In the night of 31 of May to 1 of June the Portuguese village of Moimenta da Beira hosted the 4th Telescope Gathering, the largest gathering of telescopes in Portugal. The event, promoted by Moimenta da Beira Astronomy School Club, following the success of previous editions that started in 2009 during International Year of Astronomy, had a total record of nearly sixty telescopes from around the country, taking advantage of the uniqueness of the dark night sky and nearly ideal observational conditions. This year’s edition had the presence of three telescopes dedicated to a pioneering experience in Portugal: to have real time telescope observations for visually impaired audiences.
These telescopes (including the UNAWE’s Special Edition Scientific Explorer attributed to the project “Meet our Neighbours – a tactile experience” by NUCLIO/GTTP/Europlanet during 2013 UNAWE Workshop in Heidelberg) were connected to webcams that collected the objects being observed live on site. Then using an image editing software the images were printed in a swelling paper (a special type of paper that allows its inked areas to swell when heated) and then printed in a thermal printer. This allowed visually impaired public that attended the event to be able to perceive the objects being observed in real time alongside the other participants.
Combining these live observations through tactile images, the participants could also learn more about the constellations in the night sky though the project “A touch of the universe” tactile materials. This project was developed and supported by Astronomical Observatory of the University of Valencia and Office of Astronomy for Development that provided a tactile half-sphere with constellations, a 3D tactile moon model, constellation models to address distances and a book of the moon by American astronomer Noreen Grice.
Participants with visual impairments were guided by outreach experts in order to fully understand the observed object and thus having the same full experience that all other participants were having on site.
The main goal was successfully achieved: as to showcase the possibility to involve visually impaired audiences in purely observational and sight based experiences, otherwise vetted to blind or visually impaired audiences promoting an environment of collaboration and exchange of resources feely accessible to all. This activity envisioned a significant contribution towards the adoption of inclusive approaches where local institutions engage in collaborative settings with renowned international astronomy projects, engaging in the exploration of content knowledge and use of tactile material and digital tools that can help understanding astronomy topics deemed, at first, unreachable to audiences with visual impairments.
This was an activity that involved the efforts of several Portuguese education and astronomy outreach institutions such as NUCLIO – Núcleo interativo de Astronomia, Moimenta da Beira Astronomy School Club and Espinho Planetarium, using the collaborative efforts of international organizations such as Galileo Teacher Training Program, Universe Awareness and Astronomical Observatory of the University of Valencia.