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(Apologies in advance if I seem to wander in this post. I'm having a multitude of thoughts and I'm not quite sure how t organize them)

Ever since I've joined, I've been a bit uneasy about this site. Mainly, I couldn't exactly see what niche it filled.

Firstly, the site was already a strict subset of Physics. Scope-wise:

enter link description here

Which is not a complete disaster, because the audiences may not match. However, audience wise:

enter link description here

From day one, I kept feeling like I was on Space.SE. The audience felt the same, the users were the same, and since both sites were on the beta theme, I couldn't tell them apart. At all. I still get confused as to which site I've seen a particular question on.

This actually partially answers the question about the niche it has to fill. Astro.SE seems to fill the niche of an enthusiast astronomy site pretty well. This was part of the initial motivation for creating the site.

But the site can't just be an enthusiast site. SE sites traditionally are geared towards expert questions, and we need those too.

Which makes me question where this site stands, again. ChrisWhite (an astrophysics grad student and Physics.SE high rep) managed to put some of my uneasiness into words:

i would join if it were just amateur astronomy and such (maybe a place for purchase recommendations like photography.SE)

but I don't condone their "and astrophysics" bit

that's the problem - the fact that the amateurs who wanted it were afraid to ask astrophysics questions here means they don't want the kind of answer i'd give

The site was started with the intention of having a place for astronomy away from Physics.SE. This starts conflicting with the expert portion of the site.

One major issue is that if the site goes public, are we going to have enough expert questions? Physics already has quite a few astronomy/astrophysics experts and most questions asked there get answered beautifully. If someone wants an expert answer, why would they not just ask there? While we can seed the site with expert questions right now, that is not sustainable.

One idea that comes to mind is to merge this (both content wise and scope wise) with Space Exploration, creating a site about Space in general. The communities are already very much alike, and I don't think that the scope merge will be a big issue. With Space Exploration, this site has a much better chance of survival.

Any thoughts on the matter (in general, not just merging with Space)? What exactly is the purpose of this site?

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    $\begingroup$ What I have seen is that in the time that Astronomy was waiting to get reapproved Space Exploration expanded in scope to include a lot of material that folks on Astronomy are interested in asking about. There are still several different questions, but unless they increase in volume I'm afraid they can't sustain the site by themselves. $\endgroup$ – called2voyage Oct 2 '13 at 20:14
  • $\begingroup$ This seems a lot like the EE vs Arduino issue. I agree with Jon's take on this. $\endgroup$ – asheeshr Oct 6 '13 at 13:07
  • $\begingroup$ @AsheeshR I agree, that's where a lot of my thoughts on this are coming from. The difference is that there's a lot of duplication with two sites in a different way. Also, Physics is not deriding of basic questions unlike EE, at least on the main site. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Oct 6 '13 at 13:38
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Thank you for the Venn diagrams. They are interesting and on point. To the extent they mesh with observed reality, they represent a critical flaw in the current makeup of this site. A site may very well overlap completely in scope with another site. (Case in point: Ask Ubuntu and Unix & Linux.) Or a site may share an audience. (Too many examples to list.) But if a site overlaps in scope and audience, it's hard to determine how it will sustain itself.

However, the example questions that defined the proposal fail to be a proper subset of Physics. I see some overlap with Physics, a little with Space, and a tiny bit with Photography. The bulk of the questions fill a gap between these topics. The proposed site seemed to be directed toward an audience that reads Sky & Telescope, Astronomy Magazine, Discover Magazine, and the Science & Astronomy section of Space.com. Yes, such a site would overlap with several sites in both audience and subject matter. But it would be a clear niche.

