Astronomers Without Borders Helps Open the Universe

By on December 3, 2012 in

Date: December 3rd, 2012

Title: Astronomers Without Borders Helps Open the Universe

Podcaster: April Jubett, Kimberly Arcand, Amelia Ortiz-Gil

Organization: Astronomers Without Borders

Links:GAM Programs for People with Disabilities
The Sky in Your Hands
Resources for People With Disabilities

Description: AWB has recently started a program to compile resources for educators and anyone who communicates astronomy with the physical and cognitive disabled public. To this purpose, AWB has gathered a group of experts in the field: Kimberly Kowal Arcand, Ido Bareket, Pere Blay, Frank Busutil, Lina Canas, Regis Courtin, Beatriz Garcia, Noreen Grice, Gloria María Isidro, Mariana Lanzara, Silvia Martínez Núñez, Sebastian Musso, Carmen Pantoja, and Dominique Proust.

The group has been coordinated by Peggy Walker and Amelia Ortiz-Gil, with the help of Thilina Heenatigala and Mike Simmons.

The production and narration of this podcast has been made by NASA/CXC/A.Hobart, K.Arcand et al.

If you are interested in the program and want to contribute, collaborate or obtain more information, please contact us at

Bio: April Jubett creates animations and videos to help explain the Chandra X-ray Observatory’s discoveries in a visual way. Her work shows up most frequently as podcasts and short animations on the Chandra website at

Kimberly Arcand has been a member of the Chandra Education & Public Outreach group since 1998. As the Media Production Coordinator, Kim’s role includes oversight of a range of science outreach products and activities, including imaging and astronomical visualization, multimedia and print product development, exhibition creation and coordination, and development of museum/planetarium and broadcast products.

Amelia Ortiz-Gil is an astronomer at the Astronomical Observatory of the University of Valencia (Spain). She is an astronomy communicator and has been developing resources for disabled audiences. She coordinated the Working Group on Activities for the Disabled of the Spanish International Year of Astronomy 2009 node, and she is now co-coordinating the AWB program together with Peggy Walker.

Today’s Sponsor:  “This episode of 365 days of astronomy was sponsored by Clear Skies Observing Guides, a Modern Day Celestial Handbook. ..Clear skies observing guides, or CSOG, is a new concept in visual amateur astronomy. The observing guides contain thousands of objects to observe through amateur telescopes, with matching tours for GOTO telescopes and matching AstroPlanner plan-files. CSOG allows you to target deep-sky objects and carbon stars you never observed before, night after night. Wishing astronomers around the world: Clear skies..! ”



Astronomy is considered by many to be one of the most visual of the sciences. Many people have some experience with visually processing and reacting to astronomical information, beginning with gazing at the night sky.

Today, however, astronomy and astrophysics extend far beyond what is detectable with the human eye.  Researchers explore the Universe through a modern “tool kit” of telescopes in space and observatories on the ground.  These telescopes look at many different types of light — from high-energy X-rays and gamma rays to low-energy microwaves and radio waves.  Without these other types of light, we would know much less about some of the most exciting discoveries in astronomy including black holes, planets around other stars, how galaxies grow, and even the Big Bang.

So astronomy is both a science that can be experienced visually, but also one that has to be learned through means that are inherently invisible to us without technology.  Because of this, modern astronomy is a great subject to share with both the sighted and the non-sighted communities.  In other words, astronomy can capitalize on how the Universe is studied in non-visual ways to help general public audiences with different abilities engage in and interpret the wondrous discoveries of the cosmos.

Over the past several years, amateur and professional astronomers around the world have been tearing down the borders in the area of people with disabilities.  Many planetariums, astronomy organizations and individuals have focused on solutions for making star parties, hands-on activities and presentations accessible to people who have visual, hearing, mobility or cognitive disabilities.

Astronomers Without Borders, known by its initials of AWB, has contacted many of these creative people for the purpose of helping educate others as to the various disabilities and the best ways to relate astronomy concepts to them.  With the help of authors and successful organizations, AWB has compiled resources for educators and anyone who communicates astronomy with the public.

In fact, the final goal is to reach as many people as possible, developing activities with a high degree of global accessibility. This is informal education, so you don’t necessarily know what kind of disability you’ll need to address. Therefore, the best strategy to follow in developing activities or materials is the so-called Universal Design of Learning.

The Universal Design of Learning is a set of principles that provides a framework in which the materials and activities work for everyone through flexible approaches.

