5 Reasons Why Astronomy is Popular

5 Reasons Why Astronomy is Popular

You’d think that in this digital day and age, something as decidedly analog as amateur astronomy would be going the way of CDs and Blockbuster Video. But something odd has been happening since around the turn of the Millennium: astronomy is popular. I’m not talking hipster-ironic popular, I’m talking real-life, “if it were a dude it would be the starting quarterback” popular. Alright... maybe not that popular. Probably more like “had a growth spurt and the acne finally cleared up” popular. Anyway, here are five reasons for this unexpected phenomenon.

1. The Internet is driving it

Before the Internet, if you had a question about how to start engaging in astronomical pursuits, you had three avenues to get your answers:

  • Buy a book and trudge through technical jargon, spending half your time looking words up in a dictionary and re-reading previous pages, trying to wrap your head around the difference between declinations and constellations.
  • Subscribe to Sky & Telescope, or another publication, and spend half your time reading the book from issue #1, trying to get up to speed on just what they’re talking about.
  • Talk to someone you knew who owned a telescope and could mentor you... OK, so you really only had two roads to take, because NO ONE you knew owned a telescope or knew how to use one.

In the infancy of the Internet, there were budding websites and chat rooms that you could visit for advice. Now, with high-speed access, websites, and apps, if you have any question, there’s already someone who has asked it, and has had it answered. And there’s probably a video about it. A quick Google search and you’re on your way, and entire communities of people are eager to help you get started.

2. Technology

Motorized mounts have been around for decades, but only recently has the cost come down enough to put them on entry-level ’scopes. Once the mounts were motorized, the path was paved for systems that offer computer control. These computers are self-contained, in-hand controllers with menu-driven systems to help you find out what’s what up above. As great as they are, they have their limitations.

The latest generations of these Go-To capable ’scopes replace the wired hand controller with apps for smartphones or tablets. With the app installed, the device connects to and controls the scope wirelessly, via Wi-Fi (direct Wi-Fi connection, no network required—especially useful if you’re far from civilization). What this does is replace a four- or five-line black-and-white LED screen with the full-color immersion of your device, alignment assistance, pictures of the night sky in real time and constantly updating, touchscreen Go-To, detailed explanations of what you’re looking at, guided tours, and videos, with more info and capabilities being added all the time.

3. It’s affordable

It used to be that if you were a kid and you wanted a telescope, your parents would either say that you were crazy if you thought they were going to spend a ton of money on a passing phase… or they’d get you a $29.99 special from the mall. Unfortunately, either choice was horrible for you. The cheap ’scopes were more than useless and drove you away from astronomy and into the waiting arms of video games. And the sad truth is that for many people, astronomy probably was a passing phase, and our parents were probably right in not spending the money on a good one. But—and herein lies the rub—ONLY the good ones were really capable of seeing anything. Maybe it was a passing phase, but maybe it wasn't. You'll never know, because you ended up either not getting a ’scope, or you got a bad one. Today, a decent ’scope can be had at a price that won’t make parents break out in hives, which might even have a motorized and computer-controlled mount.

4. It’s not just for astronomers anymore

Even though the space shuttles have been relegated to the equivalent of senior assisted living at museums around the country, there’s still a lot of activity going on at NASA. In fact, the hardest-working Millennial, the Hubble telescope, has given us a constant stream of incredible images since it was launched in 1990. This constant stream of pictures of the Universe has inspired people around the world to look up at the night sky and think, "I'd love to take a picture of Eternity and put it on my wall."

But, for generations, just reading the word ”astrophotography” made even the most experienced astronomer’s eye start twitching, because most people didn’t have the rigs to do it right. There were unlimited ways to thwart someone's enthusiasm: hundreds or thousands of dollars in equipment, uncountable hours of research and prep, piles of wasted film, and of course, frustration. Oh, THE FRUSTRATION! But with developments in DSLR cameras (and the availability of easy-to-use adapters), and CCTV imagers (and advancements in computers and software), just about anyone can get set up with a competent astrophotography or astro-imaging system for a reasonable price and start capturing really pleasing images, fairly quickly. The software available allows a lot of post production with the ability to matte, filter, and manipulate your images, and tweak them to perfection.

5. Finally! Nerds are cool

This really could’ve been the #1 reason, but I wanted to end big. Back in the olden days of the 20th Century, science kids were ridiculed and derided (I speak from experience). We were geeks and nerds and had to hide our astronomical aspirations for fear of retribution. But that’s changing. Being smart is cool, and now we can speak in public (figuratively, if not literally) about our favorite nebula or galaxy. We can go online and find astronomy clubs, we can find like-minded people all over the Internet to talk to, ask questions, engage in debates, and just be ourselves.

Astronomy is popular because technological advancements have made it easy and affordable, and because pop culture has finally realized that nerds and geeks can be awesome.

1 Comment

Christopher!, I just wanted to say thank you for writing this article. You hit the nail on the head there and it's just what people need to hear. Loved your humour too, couldn't help but chuckle at certain parts!

- An astromony lover