The Astronomy beta was ill-timed since it followed so closely on the heels of Space Exploration's launch. It should not be a surprise that those sites share so many users. It also is not a surprise that Physics users have taken an interest in a site that, in the eyes of many, carved out a chunk of that site's topic. I don't think this site needs to be built for the sorts of experts who are paid to do research. I think the Sky & Telescope crowd are interested in a technical site, but not necessarily an academic one.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is actually motivating - essentially, this site fills a niche for the not-quite-professional professional - the backyard astronomer? Did I read that correctly? $\endgroup$ – user8 Oct 5 '13 at 6:31
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    $\begingroup$ @UV-D: That's how I read the example questions on Area 51. $\endgroup$ – Jon Ericson Oct 5 '13 at 6:44
  • $\begingroup$ Actually, all the questions there are on topic for Phy, by design. Physics expanded its scope to Physics&Astronomy so that the old Astro community could move in without any problems. This includes astrophotography (though the astrophotography questions from the site were migrated to Photography). But I see your point here, this makes me less uneasy about this site :) $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Oct 5 '13 at 19:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Manishearth, Jon So do you mean that if it reshapes to Sky & Telescope, it could be more successful? Because there is audience that interested in those, but not Physics and Space in general. $\endgroup$ – unsym Oct 6 '13 at 21:41
  • $\begingroup$ I once thought about asking some rather theoretical cosmology stuff here (when I committed), but something always held me back and now I see that the scope of the audience is settling down to something like Sky & Telescope for enthusiasts indeed, which would make such questions as I had in mind look blatantly off the mark... I did not careful enough take into account what the scope and targeeded audience of this site will be, which was my bad of course. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Oct 7 '13 at 9:19
  • $\begingroup$ @hwlau Not exactly, because that seems to me to be too narrow to be sustainable. Also, with that proposal the venn diagrams above still apply. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Oct 7 '13 at 10:06
  • $\begingroup$ @Dilaton Nah, those would have been great. We have some experts in those areas as well (eg astromax, I think), who can answer them. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Oct 7 '13 at 10:07
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    $\begingroup$ @Dilaton Hi, you are still around here. The scope seems changed after the definition phrase, if you read those sample questions there, you can find the different. The people participate is different from the original one. $\endgroup$ – unsym Oct 7 '13 at 19:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Manishearth It might still be sustainable. There are many stars out there, there are many backyard technique to share. But the problem is that the people here seems thinking Astronomy, which study far away stars, is the same as Space which study near Earth objects. Therefore the scope overlap is that serious. $\endgroup$ – unsym Oct 7 '13 at 19:32
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    $\begingroup$ I'm just coming across this now, but I would point out that while the example questions are not a strict subset of Physics, they're pretty close. By my count, of the 68 which are not negatively voted, at least 57 would be on topic on Physics, including 37 of 40 with score at least 10. That's a pretty significant overlap. $\endgroup$ – David Z Oct 11 '13 at 20:08
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidZ: I didn't count up the questions (and to be honest, I don't know the scope of Physics very well). It's more the vibe of the questions as I read them. Now it could be that the way I read the questions was influenced by the type of site I would like to participate on myself. But in any case, Astronomy needs to find it's own niche, if not in subject then in audience. (And thank you for the input. I'll take another look at the definition phase.) $\endgroup$ – Jon Ericson Oct 11 '13 at 20:29
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A couple of concerns I have related to this site are:

  • The uncertainty as to its future is actually a pretty severe demotivator. despite understanding that more than likely, the posts from here would be migrated to either Physics or Space (or a mix), and they would probably be quite well received, generally. (I am a member of both now).

  • We have a limited audience to which to test how strong the posts are in a private beta, the true litmus test would be if/when we go public.

Looking at the front page just as an example - as this is the first thing that would be seen by any visitor - we do have quite a number of interesting and thought provoking questions - many are either not-so-easily google-able, and some of the ones that are, turn out to have answers that are not as straight forward as one might think (e.g. "Which is the nearest exoplanet?").

Also, I am not sure about this, but many seem to be missing the fact that our knowledge in astronomy is changing with new discoveries, so what may seem mundane (and 'google-able') now may be the focus of answers about something new.

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    $\begingroup$ The first bit, however, is a possible issue with the SE system itself, not this particular site. I've been part of many successful private betas (Chemistry, Robotics, Space Exploration), and an unsuccessful one too (Arduino). I find it pretty well suited for finding out if a site will succeed. They don't expect us to reach a very high level of activity (because there are very few folks who have access), but they want to see good quality as that's what entices the experts. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Oct 4 '13 at 12:04
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    $\begingroup$ Since the people with access to the site are the ones who wanted it in the first place, this also makes sure that there are experts who want the site. This is even more important for subset sites; where experts already have other places to go. (Re: your last paragraph) That can be said for almost any site, unfortunately :/ $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Oct 4 '13 at 12:04

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