#SpaceUpUK and the Space VS Astronomy debate

Heading back from London to Manchester on the train from my first SpaceUp unconference, exhausted but feeling refreshed by plenty of space excitement, cool space topics and interest in the SKA!

Unconference

An unconference is an event with no preset program or speakers, and attendees get to decide and give talks or discuss topics of their choice, posting them on a board which people look at to decide which session they want to attend.
For any professional astronomer or engineer, it’s quite an unconventional way of doing things, and might be a bit disconcerting at first, but it is also a fun and informal way of talking, presenting, learning about things and most importantly debating.

There are presentations, but a lot sessions turn out to be discussions and debates.

SpaceUps

SpaceUps bring together space enthusiasts or spacetweeps as they’re called on Twitter (me being one of them). But it’s not just a place for enthusiasts to meet and chat, there are also representatives from various organisations attending to exchange and get feedback from the community. At SpaceUp:UK there were some people from ESA Communications, from JPL, from the British Interplanetary Society, The International Space University. etc. That way, organisations get to interact directly with their audience. A great way to get feedback and get a “feel” for where the conversation is going, what are the interests, new trends to watch for, etc.

And so there were discussions on a range of topic like Mars One (is it a good or bad idea?), on how to fight sexism in the space sector, on how to engage with ESA, there were communication and outreach workshops, social media strategy presentations, etc. and we got to skype with British astronaut Tim Peake who is currently training in Star City, Russia (very cool). We even got a tweet from Astronaut Alexander Gerst who is currently…orbiting the Earth aboard the International Space Station (very, very cool).

Where is the astronomy Community?

However, until now, large events like this involving social media have been monopolised by space agencies (such as NASA and ESA), with no involvement from observatories or professional astronomy. And so my question is why?

Are we too conservative? Perhaps we are not quite as up-to-speed with new media channels as space agencies, and certainly most observatories don’t have the same resources to organise and support events such as these. But major organisations like the IAU, ESO, NRAO, NAOJ and others could participate more. They are, after all, the experts in their field! This is what I am trying to initiate at SKA.

But also on a individual level, few professional astronomers or even students seem to take part in these events.
Some of my fellow SpaceUp attendees suggested it’s because astronomers are too snobbish to attend these informal events or not very good at presenting their complex topics in simple ways, cliches which are still enduring. But are they true? Do astronomers prefer the more traditional lecture-type events where they get to teach an audience and be the expert rather than interact with it? Possibly. Perhaps it is also a case of the difference between academia and industry. Astronomers are no strangers to outreach though, and give many talks and engage with kids a lot who are naturally attracted to what’s out there. Outreach-minded astronomers are certainly capable of explaining astronomy in simple terms and making it exciting.
I also know a lot of astronomers on social media and I’d like to believe they would be up for these kinds of events.

So the second question is, are space and astronomy that different? Does one encompass the other? Some say yes, others no, but both communities seem to make the distinction, whereas for the public it’s all “out there”. Indeed rockets, astronauts and mars rovers have little to do with telescopes and cosmology and space exploration does not always equate Universe comprehension… So can people be interested in one and not the other? I wouldn’t know, my passion for the Universe always went hand-in-hand with my passion for space.

So if the two topics are radically different, the remaining question is, should they be brought together? Should SpaceUps only be about space and exploring space or should they include talks and debates on telescope facilities, the evolution of the Universe, what’s the best telescope to buy for a beginner, etc.? Are space geeks actually interested in astronomy and vice-versa? I have always been welcome to attend and talk about astronomy by organisers of SpaceUps that’s for sure. And sometimes both meet of course. The Hubble Space Telescope, the Gaia mission, Chandra, Kepler and others are only a few great examples. Planetary sciences, exobiology and others can also bring both disciplines together.

As a trained translator and linguist, to my mind it’s also a case of wording. And as a communication/outreach expert, wording matters. One community talks about space where the other talks about the Universe, when both are the same thing. Maybe the Universe encompasses space actually. But the context is different, indeed when saying space, one immediately think about rockets and astronauts, whereas when saying Universe or “astro”, one immediately thinks about galaxies and black holes.

If space and astronomy are different things, and there are spacetweeps, then surely there are astrotweeps too?

So should SpaceUps become AstroSpaceUps or SpastroUps? I doubt my spacetweep friends would agree…
Should they then be separate? SpaceUps for space geeks and “AstroUps” for astro geeks. I strongly believe it would defeat the purpose, cultivating the divide between our two communities and perpetuating a circle where we keep talking to ourselves only…
Wouldn’t bringing both communities together at events such as these allow to reach out to more people, to learn new things, initiate new passions and possibly collaborations?

I leave the unconference with more questions than answers, but now the debate has been initiated, and I count on my new space friends to reach out to their astro contacts for future events.
I will be attending SpaceUp Toulouse in September to talk about the SKA and will take that opportunity to discuss this topic again there, in the hope of bringing both communities together more, because I’m a spacetweep and an “astrotweep”, and space and astronomy together are even more awesome!

note: many thanks to the whole team of SpaceUp:UK for organising a great unconference. (Because yes, even an unconference needs a lot of organisation to happen!)

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