brenda Funk said that the entire family liked to watch meteor showers and the space station crossing the sky.
In May the Funks attended a public event at the Eastern Iowa Observatory and Learning Center in Ely and the annual Solar Saturday in July. Niece Stephanie Rollins was added to the group when they headed to the observatory on July 12 to view a livestream of the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope.
After seeing the detailed images, Rollins, 13, of Clinton, said she liked that scientists can learn a lot from the Webb images and might even find signs of life. She knew to gaze at the night sky with her dad, who is “always looking up,” she said.
“We like to sit on the roof, and we look at Jupiter with binoculars,” she said.
Kept from their regular social activities during the COVID-19 pandemic many people became interested in viewing the night sky through binoculars and telescopes. Telescope vendors and manufacturers struggled to keep up with demand, according to Sky & Telescope, the publishing arm of the American Astronomical Society.
Membership to the Cedar Amateur Astronomers increased 50 percent from 100 members to 150 this summer, said Dena Rauch, the club’s membership and circulation coordinator. Carl Bracken, who presents annually at a Solar Saturday program at the observatory, said the group’s July event was the largest he’d had in 12 years.
The most well-attended event the club has ever had was July 12, when more than 90 adults, teens and children watched NASA’s livestream event from the observatory’s packed learning center, which is located on the grounds of Palisades-Dows Preserve, between Mount Vernon and Ely.
Before NASA went live, Mark Brown, NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) solar system ambassador, explained to the group the science behind building the Webb and getting it into space. He also discussed the first image that was released the day before.
“The public that came out to enjoy the celebration was immense. It’s great to see that we have so many people interested in space. Not only near-Earth space but also things that we’re capturing from outer space,” Brown said that afternoon.
He’s noticed a resurgence of interest in astronomy during the pandemic. Homebound and isolated, people searched for new things to do and astronomy was one of those, Brown said.
Brown had done a lot of in person events in 2018 and 2019. After the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, Brown started receiving inquiries from libraries and other entities to do online programming about the night sky. He adapted his presentations to give people the opportunity to learn about the night sky from their own backyards.
“There was this renewed interest. We had an interest in meteor showers. We had the supermoon, we had a planetary gathering in December 2020, and we had comet NEOWISE IN July 2020. So, people were trying to venture out to see these objects in the sky. They wanted to know more about how they could see them, whether it be through some type of phone app or what type of binoculars or small telescope they should buy,” Brown said.
Brown, who lives in Marion, has teamed up with another NASA ambassador from Florida to do events at her library and the Hiawatha Public Library. That’s not something they did before the pandemic.
For people who want to learn more, phone apps are a good way to get started in astronomy, he said. You can use apps to look at virtual star maps to navigate the night sky.
Some free apps to try include SkySafari, Google Sky and Stellarium. There also is a NASA app.
“People who were socially distancing and isolated could go outside at night, they could take their phones, download an app, and they could look at and learn the night sky,” he said.
He’s one of about eight solar ambassadors in Iowa and 1,150 across the United States. Through a connection with an ambassador and teacher in South Carolina, Brown was an Educational Public Outreach Specialist at the 2021 Educators Conference at Space Center Houston. He taught teachers how to use smartphone apps, such as the Loss of the Night app, to educate middle school and high school students as citizen scientists on the effects of light pollution.
“With citizen science that people can do from their homes, they can monitor the light pollution in their area. They can track satellite passes. Globe at Night is where you can go out and track light pollution, and you can count the number of stars or certain constellations, and you report back to their website,” Brown said.
Online you can learn more at Globeatnight.org, darksky.org, myskyatnight.com and anecdata.org. Or find the Loss of the Night app for Android or iOS.
“With the advances in technology with smartphones, people can go outside, and they can take gorgeous nighttime photographs using (them),” Brown said.
As libraries and clubs relax COVID restrictions, Brown has been in demand for in person events.
“I have been very busy this past summer,” he said. “I like the aspect of doing public outreach because I can bring it down to a level of understanding that people aren’t overwhelmed with just a flood of information and detail.”
If you go
What: Cedar Amateur Astronomers Public Event
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 17
Where: in-person at the Eastern Iowa Observatory & Learning Center, 1365 Ivanhoe Rd., Ely (off Highway 30 in Palisades-Dows Preserve) or online on Zoom
Details: “Holding a Mirror to the Nighttime Ionosphere: How We Do It and What We See” by Asti Bhatt, research engineer, geospace scientist at SRI International in California