Application of the Internet in the promotion and popularization of astronomy

The 17" and 14" units part of the Virtual Telescope

The 17" and 14" units part of the Virtual Telescope

Zoran Tomic,

Astronomical Society „Eureka“ Krusevac, Mise Mitrovica 3, 37000 Krusevac, Serbia

Gianluca Masi,

The Virtual Telescope Project, Via Madonna del Loco 47, 03023 Ceccano (FR), Italy

Jovan Aleksic,

Astronomical Observatory Belgrade, Volgina 7, 11060 Belgrade, Serbia



Abstract. The development of the Internet has contributed to eliminate time and space barriers and to the improvement of education. Through the Internet a lot of information and useful content from various fields of science have become available to the general public. The development of technology improved the promotion of astronomy and made possible for astronomy enthusiasts to deal with observational astronomy and astronomy as a science from their homes. In this paper the Virtual Telescope Project and online course Introduction to Astronomy on the Coursera will be described.


Keywords. Astronomy from the chair, Virtual Telescope, Coursera


1. Introduction


As a source of long-term economic growth since the industrial revolution, knowledge is now emerging as a new „generator of growth“. Influenced of information and communication technology and application of new knowledge accelerates the transformation of modern societies. Contemporary Economic flows are based more on the use of new ideas, information and new knowledge and skills and less on material resources. Production based on knowledge seems „untouchable“, superior and “moveable”, making it more competitive in the global market of products and services. Therefore, the economy based on knowledge is the future of any society and economy in the world and the globalization process.

One of the major products of economy based on knowledge, and factor in its further development is the Internet. The Internet is an international network made up of many computer networks that is commercial and public. This network provides an extremely flexible platform for sharing informations, because digital information can be distributed with the minimum cost to millions of people around the world. A large number of people are working in science, education, government and businesses using the Internet to exchange information or execution of transactions with other organizations around the world.

The possibilities that the Internet provides to users are:


  1. communication and cooperation
  2. access to informations
  3. to participation in discussions
  4. finding wanted information
  5. finding fun (videos, games…)
  6. business transactions [1]


The emergence of the Internet and e-business (especially the possibility of performing financial transactions and the emergence of virtual money) led to the appearance of a number of new products and services. The emergence of the Internet and e-commerce improved the educational process. The implementation of information systems and communication technologies made ​​it possible to achieve better results in the teaching and scientific research.

The application of modern information and communication technologies made it possible to improve conditions for the promotion of astronomy. A large amount of information in astronomy is now available online for free. There are groups that allow their astronomical equipment to be used for observing night sky and organizing online observation events. Amateur astronomers can get involved in the implementation of some of the projects called Citizen science such as: Galaxy Zoo, Moon Zoo and Planet Hunter. Also, it is possible to organize seminars and online courses in astronomy, where people all over the world can attend classes and do homework, communicate with other members of the seminar, as if they were actually physically in the classroom. All the above can be brought under one name „Astronomy from the chair“.


2. Astronomy from the chair


“Astronomy from the chair” is the name for a concept where amateur astronomers can deal with astronomy from their homes using the Internet. This concept includes the possibility that an amateur astronomer can:


  1. learn particular astronomical topic accessing large knowledge base available on Internet,
  2. be involved in space explorations,
  3. send observational data and photographs,
  4. analyse available data in virtual observatories,
  5. perform observations using distant robotised telescopes,
  6. write and publish papers,
  7. discuss in Internet forums,
  8. attend on-line courses and seminars (webinars) [2].


This concept is a practical example of the impact and contribution of the Internet in the development of new products and services, the development of existing and creation of new forms of organizations.  It means that the problems of geographical borders which made international cooperation difficult vanished, as well as equipment problem (which are inaccessible for many individual astronomers due to high prices). In this way communication and cooperation with professional astronomers is also improved.

The concept can be divided into four sections depending on the content being offered in:

  1. Robotic Observatory
  2. Virtual Observatory
  3. Online astronomy broadcasting
  4. Online courses


Robotic observatory is defined as an astronomical instrument and detection system that enables efficient observation without the need of a person’s physical intervention. In astronomy telescope is considered robotic if observations can be performed without operator’s intervention on the equipment (even if one has to start and finish a monitoring session on it).

Robotic telescopes are complex systems consisting of several subsystems. These subsystems include devices that allow: 1) control of the telescope, 2) managing the detector (CCD camera often), 3) control of the dome (roof), 4) control of the telescope focuser, 5) tracking of celestial objects within a few arc seconds to a few arc minutes, 6) to avoiding wrapping the cord around the mount, 7) obtaining special points in the sky (meridian, zenith, celestial pole), 8 ) knowledge of the horizontal limits movement of the telescope, 9) initial “parking” position of telescope, 10) exposure control and camera temperature, 11) filter control, 12) storing images and their subsequent processing using the dark frame and flat field, 13) synchronizing movement of the telescope with the sky and so on [2].

