by Marieke Baan

What's that bright star over there? Just an ordinary question by a Twitter follower, one might think. But it wasn't. The question was asked by a professional astronomer a couple of years ago at an astronomy conference in the Netherlands. In fact it was a planet, Saturn, visible high in the spring sky.

Although not every professional astrophysicist is so poorly informed about the night sky, this is not a unique example. Education and Public Outreach officers use the celestial phenomena that are visible to the naked eye to enthuse people about stargazing and astronomy. They want to share their passion for the wonders of the universe with the general public and - especially - kids. One can regard this as entry-level astronomy.

Since young children are sponges for information, the step to the next level (the solar system, deep space and exotic objects like black holes) is easy to make. We all benefit: the children whose insatiable hunger for knowledge is satisfied; society as a whole, because in a modern, digital society it is important that people understand how science works, and learn to discriminate between real and pseudo science; and for science itself: as we all know, astronomy is an important science attractor.

Shouldn't every professional astronomer look up so now and then, and be aware of the power of the phases of the moon, the visibility and conjunctions of the planets, the wonders of the northern lights? Yes, they should, they must and they can.

I was writing this blogpost between phone calls with TV crews wanting to report live from the observatory of the University of Amsterdam about the 20 March partial eclipse. Someone at the institute asked me: "Why all this fuss about tomorrow's solar eclipse anyway? Is this astronomy?" So especially for her: here are some upcoming 2015 night sky phenomena to start communicating, whether on Twitter, Facebook, at a birthday party or to your children’s school class.


18 July: Moon, Venus and Jupiter at the evening sky

12 August: maximum of the Perseid meteor shower

22 August: conjunction of the Moon and Saturn

13 September: partial solar eclipse, visible in South Africa and Antarctica

28 September: total eclipse of the Moon in Europe, Africa, North- and South America

9 October: Moon, Venus, Mars and Jupiter at the morning sky


Marieke Baan is a Head of Communication Netherlands Research School for Astronomy (NOVA)