During our school days, children in the developing and developed world could not even dream about getting a chance to look through a professional telescope; forget about playing with it for real observations! Those days, only the best professional astronomers/astrophysicists had access to such telescopic sites and networks. However one can notice that in some European countries, there are more opportunities (compared to other countries in the world) for school students to visit observatories and planetariums and thereby interact with real astronomers and look through a telescope on a good weather day/night (if one is lucky!). Armagh Observatory and Planetarium has a long standing legacy in welcoming thousands of visitors of all ages and backgrounds over the years for astronomical tours and astronomical experiences.
However for a school kid to operate a real professional telescope and undertake real observations of a celestial object, one fancies, is still an extremely rare or practically impossible occurrence in the global scene. Making this possible is where the Faulkes Project is unique and has revolutionised the concept of astronomical outreach to school pupils.
Over the years, the Faulkes Project, which comprises two separate 2-metre class telescopes (one situated in Hawaii and another in Australia, operated through Las Cumbres Observatory based in the US, with the network now expanded by Las Cumbres to include several 1-metre and 40-cm telescopes), has provided countless opportunities for Northern Irish school students through the Project’s nodal points (one being Armagh Observatory and Planetarium) to experience the wonders of our night sky and celestial objects. Many school students had their first time hands-on experience in learning from astronomers about professional astronomical observations and operating a world class telescope in both the northern and southern hemispheres of our planet. Only very few students in the world get such privileged opportunities at such a young age!
There are plenty of examples of Northern Irish school kids who have made observations of moving comets and asteroids and thereby updating their latest astronomical coordinates at the International Astronomical Union-Minor Planet Center, which is the official record keeper of solar system small bodies. This exciting experience of learning more about the cosmos and contributing towards the betterment of its understanding at such a defining age has had a significant impact in propelling them towards a life with more scientific vision and taking up STEM careers later in life.
All these life changing experiences for school kids were possible only because of the generous patronage (worth of millions of dollars in monetary value and absolutely priceless in social welfare value!) of Dr Martin Faulkes. In the present global climate of austerity and budget cuts in science and education, it is difficult to predict how long such international astronomy related outreach projects would exist.
Perhaps it is a good time for some science loving influential patrons based in Britain and Ireland to invest in such fantastic astronomical outreach projects and thereby facilitate such stellar opportunities for more and more school students every year. Spreading the magic of the cosmos to pristine young brains is perhaps the best celestial karma a human can do!!!
Article written by: Aswin Sekhar and David Asher