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From Mike Haynes

Chairman,  Clacton and District Astronomical Association

5th June 2020

For several years I have been running a U3A astronomy group from my house. It comprises an hour talk from me on a specific topic followed by coffee and chat. Latterly it has been tricky to find new topics so with the group’s agreement I have been putting together a few slides on each of half a dozen or so astronomy news items from the online news outlets, such as Astronomy Now, Sky and Telescope and Phys.org.  After the lockdown someone in the group suggested using videoconferencing software such as Zoom to run virtual meetings. In the end I chose Jitsi for the simple reason that it was free and for laptop/PC users does not require any software to be downloaded apart from Chrome which most of us have anyway. Tablet/smartphone users require a very simple download of the Jitsi app. The first meeting was very successful so my club, the Clacton and District Astronomical Association agreed that we should try it out for our monthly club nights.

We are a small club, with 30 regular members, based on the north east coast of Essex. Because of our relative isolation we are only able to call on two or three external speakers a year, so most of our monthly talks are given my members themselves

After a few minor teething problems, the new scheme has been a success with around 12-15 members joining each session. One member has even asked if we can use this even after lockdown ends so that he can avoid a 25 mile round trip to club meetings on winter nights!

So far, I am the only person doing the talks, but since I prepare them anyway for my U3A group this is not a burden.  In the next couple of months I will share the work with other members who were scheduled to give talks themselves.  This will enable us to cover for external guest speakers whose talks have been cancelled due to the lockdown.

Clearly the social interaction aspect of the meetings, both U3A and club are a great loss, especially to some members, but we are at least giving some of our them their monthly astronomy fix. Personally, I believe this has been a resounding success, setting up a Jitsi meeting literally takes seconds, and sharing one’s slide show requires one mouse click.  Although I currently give all the talks, anyone with a computer can set up a meeting.  The one thing you quickly learn is that online discussion between members needs a verbal version of social distancing otherwise it can sound like talking to a bunch of 10-year-olds in school.

Finally, one indirect benefit of these virtual meetings, especially for my U3A group is the reduction in car usage of around 600 miles a month  – fewer miles means less pollution and green house emissions.

If anyone has any questions about how this works you can contact me at mike.haynes1@btinternet.com

Derek Farmer

Secretary, York Astronomical Society

5th June 2020

We suspended our meeting and outreach programme as soon as required to do so.  During May we have started a programme of Zoom meetings.  These online meetings follow our ‘normal’ format where we have society notices, we have started a “members recommend” section where we share tips on what to see such as solar and lunar transits of ISS, books, websites, software etc.  The topics we have covered so far in our talks have been an introduction to Astrophotography in 2 parts, tours of member observatories, Aboriginal astronomy and the Australian Space program and a talk about an online course being followed one of our members.  We now seem to end the meeting in our virtual pub .. j

We are going to try and introduce some guest speakers over the coming months.  We ask that those who are able to contribute make a donation either by BACS or via our JustGiving page.
The meetings have so far been open only to members and subscribers to an infrequent newsletter.  We are going to try presenting as a webinar and will publicise them via our social media channels. We may also do some ‘Live’ broadcasts either from our observatory or members own homes.

We have discussed the problem of physical meetings in a socially distanced world, and the stringent sanitisation requirements of such meetings in a relatively small and poorly ventilated room (our usual venue).  We have also considered the outreach scenario and star party format where close contact with equipment in the dark and sanitisation requirements.  We have concluded that with the demographics of our membership, physical meetings for the remainder of the year are unlikely. We would of course rapidly review this should things change.

We would certainly be interested in what other societies are either doing or plan to do.