Thanks to the Internet, robotic telescopes are becoming an important element in teaching astronomy. They also provide opportunities for communication, exchange of data obtained by observation and testing of data between research teams. It can be concluded that the Internet is becoming an important tool for dealing with astronomy today.

There are many groups that offer the possibility of renting a telescope for online observing. One of the most successful is the Virtual Telescope Project from Italy. More detail of the work of this group will be discussed below.

Virtual Observatory is defined as a collection of databases and software tools that use the Internet as a platform for scientific research. Virtual Observatory consists of data collection, each with unique collections of astronomical data, software systems, and processing capabilities. The main objective is to provide transparency and access to data to users worldwide. This allows scientists to discover, access, and analyze database. There are many groups of sites on the Internet that allow amateur astronomers to take advantage of virtual observatories and get involved in scientific research. One example is the Zooniverse.

Online broadcasting is part of concept “Astronomy from the chair” which gives users the opportunity to get directly involved in astronomical observation organized by an amateur astronomer from somewhere in the world. All that is required is that the emitter connects to the Internet and uses one of the available channels for broadcasting their shots that have been recorded using one of the available cameras (web camera, DSLR, or CCD). During observing event, users can communicate with the operator at the telescope, and also with each other. One such project is the project “Astronomy from an armchair” in Nis.

Online courses are groups of sites and organizations that provide the opportunity to amateur astronomers to attend lectures, save and watch video materials from lectures, do homework, communicate with other seminar participants and in that way become familiar with the various areas of astronomy. Modern technology makes it possible to follow lectures in a virtual environment, i.e. via the Internet. Attendants can save videos on their computers. Participants also can get study materials in electronic form or use free materials that can be found on the Internet (Wikipedia for example). One of organizations that organizes these courses in astronomy is Coursera.

More detail of the work of the Virtual Telescope Project and  Introduction to Astronomy course, which is realized by Coursera will be described.


3. Virtual Telescope Project


Virtual Telescope (VT) project was launched at 2006. It was one of the first projects that organized astronomical observations using modern information and communication technology. The aim of project is to provide access to a wide array of professional astronomical equipment to amateur astronomers so that they can perform astronomical observations, recording, and processing of obtained images.

Astronomical equipment at VT is used for research purposes, but also for the purpose of amateur astronomy. The system is adjusted to give the best results in terms of photometry but can be used for other purposes as well. Also, people without any experience with telescopes can use equipment with the assistance of staff members who are also successful science communicators.

VT project uses equipment from Bellatrix Observatory, which was founded at 1997 in Ceccano (FR) in central Italy. The observatory has two telescopes, the Celestron 14” and PlaneWave 17″, both on Paramount ME robotic mount and CCD cameras with supporting components. Equipment can be used to observe deep sky objects, binary stars, star clusters, planets, the Moon, comets, asteroids etc. Software packages used in observatory are The Sky X, CCD Soft, Iris, IDL and Astrometrica. The Observatory occupies a surface of 14m2. [3]

The creator of this project is astrophysicists Dr. Gianluca Masi.

The activities organized by the VT project are:

1. Telescope Control
2. Exclusive public observation events
3. Public observation events


Besides the opportunity to attend to public observation events or to take control of the telescopes, familiarizing with the telescope usage. Using video posted on YouTube and website users in a simple and easy way can learn ho to use software and how to perform astrophotography with the equipment of Virtual Telescope. Also, visitors can learn more about the project, past and future events, see a simulation of the night sky above the observatory,  learn about research and results achieved at VT (observation and tracking asteroids, variable stars, supernovae, light curves of extrasolar planets, gamma-ray bursts). From this year, Virtual Telescope will start with research in the field of spectroscopy and has already launched a project called ViTeSSe for supernovae survey. [4]

During public observing events visitors have the opportunity to save images taken during event on their computer, and to join the chat. In this way, the promotion of astronomy is done at the highest level, but also an opportunity for astronomers enthusiasts all over the world to get to know each other better.

In addition to online events, Virtual Telescope organizes public observing event in Rome regularly .

The project has new website at since 3rd September 2012, while the previous website address of the project was From September 2012 the project site was visited by over 2300000 people worldwide in more than 200 countries. The largest number of visitors of online event is over 25.000 people who observed asteroid 1998 QE2 from more than 137 countries worldwide.

Project activities are regularly promoted using social networks. Virtual Telescope has two groups on Facebook with over 6000 members and a Facebook page with 8079 members.

The reasons for the great success of the project are:

  1. Idea and aim of Project
  2. quality of used technology
  3. Experience and enthusiasm of VT team
  4. reliable system for remote control of the telescope
  5. form of communication and cooperation with visitors
  6. modern methods of promotion service (Facebook, LinkdIn, Twitter, blogs, members …)



4. Introduction to Astronomy course at Coursera


A large number of amateur astronomers around the world have a desire to share and expand their knowledge of astronomy. This can be done by reading professional literature in the fields of astronomy, at public lectures and conferences or courses. The Internet provides the opportunity for all people worldwide to attend these events. One of the groups that organize such activities is Coursera.

