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Astronomers Without Borders: Expanding Interaction and Resource Sharing To Astronomy Communities Worldwide

  • 22 September 2017
  • Expert Insights

This post is part of our new Future of Space series which interviews the leading founders and executives who are on the front lines of the industry to get a better understanding of what problems the industry is facing, what trends are taking place, and what the future looks like.

The following is an interview we recently had with Mike Simmons, President of Astronomers Without Borders.

1. What’s the history of Astronomers Without Borders? Where and how did you begin?

MS: Astronomers Without Borders is an outgrowth of my own international travels for astronomy, specifically traveling to view total solar eclipses. There is an eclipse every 18 months on average, and those who don't want to wait for one to come to their country have to travel to some interesting places for them. In 1999, the total solar eclipse took me to Iran, where I discovered a country far different than what news stories had led me to expect. Iran's populace is very young, well educated, and very pro-American, looking to the US for innovation and inspiration as most do worldwide. People-to-people interactions are always far different than those between governments. I wrote magazine articles and gave presentations about astronomy in Iran on my return, which mostly covered the people and culture, and audiences always felt differently about the country when they were presented with the realities of life for those having the same passion for astronomy. I traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan several years later, and again the local astronomy community in my home area responded to the needs of amateur astronomers who didn't have access to the tools and other resources we do. Astronomers Without Borders was born in 2007 from a desire to expand that interaction, international understanding, and resource sharing to more countries worldwide.

2. What specific problem does your organization solve? How do you solve it?

MS: The first goal was to find ways for people from very different countries and cultures to meet and learn about each other, especially those whose governments were in conflict. I've met wonderful people in all the countries I've visited, most not at all interested in the policies their governments conduct. What we do is mostly virtual, with few people able to travel halfway around the world for firsthand encounters (though that at times does result from friendships fostered online). Sharing activities, projects, and difficulties creates sympathy because they are all very much the same worldwide. Astronomy enthusiasts are looking up, often at the same objects, learning the same field, and sharing with others in every country.

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Additional programs that have been created include sharing resources, either online or in many cases physically, such as experience or small telescopes. Amateur astronomers are primarily educators, providing first-ever views through telescopes of objects most have never seen directly. That's a voyage of discovery, seeing things for the first time, both by “traveling” to new worlds and expanding one's view of what “home” means as a citizen of the cosmos traveling through space with everyone else on Earth. Newer programs include astronomy in the arts, encouraging and supporting formal education using astronomy as a gateway to other STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), and more. There are few aspects of human existence that aren't in some way touched by astronomy and its related fields.

3. What’s the future of the space industry?

Prediction #1: This is an amazing time in space exploration, an era that I'm sure will be considered historic. Government space exploration now includes more countries and more ambitious goals than ever before. I think the private space industry has an analog in the auto industry for a little more than a century ago, when cars went from luxuries to commonplace, and then became necessities. I'm sure access to space through these innovative and pioneering companies will follow a similar path, though because of energy requirements and other costs the timeline will be greatly extended.

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Prediction #2: On the ground, this is undoubtedly a time that will be considered a Golden Age of telescopes, with increasingly huge facilities being built. Physics is making similar giant steps now with gravitational wave detectors and super-colliders. New technologies have recently made this possible in a way that is, I think, as profound as Galileo first turning a crude telescope to the skies for the first time. The telescopes of today were not even part of science fiction in my youth. And the discoveries being made now, just as in Galileo's first observations, could not have been foreseen.

Prediction #3: For everyone who is interested in space, recent advances in astronomy and space exploration have greatly increased access to amazing images, from planets in our neighborhood to the most distant deep space objects. Astronomers even have whole new fields of study. A mere 25 years after the first confirmed discovery of a planet orbiting a star other than the Sun, there are now more than 3000 known expoplanets, with thousands more candidates to investigate thanks to the Kepler spacecraft. The ageless question, “Are we alone?”, is now a legitimate research field rather than just idle speculation. Future technologies, most likely space-based, will move the field forward but no one can predict if — or when — we'll find life elsewhere. Science raises big questions and drives the development of new technologies to answer them, but discoveries are rarely what's expected. Scientists, like all explorers, wouldn't have it any other way. For professionals and armchair scientists alike, there's never been a better time to be looking up.

4. What are the top 3 technology trends you’re seeing in the space sector?

MS: The nascent space industry has a long way to go before space travel becomes commonplace, but that journey has begun and won't be turned back. I can't speak to specific technologies but the availability of the necessary technologies overall has had a huge impact. The very idea of non-government space travel was science fiction until very recently, for many reasons. Just how it has come about technologically is for others in the industry to say but I have seen a huge increase in awareness of space discoveries since I began working in astronomy outreach more than 40 years ago.

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The interest, which seems to be innate in all of us, was always there but awareness and knowledge of new discoveries are far more widespread now, and it is being devoured by the public. I guess you could say that improvements in communication in the internet age have been part of what has led to a boom in space exploration because that knowledge, awareness, and interest is needed to fuel the new space industry. The products, whether looking into space or actually going there, are more in demand now than ever before, thanks to increased awareness.

5. Why is the space industry ripe for disruption?

MS: With globalization comes the realization that we're all part of the same system, and looking outward shows us that our home planet is part of a far larger system. We really are fellow citizens of what Buckminster Fuller called Spaceship Earth. Global challenges like climate change drive home the importance of our acting together as a species within a global society. Space has offered technological solutions for 60 years, with Earth-facing satellites providing critical resources for weather and climate, resource management, communications, transportation, and much more. With increased awareness in space, new technologies, and a new generation of social entrepreneurs and explorers creating space companies, all the components of a real transformation seem to be in place. Evolution of most systems takes place slowly, as the Space Age has since its earliest days, but disruptive events can change the path of evolution in unexpected ways that are really evident only in retrospect. I think this is one of those times.

About Mike Simmons

Mike Simmons has been an amateur astronomer for 40 years and loves sharing the sky with others. Mike joined the Los Angeles Astronomical Society in the early 1970s and served in many capacities including two terms as President and ten years on the Board of Directors. In 1976 he joined the staff of Griffith Observatory where he operated the Zeiss 12-inch refracting telescope for the public and described the many facets of astronomy to tens of thousands of visitors. In the early 1980s, Mike was instrumental in founding the Mount Wilson Observatory Association (MWOA), where he served as the founding President of MWOA and was on the Board of Trustees for some 20 years.

Mike's outreach efforts in astronomy broadened in 1999 when he traveled to Iran for a total solar eclipse. In Iran he found an enthusiastic astronomy community lacking the resources easily found in the West. In 2006 Mike traveled to the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, bringing observing equipment donated by American astronomers to their enthusiastic but isolated Kurdish counterparts. He has also assisted amateur astronomers and educators in many countries via the Internet. Seeing astronomy as a universal interest that transcends cultural differences, Mike founded Astronomers Without Borders in 2006. He now serves as President of this effort to unite astronomy and space enthusiasts around the world through those common interests.

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