Bringing the Gift of Hope to Ukrainian Kids through Astronomy

Earthlings Hub is bringing education and counseling services to orphans and refugees in Ukraine, Credit: Earthlings Hub

The war in Ukraine has taken a terrible toll, and the damage extends far from the shifting battle lines. In addition to the many soldiers and civilians who’ve died, over 2.5 million children have been displaced within the country. The war has also exacerbated the problems of orphaned children, who are especially vulnerable in urban areas where the fighting has been most intense. Ensuring these children and their families can get adequate food and medical care is always challenging. Ensuring they have access to education and counseling services so their lives are not severely interrupted is even more so.

But there’s also the need for inspiration and hope for the future, which becomes all the more important in times of war and displacement. This is the purpose of Earthlings Hub, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing astronomy and science education to refugee and orphan children in Ukraine. Founded in 2022 by members of the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science (BMSIS), Earthlings Hub is made up of scientists, teachers, and psychologists working to provide students with access to scientific research, equipment, and an inquiry-based educational program that goes beyond the standard school curriculum.

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Roman Space Telescope and SOFIA Get Their Funding Restored… Again

Artist's impression of the Nancy Grace Roman space telescope (formerly WFIRST). Credit: NASA/GSFC

In May of 2020, NASA made the decision to give the next-generation Wide Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST) a proper name. Henceforth, it would be known as the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (or Roman Space Telescope) in honor of NASA’s first Chief Astronomer and a woman’s who tireless work in the field of STEMs research led to the creation of the Hubble Space Telescope – hence her nickname, the “mother of Hubble”).

However, in recent months, the budget environment has not been too favorable to the Roman Space Telescope (RST), as well as education-related programs. But thanks to a recent bill considered by the House Appropriations Commitee, funding has been restored to five NASA science missions and projects – including the RST – that the administration’s budget proposal sought to cancel for the coming year.

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Africa’s First Mission to the Moon Announced

Africa2Moon will be Africa's foist venture into space. Credit:

Africa is home to 7 out of 10 of the world’s fastest-growing economies. It’s population is also the “youngest” in the world, with 50% of the population being 19 years old or younger. And amongst these young people are scores of innovators and entrepreneurs who are looking to bring homegrown innovation to their continent and share it with the outside world.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with the #Africa2Moon Mission, a crowdfunded campaign that aims to send a lander or orbiter to the Moon in the coming years.

Spearheaded by the Foundation for Space Development – a non-profit organization headquartered in Capetown, South Africa – the goal of this project is to fund the development of a robotic craft that will either land on or establish orbit around the Moon. Once there, it will transmit video images back to Earth, and then distribute them via the internet into classrooms all across Africa.

In so doing, the project’s founders and participants hope to help the current generation of Africans realize their own potential. Or, as it says on their website: “The #Africa2Moon Mission will inspire the youth of Africa to believe that ‘We Can Reach for the Moon’ by really reaching for the moon!”

Through their crowdfunding and a social media campaign (Twitter hashtag #Africa2Moon) they hope to raise a minimum of $150,000 for Phase I, which will consist of developing the mission concept and associated feasibility study. This mission concept will be developed collaboratively by experts assembled from African universities and industries, as well as international space experts, all under the leadership of the Mission Administrator – Professor Martinez.

The ZACube was one of several cubesats launched with the help of the South African Space Council. Credit: SA Space Council
The ZACube-1 was one of several cubesats launched under the direction of the South African Space Council. Here, an artist’s rendering of the cubesat pays homage to Nelson Mandela. Credit: SA Space Council

Martinez is a veteran when it comes to space affairs. In addition to being the convener for the space studies program at the University of Cape Town, he is also the Chairman of the South African Council for Space Affairs (the national regulatory body for space activities in South Africa). He is joined by Jonathan Weltman, the Project Administrator, who is both an aeronautical engineer and the current CEO of the Foundation for Space Development.

Phase I is planned to run from Jan to Nov 2015 and will be the starting point for Phase II of #Africa2Moon, which will be a detailed mission design. At this point, the #Africa2Moon mission planners and engineering team will determine precisely what will be needed to see it through to completion and to reach the Moon.

Beyond inspiring young minds, the program also aims to promote education in the four major fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (aka STEM). Towards this end, they have pledged to commit 25% of all the funds they raise towards STEM education through a series of #Africa2Moon workshops for educators and students. In addition, numerous public engagement activities will be mounted in partnership with other groups committed to STEM education, science awareness, and outreach.

Africa is so often thought of as a land in turmoil – a place that is perennially plagued by ethnic violence, dictators, disease, drought, and famine. This popular misconception belies very positive facts about the growing economy of world’s second-largest and second-most populous continent.

That being said, all those working on the #Africa2Moon project hope it will enable future generations of Africans to bridge the humanitarian and economic divide and end Africa’s financial dependence on the rest of the world. It is also hoped that the mission will provide a platform for one or more scientific experiments, contribute to humankind’s knowledge of the moon, and form part of Africa’s contribution to global space exploration activities.

The project’s current list of supporters include the SpaceLab at the University of Cape Town, The South African Space Association, Women in Aerospace Africa, The Cape Town Science Centre, Space Commercial Services Group, Space Advisory Company, and the Space Engineering Academy. They have also launched a seed-funding campaign drive through its partnership with the UN Foundation’s #GivingTuesday initiative.

