During the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958) the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory launched Project Moonwatch. This amazing citizen science project had a network of observers around the world tracking the first artificial satellites. The data collected proved vital in discovering some satellites and tracking the fate of others. The history of the project is quite fascinating and described in detail in Keep Watching the Skies.

This evening, I was chatting with Mike Peel. Our conversation covered all sorts of ideas from open science to 3D tracking of meteors. By the end of the conversation we came up with the idea of a mass participation Twitter project named SkyWatch, inspired by Project Moonwatch as well as the UKSnow & MeteorWatch hashtags on Twitter. The aim would be to track and identify objects moving in the sky.

Following the examples of Ben Marsh and Tomas Vorobjov, the data could be collected and displayed on a map in real time, along with the images posted to Twitpic or Yfrog. For objects such as the ISS or satellites, it would be possible to watch their path develop and spot when they were heading in your direction. It might be possible to track meteors/fireballs and even identify where a meteorite may have hit theground. This sort of service, if used widely by the public, would also pick up Chinese lanterns and other IFO/UFOs!

UK Snow
A screenshot of Ben Marsh's UKsnow map in action CREDIT: Ben Marsh

To get as many people to take part as possible, it needs to be easy for people to join in. That means less precise input but, as UKSnow and Galaxy Zoo have demonstrated, sometimes large numbers of imprecise observations can give a pretty good answer when combined. Like UKSnow, the idea would be to encourage short tweets with a limited amount of simple information. Mike and I think these should contain a location, direction, brightness and a guess as to what it might be. An example tweet might be:

#skywatch Manchester N 4/10 Satellite?

In these tweets it would be nice to allow the user's location to be provided in as free a format as possible, e.g. postcode or city, and work out where this is (latitude/longitude) using a geo-location lookup service of some kind. The direction would be given as a simple compass direction and the service would recognise values such as N, East, South-west, NNW etc. The brightness will, necessarily, be subjective but could have some guidance such as 10/10 being as bright as the Sun, 5/10 being brighter than the stars that are visible, and 1/10 being on the edge of visibility. It would also allow people to suggest what the object might be e.g. satellite, meteor, plane, ISS, UFO etc.

One of the biggest problems might be the delay between an observation and a tweet. It may be possible to correct for this statistically but some level of uncertainty will remain in the timing (probably to no better than the nearest 30 seconds). One optional addition might be to allow people to say how long ago their observation was but then things start to be more complicated and it may be more trouble than it's worth.

Do you, dear reader, think there is merit to this idea? Do you have suggestions for ways to improve it? If you do, or have the ability to help get this up and running, please post in the comments below.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 22nd Jan 2010 (22:16 GMT) | Permalink

IYA Closing Ceremony

As I write this the International Year of Astronomy closing ceremony is taking place. If you are quick you can catch some of the live webcast. Currently, Catherine Cesarsky is giving an overview of the year. One of the statistics is that 148 countries took part in the IYA2009. That sounds impressive but I hadn't quite realised how impressive that is. Catherine just showed a map of the world with participating countries shown in red. It is noticeable that Africa isn't as red as other continents.

World map
Countries (in red) that took part in the Year of Astronomy 2009 CREDIT: IAU/Catherine Cesarsky

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 09th Jan 2010 (14:42 GMT) | Permalink

UK Snow

Via Will Gater I saw this amazing image of the UK taken by NASA's Terra satellite today. The image shows almost the entire country sporting a layer of snow.

UK Snow
Snow blanketed the UK on 7th January 2010. CREDIT: The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASAs Terra satellite.
On Twitter people have been using the hash tag #uksnow to provide real time snowfall updates (Citizen Meteorology) and Web Developer Ben Marsh has created a real time map to show where the snow is falling as well as people's photos. It has been fascinating to watch the snow head over from Liverpool and Warrington to Manchester in real time and then see it start falling outside my own window.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 07th Jan 2010 (21:30 GMT) | Permalink

Varied Voices

The 365 Days of Astronomy podcast - the official podcast of the International Year of Astronomy 2009 - is continuing into 2010. The format remains the same with each episode contributed by different people from around the world. Although many people have signed up for days in 2010, there are still plenty available.

