Astronomy at the Beach moves the sky (and sand) online for its 2020 edition


Photo by Adrian Bradley

Dark Sky Preserve at Lake Hudson State Recreation Area. Photo by Adrian Bradley.

Astronomy at the Beach (AATB) is the Great Lakes Association of Astronomy Clubs (GLAAC)'s signature annual event. Held each year at Island Lake State Park near Brighton, Michigan, and attended by thousands, this year’s two-day event on Friday and Saturday, September 25-26 has been moved online because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Adrian Bradley is president of GLAAC and an avid amateur astronomer and photographer who especially loves nightscape photography. He is also a member of the University Lowbrow Astronomers, the local astronomy club partnering with AADL to provide and maintain the library's circulating telescope collection.

We chatted with Bradley about this year's Astronomy at the Beach lineup.

Q: What does Astronomy at the Beach look like during a normal year?
A: You can see what it typically looks like by scrolling through the photos at Many people from the various member clubs come out with telescopes and other equipment to view or take photographic images of the night sky. The general public also comes out to learn more about astronomy; whether it's to look through different telescopes at objects in the night sky, attend talks when we have them by professionals in the astronomy field, or learn about other areas related to astronomy such as astrophotography and radio astronomy. The site where a "normal" AATB is held is Island Lake State Park near Brighton. Around 5,000 people usually descend on the Park over these two days.

Q: What will those two days look like this year?
A: It'll be entirely virtual this year. The events will be streamed to YouTube channels created by GLAAC [see YouTube links under Live Telescope Viewing]. Presenters will use private Zoom links to share their screens, give talks related to astronomy, and answer questions from the YouTube chat window. Some amateur astronomers will also share their camera views from their telescopes, showing viewers what their telescope is looking at in the night sky. We’re keeping it virtual because of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and how quickly it spreads. Not only did we not want to have that many people at risk of contracting COVID-19 before a trusted, working vaccine is fully developed, but the park itself has a strong limitation of how many people can be there at one time for the same reason. 

Q: What are some of the challenges of turning AATB into a virtual event? And are there any advantages?
A: There were really just a couple of challenges. One was to find content. We were not planning to have guest speakers at the in-person event; instead, we were planning to have each member club do a demonstration in a tent while everyone else spread out their telescopes and gave people an opportunity to look into them. So with the physical part of looking into telescopes not available, we’ve had to have something to show guests who connect through the website. On the other hand, the other challenge is technical—making sure the presenters we do have are able to connect via a Zoom link, then sending that Zoom link to the YouTube livestream that the public will see. We'll also need to monitor that YouTube channel during the event and make sure inappropriate comments aren't running rampant on these live streams, and that questions are caught and shared with the presenters.

We had wonderful opportunities this year to use board members' networking skills. One board member in particular was able to get all our headliners. We'll learn during the time of the event if this sort of online presence would be a wonderful way to augment future "normal" Astronomy at the Beach. For example, talks could continue to be done online as an option, saving us the travel expense and other overhead costs associated with bringing a speaker to Michigan. This will enable us to ask professionals from anywhere in the world to present for us if they're willing.

The major challenge and opportunity we had as a board was to make sure that our event carried on in some form or another. In May, once it appeared there would be no end in sight to the state of emergency created by the COVID-19 pandemic, we felt that the best and safest option was to go virtual. A lot of hard work was put in behind the scenes to make this event happen, and the entire GLAAC team has worked tirelessly to apply their skills in getting this done.

Q: What can you tell us about some of the special guests and their programs?
A: David Levy will give a talk on the link between Astronomy and Literature. He's an avid amateur astronomer who was one of the co-discoverers of the famous comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 which turned into fragments and slammed into Jupiter in 1994. 

Brother Guy Consolmagno and Dan Davis will co-present a talk about the book they wrote titled Turn Left at Orion. Brother Guy works as the head of the Vatican Observatory, and Dan Davis is a professor of Geophysics at Stony Brook University in New York. 

Delores Hill will discuss the OSIRIS-REx Asteroid mission. She works closely with that mission, and she’ll tell us more about what it has discovered about asteroid Bennu so far. She is a meteorite specialist and part of the outreach committee for the OSIRIS-REx mission.

