Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Two Weekend Examples of the Growing Public Interest in Space

          by Sarah Ansari-Manea

Interest in space is on the rise in Toronto, and this weekend provided two great examples of this interest expanding out into the hearts of the general public, thanks to the University of Toronto Astronomy and Space Exploration Society (ASX), and the Toronto chapter of the Planetary Society.

Part of the audience at the 11th Annual ASX Symposium on January 24th, 2014. Photo c/o ASX.

Friday marked the 11th Annual ASX Symposium. Focused around the topic "into the cosmos," the complex and beautiful topic of cosmology was explored from the birth of our universe to all of its possible endings.

Three talented and knowledgeable physicists: Dr. Anthony Aguirre, the associate professor of physics at the University of California in Santa Cruz; Dr. Matt Dobbs, an associate professor in the Department of Physics at McGill University; and Dr. Rafael Lopez-Mobilia, a senior lecturer & associate chair in the department of physics at the University of Texas at San Antonio were brought together for the sole purpose of spreading interest in astronomy.

ASX organizers and speakers on stage at the 11th Annual ASX Symposium on January 24th, 2014. Author Sarah Ansarii-Manea is on the left. Photo c/o ASX.

The audience was showered with information, and some even walked away with prizes. These included great books by Carl Sagan and Michio Kaku, plus a brand new telescope which was contributed by the Khan Scope Centre. The turnout was more than 200 people, with many old and new faces coming together to learn about all about what lies beyond our planet.

As outlined on the ASX website, the intent of the event was to:
... educate the public on some aspects of cosmology, and encourage students and the public to get informed and involved in the exciting projects and discoveries in cosmology. In the past, the symposium has featured famous astronauts, numerous top researchers, and leaders in the space industry.
Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye, "the science guy" connects via skype with the "Opportunity Rover Ten Year Not Dead Yet Bash" in Toronto on January 25th, 2014. On the right is Kate Howells from the Canadian chapter of the Planetary Society.

The following night had a more festive and celebratory vibe as Toronto came together to celebrate the NASA Opportunity Rovers tenth year of activity on Mars at the the Opportunity Rover Ten Year Not Dead Yet Bash.

Contest winner "Bill Bot." Photo c/o author.
As an engineering accomplishment originally meant to last only 90 days, Opportunity was certainly worth a party. Guests listened to great music mixed by a live DJ, drank “ Mars cocktails,” a fiery drink that sparked a lot of interest and even learned a little bit about "How the hell Opportunity has lasted 40x longer than its 90-day warranty."

After mingling and dancing, there was even a competition to build the best cardboard and duct-taped robotic rovers. Participants, perhaps used to thinking outside the "cardboard box," ended up building rovers for both drilling and partying.

The highlight of the night, was the judging for the best cardboard creations, which was performed remotely by none other than Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye. The winning group walked away with another telescope plus personal recognition from Nye, and it proved to be a great space party.

It certainly wasn't an easy task to try and find the source of this sudden surge in space knowledge and interest, but by asking around, the culprit seems to be the sudden popularization of the crowd funded Mars One initiative.

This campaign hopes to have permanent human establishments on Mars by 2024, and has already had thousands of applicants willing to take the one-way trip to Mars. It may be that the sense of curiosity and exploration has come to a level the general public can relate to, rather than staying within the field and known only by the professionals working in it.

Partying at the "Opportunity Rover Not Quite Dead Yet Bash" on January 25th. At right are Sarah Ansari-Manea and Leeav Julius Lipton. Photo c/o author. 

It may also be due to the more frequent news regarding commercial space flight and the growing perception that space travel is no longer only for highly trained astronaut and pilots.
Sarah Ansari-Manea.

Whatever the reason, Toronto is becoming more and more excited about space and the vast unknown, which will bring new social and intellectual gatherings to look forward to.

Sarah Ansari-Manea is an aspiring astrophysicist, currently completing a specialist in physics and astronomy at the University of Toronto.

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