Throughout 2009 I created the Weekly version of the podcast which distilled every 7 days into an omnibus edition. At the end of each weekly episode I read out a standard blurb describing the podcast and how to get involved. To shake things up a bit for 2010 I thought it would be nice to have a series of different voices read the outro. I have around 10 voices so far but still need another 42 before the end of the year. The voices I have are heavily biased towards the UK and US so I'm particularly keen to get voices representing other countries.

If you'd like to contribute please record the following lines and send them to me (stuart followed by @ followed by

The 365 days of astronomy podcast is produced by AstroSphere New Media Association. Audio post-production by Preston Gibson. Bandwidth donated by and Wizard Media. Web design by Clockwork Active Media Systems. You may reproduce and distribute this audio for non-commercial purposes. Please consider supporting the podcast with a few dollars or euros. Visit us on the web at three six five days of astronomy dot org or email us at info at three six five days of astronomy dot org. Until next time goodbye.

You can get an idea of pronunciation by listening to this one by me or this one by Nancy. I just need the plain audio in as good a quality as you can. You won't get paid for doing this but you will get the satisfaction of having your voice on a 365 Days of Astronomy podcast.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 07th Jan 2010 (19:32 GMT) | Permalink

2009: My year in communication

Following on from the previous post, here is a break down of my year in communication.

Anyone who knows me has probably heard me complaining about the volume of email I've been getting in 2009. In 2008 I had an average of 33.4 emails per day and this has doubled to 66.8 emails per day during 2009. Thankfully, the email mountain was in the first half of the year and I've worked hard to reduce it as the year has gone on. I still have too many email conversations that would be much better and easier as telephone calls. The reduction has to continue into 2010 otherwise I'll never have time to do anything productive.

2009 emails
Emails per month during 2009. Does not include spam. CREDIT: Stuart.
Anyone who has been reading this blog for some time will be able to predict the plot showing the number of blog posts. It had been dropping through 2008 and that trend has continued into 2009. This is partly because so many other blogs cover the latest astronomical news far quicker and in more depth than I can so it would be boring for me to repeat them.

2009 blog posts
Blog posts per month during 2009 CREDIT: Stuart.
The other problem with blogging is that it takes some time to compose a post. I've found that Twitter has made it very easy to post a quick link to something interesting and to keep in touch with lots of people in a far more efficient way than by email.

2009 tweets
Tweets per month during 2009 CREDIT: Stuart.
A Wordle of my Twitter stream makes a fairly good summary of my utterings. The hashtags #dotastro, #meteorwatch and #stfc are all visible.

A Wordle summary of my Tweets CREDIT: Stuart.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 03rd Jan 2010 (20:20 GMT) | Permalink

2009: My year in travel

At the end of 2008 I calculated the total amount of travel I had done by different modes of transport. It turned out that I had travelled almost the circumference of Mars. I decided to repeat this exercise for the International Year of Astronomy 2009. In 2009 I travelled an equivalent to 87% of the way around the Earth (34735 km). The rough breakdown is shown below.

2009 travel
My travel during 2009 broken down by form of transport. I travelled roughly 87% of the circumference of the Earth. CREDIT: Stuart.
I travelled further by all modes of transport during 2009. The biggest percentage rise was in train travel (9700 compared to 3910 km in 2008) as I managed to replace a few flights with trains. I also travelled some way by boat this year due to a holiday in Norfolk.

All in all, I failed in my attempt to cut down my travel and particularly my flights. On a positive note, I reduced the fractional amount travelled by plane.

My average speed for 2009 was 1.1 m/s or equivalent to a slow walking pace.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 03rd Jan 2010 (18:03 GMT) | Permalink

SpaceBuzz 0.4

It is funny how some things work out. A year ago to the day I released SpaceBuzz 0.3. Today I have released version 0.4.

SpaceBuzz is a program I wrote which monitors the tags used in astronomy blogs and then attempts to find out what are hot topics right now. My latest addition is to display graphs showing the popularity of each tag by week over the past year. For instance, this plot shows the popularity of the tag Moon.

The popularity of the tag Moon on astronomy blogs in the past year CREDIT: Stuart/Spacebuzz
There are 176 blogs included in SpaceBuzz. If you write one and it isn't included, let me know. If you have a blog and are still not using tags yet, please consider giving them a try.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 03rd Jan 2010 (12:55 GMT) | Permalink
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