Astronomy Past and Present

Bringing the wonders of the Universe to the ESO Supernova and beyond

12 October 2018
What you’ll discover in this blog post:
  • How and why the ESO Supernova AstroCalendar was created
  • How the AstroCalendar fits into the global Data2Dome programme
  • What it means to be an ESO Supernova volunteer
Valentina Schettini is part of the team of science content writers at the ESO Supernova & Planetarium Centre. In this week’s ESOblog post she tells us about her role in creating the AstroCalendar, a database of astronomical events that brings the past and present wonders of the Universe to the public.

Q: How do you describe the ESO Supernova to your friends and family?

A: The ESO Supernova takes visitors on a trip through the Universe itself, but possibly more importantly, it also tells the story of human efforts to discover and understand the Universe.

The exhibition starts in the Solar System, with the Sun and the planets that we know so well but which are still so fascinating. Then, we move away through the rest of the unknown, mysterious Universe, on an adventure through space and through human exploration. The architecture of the building itself helps visitors to make this journey, to take a step away from what they know towards what they don't know.

Q: What is the AstroCalendar?

A: It’s a database of over a thousand astronomically relevant events explained for non-experts, each accompanied by at least one high-quality image and in some cases videos. An event could be something interesting happening in the sky tonight or over the next few days. It could also be something that happened in the history of science on this day, particularly relevant to astronomy or cosmology. The database includes eclipses, lunar phases, the publication of Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope and much more!

For now, the AstroCalendar has two main uses. The first is in planetariums; it has already been incorporated into the Data2Dome project which is a content distribution system used by the majority of planetarium software including Digistar 6 which the ESO Supernova uses. Data2Dome gathers and shares lots of multimedia content from places like NASA and ESA and enables planetarium presenters to act as astronomical weathermen. They arrive at the planetarium and through a news feed find out everything interesting happening in the sky that day, as well as lots of historically interesting events. They can then base their own show on this news feed, and this is already happening around the world!

Data2Dome allows planetarium presenters to act as astronomical weathermen.

The second use of the AstroCalendar database is as a touchscreen in the ESO Supernova, which any visitor can use to explore current events as well as historical ones. They can also see high-quality images relating to different events. We are planning to publicly release this touchscreen as well as most of the other ESO Supernova content under a free Creative Commons license later this year.

Q: Do you have a favourite astronomical event that you felt should be included in the AstroCalendar?

A: I don’t have one specific favourite event, but one aspect I really liked about creating the AstroCalendar is including scientific contributions from all over the world. Science has come from people of all ages and levels — some discoveries were even made by amateur astronomers in their back gardens!

It is clear looking back at the history of science that collaboration is key. Something could be hypothesised by one person, and later confirmed with an experimental proof by someone else. It is always a continuous conversation through history between people who want to find out more about the world. I think this is really inspirational for the future, too.

Q. Could you tell us more about the process of creating the AstroCalendar?

A: My role was to set clear criteria for choosing which events to include and then to put the events into the database. I am hugely grateful to the rest of the ePOD staff, who were always incredibly kind and helpful, but I would also like to use this opportunity to thank all the volunteers who helped me collect the information and translate all the written content from English to German.

Screenshots from the AstroCalendar touchscreen at the ESO Supernova.

One of the most challenging but interesting steps was when we started to include dynamic events happening in the sky — like bright comets, close encounters with Near Earth Objects, and visible passages of the International Space Station — from other feeds.

Q: How else have you contributed to the ESO Supernova?

A: I designed two other touchscreens — one for Portal to the Universe and one for NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day. Much of my role has been focused on designing digital interfaces in the Planetarium & Visitor Centre — thinking about how people come into contact with the vast amount of wonderful content that we have produced. Throughout the planning, we focused on the Supernova values: science communication, openness of information, and practical learning experiences.

Q: What is most exciting for you personally about the ESO Supernova?

A: I am always really curious about the reaction people have when they first walk through our doors. I’ve been a tour guide since the centre opened and I always look forward to welcoming visitors and walking them through the exciting exhibitions.

I get particularly excited talking to teenagers about astronomy, and seeing the sparkle of curiosity in their eyes. I love to try to feed this curiosity and answer questions about whatever they want to know.

Great things can be achieved only through collaborative efforts, and it’s amazing to see that the ESO Supernova also upholds these values.

Q: Would you say that the ESO Supernova is in a unique position to communicate astronomy?

A: Absolutely! Not only is the entrance free of charge in 2018 but most of the content is (or soon will be!) available online and shared publicly. Also, to prepare the educational activities we involved local schools and the teaching community, which was really fabulous.

Creating and maintaining the ESO Supernova involves so many people, including professional astronomers, planetarium show producers, exhibition designers, and people who create hands-on activities. Together, these people speak all the languages of the ESO Member States, providing an amazing international environment. Just as I’ve learned through the AstroCalendar project, great things can be achieved only through collaborative efforts, and it’s amazing to see that the ESO Supernova also upholds these values.

Numbers in this article

0 Cost in euros to enter the ESO Supernova in 2018.
6 Number of months that the ESO Supernova has been open for.
1000+ Number of events in the AstroCalendar
2018 Year that the ESO Supernova opened.

Biography Valentina Schettini

Valentina has a PhD in physics, specialising in quantum optics. After several years working as an experimental researcher in laboratories in Italy (INRIM) and the USA (NIST, MIT), she became a freelance translator (EN to IT) and a proof-reader of popular science books and scientific textbooks. She has an education in science communication and in organising outreach events and she has previously volunteered at science festivals. She's passionate about astronomy and astrophysics, and her dedication is to share the knowledge and beauty of science with the widest audience possible. Valentina is currently a volunteer in ESO’s outreach department.