For more information, go to the Foundation’s website, or check out the mission’s Indiegogo or CauseVox page.

Further Reading: Foundation for Space Development

Astronomy History and Future Come Together at the South Carolina State Museum

Credit South Carolina Museum

Seeking out science and astronomy in South Carolina? You’re in luck, as we’re pleased to report the South Carolina State Museum’s brand-spanking new planetarium and astronomical observatory opened to the public earlier this month. Part of a 75,000 square foot expansion project dubbed Windows to New Worlds, the renovation puts the museum on the cutting edge of STEM education and public outreach. And not only does the new expansion include one of the largest planetariums in the southeastern U.S., but it also features the only 4D theater in the state of South Carolina. The observatory, planetarium and brand new exhibits present a fascinating blend of the grandeur of astronomical history and modern technology.

Exploring the universe… Credit: South Carolina State Museum/Sean Rayford.

“What we have built represents a quantum leap forward for South Carolina in the areas of cultural tourism, recreation and especially education,” said executive director of the South Carolina State Museum Willie Calloway in a recent press release. “Our new facility is building opportunity — opportunity for students to thrive, opportunity for our economy to grow and opportunity for our guests to be entertained in new ways.”

The 12 3/8″ refractor prior to installation in the observatory. Photo by author.

We first visited the South Carolina State Museum in 2012 when plans for the planetarium and observatory were just starting to come together. The large Alvan Clark refractor now in the observatory was on display in the main museum, but much of the telescopes in the museum’s collection of antique instruments and gear were yet to be seen by the public.

A collection of eyepieces and adapters from the Robert Ariail collection. Photo by author.

We firmly believe that a telescope out under the night sky is a happy telescope, and it’s great to see the old 12 3/8” Alvan Clark refractor in action once again!

A brass solar “flip” adapter. Photo by author.

The expansion also includes a new display for the Robert Ariail collection, a fascinating assortment of astronomical instruments dating back to 1730. A highlight of the display is a 5.6-inch refractor designed by American optician and telescope maker Henry Fitz in 1849 for Erskine College. This stands as the oldest surviving American manufactured telescope known. The Robert Ariail collection is one of the largest collections of antique refracting telescopes in the world. We were amazed at the array of old solar projectors and filters, including some that we could not immediately identify.

Just how did some of those astronomers of yore observe the Sun other than projection? In some cases, they used smoked glass… but often, we learned at our behind the scenes tour at the South Carolina State museum in Columbia that they observed the Sun through an adapter filled with dark oil. No, don’t try this inconsistent and incredibly dangerous method of solar observing at home! We also noted that several of the solar filters were cracked, which no doubt occurred while they were in use.

A “solar tube”. Note the word SUN on the side and the heat baffles in the back! Photo by author.

The Planetarium: The new planetarium is known officially as the BlueCross/BlueShield of South Carolina Planetarium, and the new 55-foot diameter digital dome seats 145 and is now running shows that cover art, science, history and — of course — astronomy. Laser light shows set to a modern rock soundtrack —cue pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, sides one and two — are also planned. And don’t miss the NASA gallery in the lobby to the planetarium which features artifacts from South Carolina hometown astronauts Frank Culbertson, Ron McNair, Charles Duke and Charles Bolden.

The Robert Ariail collection on display. Credit: The South Carolina State Museum/Brett Flashnick.

The Observatory: The Boeing Astronomical Observatory is now open for business and features the aforementioned Alvan Clark 12 3/8-inch refracting telescope. Built in 1926, this grand old refractor bespeaks of a bygone era when astronomers actually looked through telescopes, pipe in hand, atop some distant windswept mountain. Squint hard, and maybe you’ll spy a canal festooned Mars… OK, maybe that’s a stretch, but it’s amazing to look through one of these grand old instruments, in person. And the observatory is the only one of its kind in the United States (and perhaps the world) that will offer modern remote access to an antique telescope to classroom students.

The observatory exterior at night. Credit: The South Carolina State Museum/Sean Rayford.

The observatory also includes a classroom, outdoor viewing terrace, and a modern state-of-the-art computer control system that those old “astronomers of yore” only wish that they’d had, especially when they had to manually crank up the mechanical counterweights on their clock drives!

Not only is the observatory open for night viewing — and just in time for the upcoming October 8th total lunar eclipse — but they’re also open to the public for daily solar observing sessions as well. And we promise they’re utilizing the very latest in solar safety technology… no overheating oil-filled filters allowed!

The 2017 total solar eclipse and the future: But there’s another reason to visit Columbia South Carolina about three years hence: the city and the South Carolina State Museum will once again be the center of astronomical action in less than three years time, when a total solar eclipse crosses the state from the northwest to the southeast on august 21st, 2017. Towns across the United States are already preparing for this celestial spectacle, and Columbia is one of the largest cities along its path. It promises to be a great show!

Don’t miss these exciting goings on in Columbia, South Carolina… the new planetarium and observatory is truly “brighter than ever” and out of this world!

Follow the South Carolina State Museum as @SCStateMuseum and the hashtags #scsm and #BrighterThanEver.