Query on astronomy for the visually impaired

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    David Arditti

    In my capacity of Director if the Equipment & Techniques Section, I receive a lot of questions from the public.

    I have received one that it is not within my knowledge or experience to answer very well, so I wonder if any colleagues on here have any good ideas about this.

    This is a question about astronomy for a visually-impaired child, but as there is a lack of detail in the query about how great the visual impairment is, it may not be not possible to answer very well.

    Subject: [Contact the BAA] Possible aids for partially-sighted children?

    My friend has a little boy who is fascinated by the concept of the solar system and would love a telescope.  Unfortunately his vision is extremely limited.  His parents are wary of encouraging his interest by buying him a telescope because he would be so disappointed if he couldn’t see anything.
    Have you any suggestions for aids they might use.  Are there any other facilities that a near-blind child might use to get a sense of the planets?
    I realise this is a real conundrum when so much of astronomy relies on sight, but I thought you would be the best people to ask.
    Thank you for your time,

    David Boyd


    There have been several articles in the CAP Journal (Communicating Astronomy with the Public) on this theme. Some of these may be useful.







    Martin Mobberley

    Hi David,

    As you say, without more detail on the severity of the visual impairment, it’s impossible to know what might work, but clearly the more light the better…so, a large aperture telescope pointed at the Moon would surely stand the greatest chance of success….Alternatively >Are there any other facilities that a near-blind child might use to get a sense of the planets?<  There is this chap, Nic Bonne at Portsmouth Uni, who may (Covid restrictions permitting) be able to offer advice…..




    David Strange

    Probably the best person to contact would be Nic Bonne who runs the Tactile Universe https://tactileuniverse.org/  Nic is a  visually impaired professional astronomer who has made a series of 3D printed tactile objects of planets, moons, galaxies etc. Last year at the NLO we ran a one day Tactile Astronomy Day for our local charity Moor Vision https://www.moorvision.org/  We were able to offer NASA braille constellation charts, lunar craters made out of plaster of paris, planets on a string to show scale of solar system and letting students feel a telescope, lens and eyepiece. It was as a rewarding experience for those helping as it was for the visually impaired.


    Roy Hughes

    It slooks like the Sky at Night will be touching on this next sunday.

    “Beyond the Visible
    The Sky at Night team discovers the new techniques being pioneered by vision-impaired astronomers to see the universe, using their senses of hearing and touch.”

    Alan Thomas

    It could also be worth contacting the RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind People) http://www.rnib.org.uk who have a lot of experience with aids for blind and partially-sighted people.

    Dr Paul Leyland

    This is going off at a bit of a tangent and might be more suitable for older people in astronomy but we should keep in mind that astronomy is much more than imaging.

    Celestial mechanics was traditionally illustrated with orreries.

    Mechanical models of solar system objects to scale (either by size or  by relative separations) are relatively straightforward to make.

    Cerenkov telescopes pick up flashes of light from individual incoming gamma rays. Modern neutrino telescopes pick up individual flashes of light too, and also have an angular resolution of a significant fraction of a radian. (Early ones were omnidirectional and were lucky to pick up one collision per day.) Throwing ping pong balls at an observer, or at a sheet held by the same, would illustrate this effect nicely. Alternatively, a number of “pings” from speakers scattered around a fixed source provides a sonic analogue.

    Spatially resolved spectroscopy measurements permit the development of three-dimensional models of external galaxies and the way in which they rotate.  C.f. solar system models.

    Astrometry from Gaia allows three-dimensional models to be made of our local stellar environment and the motions of the constituent stars.  C.f. orreries.

    I’m sure that other examples can be given with a little thought.

    David Arditti

    Thank you all for your replies. There are some useful leads there, which I will be able to distil into a (hopefully) useful reply to the original enquirer.

    Dr Paul Leyland

    Steer a (virtual) radio telescope around the sky.  Listen to whistlers from Jupiter, the repetitive pock-pock-pock from a pulsar, the loud noise from the sun and the constant faint hiss from the CMB no matter where the receiver is pointed.

    Many years ago I observed the sun with a small dish controlled from the visitor centre at Jodrell Bank.

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