A Guide to Live-Streaming Astronomy Events
Claudia Mignone (INAF), Anne Buckle and Graham Jones (timeanddate.com) and Helen Usher (Open University) share tips for a new era of astronomy live-streaming.
Read article in the fully formatted PDF of the Europlanet Magazine.
n normal times, we carry on with our busy lives, mostly oblivious to the beauty of the night sky and the dance of stars and planets unfolding above our heads.
But in 2020, a dangerous virus was spreading rapidly around the world, leaving most people with no choice but to shelter at home. In those scary and emotional weeks at the start of the Covid pandemic, people started taking more notice of the celestial bodies and their regular motions across the heavens.
From our windows, terraces, and any available peepholes, we watched the Moon, gazed at the starry sky, and searched for the International Space Station zipping overhead. Even a great comet, C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE), made an appearance to encourage us to cast our eyes upwards.
With people more engaged with heavenly phenomena than usual and public observatories closed to visitors for months – or even years – astronomers rose to the challenge. Our community harnessed the power of the Internet and we entered a new era of astronomy live-streaming.
There had already been some experimentation with this format but, in 2020, interest accelerated. A growing number of professional and amateur groups around the world became involved with live-streaming astronomical events to the general public.
As the pandemic slowly evolved into the “new normal”, work did not stop. The livestream format has been revamped to engage people, spread across different regions and countries, with the wonders of the Universe. It has provided new ways of connecting with parts of society facing barriers to participation in astronomy, such as people who may be reluctant or unable to participate in late-night astronomy events in remote areas.
How has the public reacted to this bounty of astronomy coming straight to their preferred digital device? Will the hype continue? How can astronomers and content-creators keep producing these live-streamed events sustainably?
Based on our own experiences streaming astronomical events for timeanddate.com, Europlanet and the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF), we wanted to discuss some of these questions. We convened a session at the Europlanet Science Congress (EPSC) 2022 in Granada, Spain, on 19 September 2022. This session sparked a conversation that continued, during a follow-up workshop on Zoom on 23 November, to engage with an even larger and more widely spread group from Australia, Canada, Chile, Germany, Greece, Italy, Norway, Spain, Turkey, the UK and the US.
Here, we share some of the main learning points from these discussions:
Should I stream or should I not?
Many agree that astronomical events – comet appearances, lunar or solar eclipses, conjunctions or alignments – are definitely worth live-streaming if the media is talking about them. The rarer an event, the more powerful the media hook. However, some “evergreen events” can work well for every season, like the (in)famous “SuperMoon”. Once an audience is engaged with an event, then this hook can be used to talk about the underlying science or the behind-the-scenes work of astronomers. Topics in the school curriculum can be used to engage students and educators, even if the event is in the middle of the night (teachers can show recordings at school on the following day).
Connecting live observations to science offers multiple possibilities. Lunar eclipses, for example, work as a proxy to talk about exoplanets: astronomers sometimes do spectroscopic observations during the totality phase of an eclipse, since the Moon is illuminated by sunlight that has been filtered by Earth’s atmosphere. Using these observations to look for biomarkers in the spectrum can work as a benchmark to explain transit spectroscopy of exoplanets.
Are we reaching our audience?
The measurement of engagement, retention, and impact of a live-stream depends on the audience. Some teams have big audiences – for example timeanddate.com or NASA – while others have a more accessible, local audience. Language also matters: events streamed in global languages can reach across the planet, but deeper engagement works best in the local languages, especially when trying to engage schools or informal audiences. The better an audience is known and understood, the easier it can be retained – bigger audiences tend to lead to quantitative results, smaller ones to qualitative results. A combination of both these outcomes is the ideal. Some of the methods used to maximise engagement and retention are:
- social media chats before, during and after the event;
- live updates, e.g. via a blog;
- calls to action, e.g. asking people to upload images via Flickr and other online platforms;
- building an email database and using newsletter services to reach people (e.g. Mailchimp);
- providing simultaneous translation to reach all audiences.
Methods for measurement can range from media mentions to likes, shares, reactions and comments on social media, or from surveys to audience-retention analytical data on YouTube.
From live-streaming to in-person stargazing
Balancing large audiences with engaging content is not a trivial challenge. Interactivity can enhance impact and can lead to potential further engagement, though it is not fully clear how to implement this in live-streamed events. Sometimes the need arises to manage expectations about what can be actually seen during the event. In this case, having an experienced presenter can give viewers a more personal exploration and help interpret what is being observed. From experience and feedback, it appears that providing context is a key element for the audience: adding background information about what they are seeing, why it is important, and the underlying science.
The pandemic triggered renewed interest in the night sky, drawing large audiences towards live online events. However, nothing beats the experience of peering through a telescope eyepiece for the first time! People should always be encouraged to enjoy and understand the real sky above them, especially during special events. Why watch an eclipse online when you can go outside and see it in the sky? Nonetheless, in many cases – and not just during a pandemic – an in-person visit to a local observatory is simply not possible, so live-streaming can open up new public engagement opportunities across space and time. Hybrid viewing can also work well: setting up screens to show live views (via Electronically Assisted Astronomy), alongside telescope viewing, has proved helpful in managing queues and keeping up the interest during public events.
Building a network for live astronomy events
When inviting people to watch the sky, it is helpful to prepare and provide supporting materials, e.g. star maps. Online events should include a call to action, such as encouraging viewers to find their local astronomy club or visit an observatory. Our experiences highlight how crucial it is to build local as well as national and international collaborations, linking with local astronomy societies and national federations. A live calendar of astronomical events can be a helpful tool to remind people about upcoming highlights and encourage them to go outside and stargaze.
Leveraging a network of enthusiastic people to share their telescopes also has a great potential for public engagement. Experienced astronomy live-streamers could support the growth of such a network with:
- a forum to answer questions;
- a calendar of events, to make the most of opportunities (such as conjunctions, space-era anniversaries, or a Messier-object marathon);
- a set of best practices, e.g. avoiding full Moon nights (unless the Moon itself is the focus), managing audience expectations and setting clear outcomes for the event.
The discussion held at EPSC2022 in Granada and the follow-up Zoom session highlighted the need for an online platform to strengthen the network, share materials and host conversations to support the live-streaming of astronomy events worldwide. A sustainable home for this collaboration has been identified with Astronomy Without Borders (AWB), which has built infrastructure to manage active outreach through a worldwide network of formal and informal educators. In March 2023, the Astronomy Live-Streaming community was set up on the AWB platform. It is slowly growing, with an official launch in April on the occasion of the Global Astronomy Month. The first step to join is to go to astronomerswithoutborders.org and click “Become a Member”, where you can add yourself to the “Astronomy Live-Streaming” community. You are also welcome to email us with any questions: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, or helen. email@example.com.
Find out more: ‘Don’t panic: A Guide to Live Streaming Events’, Jones and Buckle, EAS 2023.