Bringing more Astronomy to more people, especially young people
John Dobson, who, through his teaching of amateur telescope making and founding of the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers, brought more astronomy to more people, inspired Tzec Maun. Tzec Maun can only hope to be fractionally as successful.
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Many will wonder where the name “Tzec Maun" (pronounced “Teh-Zeck-Moan") comes from.
Tzec Maun’s sister foundation is the Maya Foundation, which is dedicated to helping children at risk across the world. It has made major donations to organizations like The Ronald McDonald House, Doctors without Borders, and Rotoplast.
One of the words used by the ancient Maya people for the planet Mercury was “Skull Owl", or “Tzec Maun" (the ancient Mayans actually mistook Mercury for 4 different planets, since it showed up as a morning and evening star at different times of the year). Tzec Maun was a jovial messenger, who was known for laughing in the face of adversity.
Given the trials many amateur astronomers face with finances, equipment, and weather, it seemed like an appropriate mascot and name for the foundation.
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Tzec Maun logo
Young people, be they elementary, high school, undergraduate, or even graduate students, all share the same challenges when they become interested in astronomy:
- Access to telescopes. For every family who can afford a telescope, many cannot. And all too often, an unused telescope will end up in a closet somewhere, even more inaccessible to someone who is genuinely interested in the field. For the undergraduate, or even graduate student, access to telescopes means access to large instruments in optimum observing conditions. In most cases, this means waiting weeks or months for a one-night slot on an instrument, subject to (of course) weather, and “priority" requests from other parties.
- Access to dark skies. As civilization expands so does light pollution. With the exception of a few states in the U.S., dark sky is not recognized as a natural resource, and the results are obvious. Anyone who lives in a city or suburb and takes a vacation in the wilderness will be the first to comment on the beauty of the night sky when far away from the lights of civilization. While this may not affect someone"s first interest in bright objects like the moon or Saturn, it will eventually affect their interest in deep sky objects such as distant galaxies and nebula. For the undergraduate or graduate student, the lack of dark skies can put a serious crimp in the kinds of research that can be conducted.
- Access to quality instruments. Anyone aspiring to any of the astronomical fields will eventually want access to instruments which are either unavailable or out of financial reach. A medium quality telescope alone will cost a few thousand dollars, and when you add the mount and other equipment, it is very easy to spend upwards of $5000 on equipment, something well beyond many peopleÕs budgets. Observers needing more serious equipment will quickly find that the price increases exponentially with aperture, exacerbated by the cost of mounts, filters, and CCD camera.
- Unless the telescope is in an observatory, it usually must be moved outside, set up, and aligned with the stars before you begin observing. This can discourage all but the most dedicated observer, and can make the experience almost inaccessible for the new student or amateur.
- Observatory time on serious astronomical instruments (1 meter and above in size) is usually gated by research on the current “glamorous" subjects. For example, today’s “glamour" studies center on extra-solar planets, supernovae, and the earliest days of the universe. Undergraduate or graduate students focusing on more mundane fields will certainly take a back seat in priority for access to serious or exotic instruments.
All this means that most people who get interested in astronomy can quickly find themselves stymied by the earthly physics (be they financial, bureaucratic, or physical) of the endeavor. Those that do stick it out may find that the dearth of instruments relegates them to a few nights a year of observing time around which to build their studies. This is unfortunate, since it has probably deprived the field of many talented minds, and limited the ability of those who do pursue it to contribute.
The Tzec Maun Foundation seeks to solve these problems in several ways:
- The application of internet astronomy to allow observers at a remote locations to control a telescope anywhere in the world : point it at an object, and take an exposure, all from the comfort of their own computer. This creates scenarios which would have otherwise been inaccessible to only but a few:
- A high school student in New York can access a telescope in New Mexico, where the Milky Way is so bright it casts shadows.
- A planetarium can hold astronomy nights where, using big-screen monitors, groups of people can select and observe objects from telescopes far away, regardless of their local light pollution or weather conditions.
- Make superior instruments available to students and educational institutions via Internet astronomy at no cost. Starting in 2005, Tzec Maun made three instruments that take most amateurs years to acquire (due to their cost and scarcity) openly available to students of all ages with no limitations beyond the popularity of the program. These instruments are based in Cloudcroft, New Mexico, which boasts some of the darkest skies and best astronomical viewing conditions in the northern hemisphere. In 2008, we added additional instruments in New Mexico and three telescopes in Australia.
- The construction of a 1-meter telescope equipped with the latest innovations in active optics and instrumentation available via Internet astronomy to students of all levels.
- Placing an Internet accessible telescope in Australia, exposing an area of the sky invisible to northern hemisphere observers.
- Engaging existing astronomers, educators, and experts to bring expertise in the areas of astronomy and imaging to people who would otherwise find them inaccessible.
- From time to time, making donations to marginally funded professional observatories to continue or enhance their operations, perhaps in exchange for time or very large professional instruments for students, undergraduates, and graduates who would otherwise find such instruments inaccessible.