A nice example of this is the interactive talk “The life of stars”. The goal is to explain, with an easy to understand language, the life cycle of the stars to people with cognitive impairments. There are different levels of cognitive disability and therefore it is very important to do some preparation work, talking with the educators of the group to adapt the talk to the intellectual level of the group.

And it is designed in a way that young children can enjoy and understand the talk too.

The talk takes the public to a journey through the life of two stars, one Sun-like star and one supergiant star. Both stars are born in the same nebula, together with other hundreds of stars that form a star cluster. But they evolve very differently. By the end of their lives, the solar-type star will become a white dwarf, the super-giant one will turn into a neutron star after a supernova explosion.

This is in fact an interactive activity where the public takes part in the activity in different ways. They are invited to draw their ideas about the life of the stars after having listened to the first part of the talk. They observe the Sun projected onto a screen with the help of a telescope. And they always ask fascinating questions about the story of these two stars at the end of the talk.

Projecting astronomical images onto a screen is always a good idea during star parties, for example. Many people with motor disabilities find it impossible to look through the telescope’s eyepiece. Therefore, a big nice screen is a good solution for them, and also for those with some vision left if the images are high contrast. And everybody else at the star party can enjoy this big and beautiful view of celestial objects. The only thing to take into account is that the screen should be put as far away from the telescopes as possible to avoid unwanted light going into the telescopes or annoying naked eye observers.

During Global Astronomy Month in 2011, AWB broadcast astronomical observations live specifically designed for blind people. The Deep Space Live Web Cast was a virtual journey through a telescope with musical representation (called “sonification”) for the sight-impaired, turning light into sound and providing live explanations, in a private journey through space and time. Live images seen included objects such as nebulae, galaxies, asteroids, distant quasars, extrasolar planets and more.

During the International Year of Astronomy 2009, a planetarium show for the blind was premiered called “The Sky in Your Hands”. It is a journey through the stars to visit different regions of the sky with famous constellations and objects. Each of them has a particular sound associated to it in the program’s soundtrack. The soundtrack is composed of five different channels for the music, and two channels for the narrators, that can be fed into the multiple speaker system of the planetarium.

The projection of the night sky on the dome is scheduled so that when the narrator is talking about a particular constellation, the sound associated to it is heard coming mainly from the speaker closest to the place where it is being projected, thus giving information to the public about the relative positions of the objects in the “sky” above them.

Obviously, in this way we were only telling people about the position, but what do the constellations look like? To help with this, we developed a hemisphere made of fiberglass, with different kinds of engravings. Bumps represent stars, and they come in two different sizes, according to the star brightness. The continuous lines draw the shapes of the constellations, and the dashed lines guide the way from one constellation or object to the next, according to the show’s script.

The show has been presented twice already to great success: first, at the Hemisferic in Valencia, Spain and also at the Planetarium of Espinho in Portugal). The public was really excited about the experience. Some were deeply moved because they had never before been able to understand what were other people talking about when speaking about constellations, and they finally understood it.  Others remembered that they had been able to see the stars long ago and the show brought back sweet memories.

To do more along these lines, a three-dimensional tactile model of the Moon has also been developed. This model of the Moon aims to convey what people see when they look at the Moon in a tactile way. It is not a mere topographical representation: for example, the crater rays are in relief although they have no relevant height in reality. The crater rays are very bright, however, and as one of the main visible characteristics of craters it was important to include a tactile component for them.

The original map of the whole Moon compiled by NASA’s Clementine mission was used for this project. The original was greatly smoothed out in order to clarify features and avoid confusion to the users. Therefore, a number of Moon features had to be selected and then enhanced. The Moon is in an easy to share computer format (a 3D printing format) to make the model available worldwide.

Because this is a very new field of research, we are still in the process of testing and inventing new resources all the time.

That is also the case in France, where some researchers are developing a whole sign language for astronomical terms.

The motto of the IYA2009 was “The Universe for You to Discover”. But no one can discover it alone. Everyone needs to be helped, talked, showed, to discover the Universe.  The Universe is humanity’s common heritage, so every human has the right to know about it and enjoy it. To feel that sense of wonder that floods us under the starry night sky.

With this new AWB program we aim to improve the opportunities for the disabled community to become more involved in astronomy. Because “Without Borders” is not only about political borders between countries, but also about personal abilities.

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
The 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast is produced by the New Media Working Group of the International Year of Astronomy 2009. Audio post-production by Preston Gibson. Bandwidth donated by and wizzard media. Web design by Clockwork Active Media Systems. You may reproduce and distribute this audio for non-commercial purposes. Please consider supporting the podcast with a few dollars (or Euros!). Visit us on the web at or email us at Until tomorrow…goodbye.

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