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Twitter Moonwatch!

Last weekend saw a truly unique event in IYA2009 as astronomers and twitters from around the UK came together online for a massive Twitter Moonwatch event.

The first image of the moon taken during the Twitter Moonwatch

Run by Newbury Astronomical Society (@NewburyAS), the Twitter Moonwatch ran from 2130 on Saturday 30 May 2009 until the small hours of Sunday morning. @NewburyAS twitterer Adrian West explains where the idea came from: "Basically the idea to host a Twitter event started on Wednesday [27th May] morning, where committee members of Newbury Astronomical Society were being interviewed by Maggie Philbin for the BBC Radio Berkshire breakfast programme. We discussed past and planned future events for IYA2009 (Star Parties etc) and emphasised our desire to do more public outreach to encourage more people to participate in and enjoy astronomy. This is where Maggie suggested that we do something on Twitter as she has had a lot of experience with it and believed that it was an ideal vehicle for us. So we decided to give it a go and do a 'Moonwatch' for the following Saturday."

Within days, the members of Newbury AS had organised telescopes and CCD cameras to allow them to live-tweet images of the Moon and Saturn - both ideally placed for observing on the clear summer evening - along with a list of astro-twitters who were ready to answer questions and direct people to interesting objects in the sky. This was like nothing Newbury AS had done before.

Saturn, one of the most popular images of the night

"Adrian West took up the challenge [to tweet the event]," said Newbury AS president Richard Fleet, "and we got our imaging expert Chris Hooker to take images throughout the night and post them online. Maggie [Philbin] rounded up some help from her end, which was just as well because there weren't enough of us to answer all the questions as well as take images."

Their first tweet announcing the Moonwatch went out the day before the Moonwatch was due to take place, and Twitter is ideally suited for such short-notice events. On Saturday evening hundreds of people followed the Newbury AS twitter feed (marked with the #moonwatch hashtag), viewed their twitpics, asked them questions and marvelled at the views of the Moon and Saturn.

The ring nebula, an added extra later in the night

Thousands of tweets bounced back and forth. "After the first picture the floodgates opened with a sea of tweets and the amount of followers started rising. My fingers never left the keyboard all night!" said Adrian West. "Chris produced a steady run of images of the moon throughout the evening and slipped in a gorgeous image of Saturn. Richard worked his magic with the camera and tweeted along with Philip Stobbart, Maggie Philbin, David Boyd (NewburyAS, BAA) and others who just wanted to join in. I was totally blown away by how big it was with hundreds of people tweeting away with the NewburyAS Moonwatch, all over the UK and overseas."

The event was a resounding success, with thousands of hits on the twitpics that were uploaded throughout the night, and something that Newbury AS will definitely be doing again!

"In a period of three days Newbury Astronomical Society with the Moonwatch reached out to hundreds of people," said Adrian West, "from something that to us at the time was nothing more than an experiment, but will now be a regular activity for the society to encourage more and more people to enjoy astronomy. It’s what we are all about."