Coursera is an educational company that partners with the top universities and organizations in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free. Their technology enables our partners to teach millions of students rather than hundreds. Coursera team envisions a future where everyone has access to a world-class education that has so far been available to a select few. Aim is to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in. [5]

In the field of astronomy Coursera organized several interesting courses such as: Galaxies and Cosmology, Introduction to Astronomy, Confronting The Big Questions: Highlights of Modern Astronomy, Analiyzing the Universe, etc.. In this paper will be described Introduction to Astronomy course.

The course was organized in the period from 27th November to 23rd December 2013. The course was held by Prof. Ronen Pleser at Duke University, along with his assistant Justin Johnsen. The course was attended by over 5000 people worldwide, of which over 2100 people successfully mastered the subject matter of the course and passed with distinction grade. [6]

The aim of the course is to familiarize participants with astronomy. The areas covered with this course are: Positional Astronomy, Newton’s Universe, Planets, Stars, Post-Main-Sequence Stars, Relativity and Black Holes, Galaxies and Cosmology. In order to successfully pass the course participants needed high school knowledge of mathematics and physics, but for those who didn’t have it regularly clarification of certain areas and additional literature that could be used to overcome these areas were provided.

The main literature was Wikipedia, which is a great advantage, because it was available to all participants of the course, as well as additional astronomical software and simulations that helped to clarify some concepts and phenomena. Software is free for downloading from the Internet.

The lectures were organized in the form of video clips attached to a website. Participants were able to watch the video or to download and save video and presentations. Each week a homework was given that consisted of mathematical and theoretical questions. Some questions were of multiple choice type and for some mathematical and physical calculations were required. The system automatically checked the results and each participant had 20 attempts to complete the homework. The aim was to practice and by using method of trial and error to learn better elements of astronomy.

During the course several Google Hangouts were organized which helped in sharing impressions of the course with organizers and thus actively assist in the further development of this form of learning.

Website also has a forum where participants could discussed about topics specifically related to the elements of the course, as well as topics in general astronomy. The course aims not only to organize lectures, but also to bring together groups of people who share similar interest and connect with each other to exchange their experiences and knowledge.

The course has achieved great success and all participants who successfully completed the course received their certificates for successfully completing the course.


5. Conclusion


In this paper we presented the application of the Internet in promoting astronomy and explained a new concept in amateur astronomy called “Astronomy from the chair” closer.

Thanks to the rapid development of the Internet a new channel for communication and tools for people to engage in amateur astronomy is created. Based on the above examples we see that the Virtual Telescope uses the Internet in the proper manner and brought the world of professional astronomy maximum closer to amateur astronomers around the world. Also, the Internet is one of the factors that connect people and the emergence of the concept helps to used more efficiently astronomy resources. It also allows more people to be involved in astronomy and actively begin to deal with it.

By using the Internet it is possible to organize online courses in Astronomy. One of these is the Introduction to Astronomy organized by Coursera organization and prof. Ronen Pleser. Modern technology has made it possible for people from all around the world to attend these courses. It allows unlimited communication with people around the world who share the same interest via forum and chat, presence at lectures, solving of specific tasks and problems, as well as the simultaneous verification of results. Internet makes it possible to efficiently master the matter, because studies have shown that the man could remember about 20% of the data if they had only heard it, 40% if they had seen and heard, and 75% if they had seen, heard, and actively used.       We hope that further development of this type of technology will improve the promotion of astronomy and ways of dealing with astronomy, but the further development of this concept will be based also on the enthusiasm and energy of the promoters of astronomy such as Gianluca Masi from Virtual Telescope and Ronen Pleser professor at Duke University who have their will for astronomy successfully transferred to thousands of other astronomers enthusiasts.



6. References


[1]  Jovanović R., Milovanović S., Upravljanje elektronskim poslovanjem, Ekonomski fakultet u Nišu, Niš, 2008

[2] Aleksić J, Tomić Z, “Popularization of Astronomy through robotic telescopes and virtual observatories, Proceedings International BELISSIMA Conference; 2012 September 18-21; Belgrade, Serbia. Belgrade: Publications of the Astronomical Observatory of Belgrade, No. 92.; 2013 p.149-152.

[3]  Tomić Z, Aleksić J, “Astronomy from the chair” – a new way of doing Astronomy over Internet, Proceedings of the XVI National Conference of Astronomers of Serbia; 2011 October 10-12; Belgrade, Serbia. Belgrade: Publications of the Astronomical Observatory of Belgrade, No. 91; 2012 p.307-313.

[4]  Virtual Telescope Project, [visited 25-June-2013]

[5] Coursera, [visited 25-June-2013]

[6]  Introduction to Astronomy course, [visited 25-June-2013]


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