2009 is the International Year of Astronomy, and local star gazer Dave Reneke speaks to Focus about his Astronomy Outreach Program for school students, revealing the fascinating discoveries of space science.
> Dave, we last spoke to you in late 2007. What have you been doing since then?
Gee, is it that far back? Well, along with an expansion of my educational activities, my media exposure has increased. I now appear regularly on over 60 networked stations across Australia talking about astronomy and space discovery issues. It’s expanded into TV as well.
Last year I was featured on Good Morning America, American MSNBC TV news, the BBC, Spanish television and Sky news here in Australia. I toured the USA in February 2008 at the invitation of Sir Richard Branson to attend the world press conference in New York, unveiling his brand new concept ‘Spaceship’, which will herald in private space travel in 2011.
I also visited several key space sites across America, including a behind-the-scenes tour of the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. I met up with some NSA educators in the Florida Keys and spent some time in Arizona. A highlight of the trip was being invited to have morning tea with Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the Moon and interview him at his home in Beverly Hills, California.
Throughout 2009, I’ve been asked to give a series of specialised astronomy/space talks onboard Great Southern Railways train ‘Southern Spirit’ as a paid guest speaker, travelling between Perth and Adelaide.
A cruise as a paid astronomy guide through a major travel company to witness the total eclipse in China in July is planned, and there are several invitations to present astronomy shows in various parts of the Australian outback to boot – so I’m going to be busy!
> You are judging the ‘Reach for the Stars’ project which local schools can enter at Port Central. Tell us about the competition.
Yeah, I’m really excited about this and proud to be asked to be involved. Thanks to Vickii Byram of Port Central I’ve been invited to judge the most outstanding astronomy project overall on display in Port Central throughout April from our local schools.
Schools submit a project on astronomy to be displayed throughout Port Central. Prizes will be awarded for the most voted for ‘Reach for the Stars’ project representing Primary and High Schools, with each winning school being awarded a cool $2,500.
My ‘most outstanding’ vote will also give one lucky school an extra $2,500 on top of that. Not bad, huh? Each winning project participant group will be awarded a $500 shopping docket refund from Port Central. Voting boxes featuring school name, project title and participant names will be located around the atrium in the food court. For more details, phone centre management on
> Tell us about your Astronomy Outreach program that you are teaching throughout primary and secondary schools and what its aims are.
‘Astronomy Outreach’ is a series of 5 separate audio-visual programs I conduct, covering all school levels. I developed it to help teach kids astronomy and space science by bringing the universe right into the classroom, and the repeat bookings tell me it’s working very well indeed.
We use the latest, most up to date visual material available from NASA and the Hubble Telescope. Now in its fifth year, this program takes my partner Darrell Howarth and myself all over NSW visiting schools.
We’ve recently been sponsored by the Discovery Channel Science and Austar. Schools taking the program receive a free science pack worth over $200. In May the program is donating $2,500 to each Mid North Coast school visited, plus a brand new $600 telescope.
> What new discoveries have been made lately in space? Were any of them yours?
No, I’m mainly a reporter of info now. Sadly it cuts into my observing time – but I love it! One new discovery was of the first ‘baby’ photos taken of a new solar system much like ours, orbiting another star called Fomalhaut, 25 light years away.
The holy grail of astronomy is, of course, finding another Earth out there. I reckon we’re within 5 years of that. Another find was the definite evidence of water on the planet Mars. If we’re ever to live there, and we will, we need a supply of drinking water.
The search for ET is on in earnest too with the recently launched Kepler mission – a telescope searching for signals from another planet. Over 300 planets around other stars are known at this present time.
> How can locals become more interested and involved in astronomy?
I get asked this a lot. It’s simple: join an astronomy club and join in their observing sessions. You will learn so much and you don‘t need to own a telescope. Just use theirs until you get ‘the bug’ to buy. Will they mind? Nah, they’ll love you!
> Dave, give us an example of something unusual that has been discovered in space …
OK. Girls, ever thought how big the largest diamond would be? Well, we’ve found it. Bill Gates and Donald Trump together couldn’t begin to afford this baby. It’s a chunk of crystallised carbon, the compressed core of a dead star, 50 light years from the Earth.
This monster has a cost that’s literally, well, astronomical! How much would this status symbol cost you if you had the means to buy it? Words like a ‘gadzillion’ dollars’ comes to my mind! It’s around 4,000 kilometres across and weighs 10 billion trillion trillion carats. That’s a one followed by 34 zeros. If you need a stiff drink at this stage, be my guest!
> Have you ever looked up into the night sky and wondered just how many stars there are in space?
I get asked this question quite a lot. Look into the sky on a clear night, out of the glare of streetlights, and you will see a few thousand individual stars with your naked eyes. With even a modest amateur telescope, millions more will come into view.
> The universe is a pretty big place, how many stars does it contain?
That’s a hard question to answer; in fact, it’s probably impossible. Just remember this – there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on every beach in the world! Just think about that. For every grain of sand you find, there are a million stars out there. Amazing isn’t it? But it’s true.
Here’s a question that will win you a few drinks at the bar. Ask a mate, “Who is the only person to be buried on the moon?” Give in? Well, it was American geologist and trainee astronaut, Eugene Shoemaker. Missing out on a moon flight because of a medical condition, he died here in Australia in a car accident in 1997. His ashes were later put into a spacecraft and blasted into the moon’s surface. He’s buried there. Really!
Hey, one last thing. Did you know? Astronauts are a little taller in space than on earth. There is less gravity in space, so their bones are not as squashed together as they are on earth. True!
> Thank you Dave.
Dave Reneke is an astronomy teacher and lecturer, and news editor of SKY & SPACE Magazine.