There will also be a panel (adult- and kid-friendly) entitled Ask the Astronomers, featuring David Levy and two other professionals in the astronomy field: Dr. Jane Huang, a NASA Sagan Fellow at the University of Michigan; and Dr. Larry Lebofsky, a Senior Education and Communication Specialist at the Planetary Science Institute and an Education Specialist at the University of Arizona. 

Of course, the other very special guests will be all those who tune in and watch these presentations.

Q: How will the live night sky viewing events work? And what happens if the weather doesn’t cooperate? 
A: A presenter will have the ability to share their screen or alternate camera views to show what their telescope sees. This will get broadcasted to the YouTube channel, which will be viewed by guests. Guests will then be able to comment in questions or requests, and those questions or requests will be relayed by the co-host to the presenter. In cases where the presenter is his or her own co-host, she or he will watch the Youtube feed themselves, and capture questions or requests.

It’ll depend on the presenters whether or not they want to go to certain objects themselves or whether or not to do a request. Once they lock in on an object, viewers will see the results and either be amazed or not; and if not, they'll be able to switch back and forth to a different live stream. This would be the equivalent of a physical viewer going from telescope to telescope to see what the operator is looking at. We’ll usually have three live view operators at one time during the night so that guests can choose between one stream or another.

If the weather is bad and we can't stream live, we have on-demand content that guests can watch. I’ll also be doing a presentation at 9 pm each night using software called Stellarium, which simulates the night sky, enabling us to do a virtual tour of the sky in case the real night sky is not favorable. I’ll show guests how Stellarium displays objects in the sky, what an object would look like in different viewing instruments, or 'oculars', such as a large telescope, a pair of binoculars, or even DSLR cameras and lenses. You can even combine the view of a DSLR camera with a telescope to see how an image would look if taken at the object through that setup. And if weather permits, I hope to demonstrate using it to control my telescope and get it to point at an object in the night sky. 

Q: Can you highlight some of the events you'll have for kids?
A: The Michigan Science Center is putting on a program called “Amazing Astronomy and Fantastic Physics.” They also have some on-demand presentations that people can watch, such as a tour of Space Camp. And they’ll do a planetarium demonstration as well.

The Flint Longway Planetarium will present a Live Sky viewing via their planetarium, as well as Space Trivia for kids.

Bob Trembley will demonstrate a rocket engineering game called Kerbal Space Program, which teaches kids the real physics of launching rockets into space (or teaches kids how much fun it is to blow things up!). Bob will also simulate a tour of the solar system using a program called SpaceEngine, which enables someone to go directly to a location in space and view it as if they were there, not necessarily just “how it looks from Earth.”

Mike Bruno will do a scale model of the solar system, showing kids just how far our planets really are from each other and the Sun. And finally, the “ask the astronomers” panel is intended for kids to ask questions as well.

Q: Even though AATB is not an in-person event this year, it's great that you're still providing so many opportunities to look "live" through a telescope. What is it about looking through a telescope that so fascinates us?
A: There's a certain amazement and wonder that goes through all of us when we look at something and realize how far away it is. These days, this question sparks a debate between the popularity of astrophotography versus visual astronomy. We now have the ability to point a camera of some sort at these deep sky objects—take a long exposure—and see what these objects really look like with a sensor that’s more sensitive than our eyesight. But those who love visual astronomy will tell you how fulfilling it is to see an object directly that’s millions of light years away. It produces a connection to the universe for many of us ... seeing it and knowing it's out there. 

Those who have never seen the rings of Saturn, or detail of the moon's craters, or the equatorial bands and Red Spot on Jupiter, are often amazed when they view these things for the first time through a telescope. It's as if that moment affirms that yes, these things are really out there, and this is what they really look like. 

We’ll be missing that interaction this year, as it takes astrophotography methods to share the night sky directly. But there are ways to simulate what the eye would see, and some astrophotographers may do that in order to closely mimic the experience of looking directly into a telescope.

Amy Cantú is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library.

Check out the AATB homepage for a complete schedule of events for Friday and Saturday, September 25-26.