Wondering if galaxies can travel away from us faster than the speed of light, or why there are high tides at the full moon? Or maybe what created the Universe? The answers to these and hundreds of other questions are only a mouse click away, at the Ask an Astronomer website.
Ask an Astronomer is the Cornell astronomy department's most visible and far-reaching public outreach activity. Since the site was started by Cornell graduate students in 1997, the team of volunteers has answered countless questions from curious people of all ages from all over the world. Approximately 15 graduate astronomers are currently on the team, fitting in question-answering between their own research, teaching and other responsibilities.
Members of the Ask an Astronomer team, from left to right: Cody Lamarche, Sean Marshall, Tyler Pauly, Michael Jones, Matt Hankins, Michelle Vick, Michael Lam, J.J. Zanazzi, Sam Birch, Nic Kutsop, Georgios Valogiannis, Thea Kozakis, Jack Madden, Victoria Calafut, Avani Gowardhan, and Paul Corlies. Other volunteers (not in photo): Marc Berthoud, Daisy Leung, and Amit Vishwas.
“Astronomy deals with an incredible range of scales, from single atoms to literally the entire Universe,” says volunteer Michael Jones. “It's nice to be reminded of how awe inspiring it was to appreciate these for the very first time.”
Jones says most of the questions are straightforward for him to answer, since he’s been studying physics and astronomy for almost half his life. “But what is a simple five-minute email from me can have a lasting impact on a curious child, an amateur astronomer, or someone who's pondering some big questions for the first time,” he says.
Commonly asked questions get posted to the website, which is heavily trafficked: in May, the website averaged approximately 15,000 page views, from about 10,000 different users, per day.
A few years ago, major parts of the older version of the website started to break and the Department of Astronomy provided funds for a full upgrade. The updates to the website's visual appearance and inner workings were completed in early 2015, and since then volunteers have been gradually revising and updating the text of the numerous answers hosted on the site.
Sean Marshall, a doctoral candidate in the field of astronomy, is the current manager of Ask an Astronomer. He reads every question submitted to the website, then sends them out to a team of volunteers who write the answers.
As one recent message demonstrated, the volunteers’ work is appreciated: “Thank you for what your site offered to my family,” wrote one Ask an Astronomer visitor. “It comes through on your website that you love to think, love to learn, and love to teach. What a pleasure!”