Astronomy Professor Sharing Space with the Public Online, at Public Observations

Stars and the Lucy probe in a black sky
One of Keel’s images of the Lucy probe (circled in green).

From the November 2021 Desktop News | Dr. William Keel loves to share his view of the sky with the world. When he’s not conducting research on far-away galaxies or teaching classes, the astronomy professor seeks out ways to gain a larger audience both online and in-person so that he can show people the universe around them.

“There’s all this amazing stuff out there that most people have never had the opportunity to find out about,” Keel said. “There is a moon of Saturn that beneath its orange clouds has lakes of natural gas the size of the Great Lakes. We now know that Mars has had a history where there were rivers and floods. There’s so much more we know now than we did even when I started teaching here.”

Since he began his tenure at UA in 1987, Keel has taken astronomy students on the roof of Gallalee Hall to observe unique phenomena in space, both naturally occurring in space and man-made tools sent out from Earth. Most recently, Keel and the UA Astronomy Club tracked NASA’s Lucy Mission, which is en route to Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids. These asteroids could date back to early solar system years, according to researchers.

Keel knew that capturing this type of machine above the earth would be a rare event, so after a viewing of the moon for National Observe the Moon Day, the team turned to Lucy’s expected path. Then, Keel used the digital features of the telescope to create a gif of Lucy moving over the night sky, which he shared via Twitter.

This isn’t the first time Keel has used the internet to share these types of images with the public. He’s been an avid Twitter user since the site began, using his flip phone to text Tweets about his observations at Moundville for all to see. Now, he regularly shares images that he’s captured on campus, and interacts with astronomers and the public regarding astronomical observations.

“It’s a big audience to do outreach with, so I communicate with a lot of people through Twitter,” Keel said. “I was involved with a project called Galaxy Zoo, which reached hundreds of thousands of people all over the world and taught them about space. It’s also been a venue to communicate with people around the space programming some of us do at Dragon Con in Atlanta every year, using our remote telescopes to do live astronomy for the attendees. I now have three research papers that originated from Twitter interactions, and it allows me to do outreach with both the public and with astronomy students that aren’t necessarily on UA’s campus.”

Although he’s an avid fan of sharing his observations through the web, Keel also holds in-person observations that allow people to foster a connection with each other through a shared experience. Through public astronomy viewing nights at Gallalee Hall and Moundville Archaeological Park, Keel gets to show people what he sees every day in his work through UA’s state-of-the-art telescopes, and attendees get to walk away with a memory to last a lifetime.

To see more of Keel’s observations, visit his Twitter profile. For more information of UA’s public viewing nights, visit UA Astronomy’s website.