Should we leave technical astronomy questions to Astronomy SE?

In 2012, when the first incarnation of Astronomy SE closed, the community at Physics SE felt compelled to give a home to astronomy questions and overwhelmingly voted to expand the scope of the site.

Not long after, however, Astronomy SE was "reopened", and is still alive and well, even if still in beta.

A degree of overlap in scope between the two sites is completely unproblematic, of course, but I believe there are questions on the more technical side of astronomy that, when there is an SE especially geared towards them, should be redirected there, to the benefit of both communities (and of the OP).

Question: Is it time to rethink that decision a bit, and make off topic here questions about technical astronomical topics such as observation and equipment?

Example: What light pollution levels are required to see the Milky Way?, which a couple of users felt didn't quite belong to Physics SE and voted to close - only to be reminded by ACuriousMind that, as it stands, the question is actually fully on topic.

I propose the answer is Yes, see my answer bellow for details.

• There may need to be a more nuanced form of this. For example, setting up an experiment to bounce lasers off the Moon is arguably a physics experiment and arguably astronomy, so it's probably on topic both places even if we remove "astronomy" here. Likewise, it wouldn't make sense if questions about how lenses in eyeglasses work are on-topic but questions about how lenses in telescopes work are off-topic. I feel like the parts of astronomy that would be off-topic are probably small, so small that it might not make sense to carve them out. But I'm interested in what the community thinks! Nov 24, 2020 at 16:09
• @tpg2114 Yes, probably these would-be off-topic questions don't come up as frequently as, say, engineering ones but, when they do come up, it would be nice to be able to close them, if the community feels so inclined. :) As for the sites' scopes somewhat overlapping (which, again, is fine) and it sometimes being difficult to tell if a given question is off-topic or not, I think that's the nature of questions of scope, they can be tricky. Nov 24, 2020 at 16:26
• @stafusa Would the example you cited be off-topic under your proposal? If so, why? If not, can you add such an example? Nov 25, 2020 at 10:26
• It should be noted too (perhaps relevant), that Astronomy SE seems to have seen an uptick in activity over the last few months. Nov 25, 2020 at 15:26
• Reopened? Wasn't it an entirely new site, with a (somewhat) different scope? Nov 25, 2020 at 22:11
• @BrianDrake Yes, I think it is (my newly-added answer has more examples). Why? Well, to me that's clearly a technical question in observational astronomy, comparable to one in engineering - of course any answer is ultimately physics, but that doesn't seem to me to be what the OP was asking for, but rather the quite factual "class 6 or 7" he got. Notice that this is a judgement call, i.e., almost a matter of opinion and, as the long-running polemic of homework-like questions show, unanimous agreement is not to be expected. Nov 25, 2020 at 22:16
• @PeterMortensen Copying from the answer I linked in the post: "Technically speaking, it is not reopened. Rather it is a new SE proposal with the same name, although it might be difficult to tell the difference in scope. So in practice: Yeah, it reopened." But I now added scare quotes to "reopened" to be more precise. Nov 25, 2020 at 22:18
• Have we considered inviting the Astronomy.SE people here to be a part of the discussion? Maybe, for instance, they want to focus on observational astronomy more than astrophysics. Maybe they have a subset of questions that they would prefer to take. Their point of view might be helpful in making our decision
– Jim
Nov 27, 2020 at 18:15
• That's a very good idea, @Jim, I'll ask Emilio Pisanty. Nov 27, 2020 at 20:59
• I just posted a message about this discussion in the main Astronomy chatroom: chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/message/56292804#56292804 That room isn't very busy, but hopefully the mods will see my message. Nov 30, 2020 at 11:43
• @RobJeffries Yes, there has been a bit of an upsurge of activity on Astronomy.SE, partly due to Let's make an attempt to answer old, unanswered questions, and a couple of new members who are answering older unanswered questions (possibly in response to that Astronomy meta post). Nov 30, 2020 at 12:01

Both of the existing answers seem to be based on a mischaracterization of how migration and off-topic closures are related, particularly with things like

I would like to see Astronomy SE added to the list of options to migrate a question to, but not to make questions like this completely off-topic here. [...] I don't think having astronomy off-topic helps users.

I would prefer to migrate them rather than say they were off-topic.

Migration from one site to another requires two things:

1. the question is likely on-topic at the target site
2. the question is off-topic where it was posted.

We can't say "all of these questions should be migrated, but they're still on-topic here". Migration is, instead, a way of saying "this question doesn't fit here, but fortunately there's a separate site that can take it". This philosophy has informed a large number of decisions thus far, and it's baked into how the closure dialog is structured (with migration as an option under off-topic).

So, what options do we have?

• We can decide to keep the status quo as it is: astronomy questions are on-topic here. Posters can be pointed to astro.se as a potential better home for their questions, but closure is not appropriate.
• Alternatively, we can decide that a subset of astronomy questions (say, questions about amateur observational astronomy) are off-topic here and should be closed as off-topic ("I'm voting to close this question because it is not about physics"), and consistently flag closed astronomy questions so that moderators can migrate them.

What we cannot do, however, is set up a direct migration pathway to astro.se, because it is still in beta. I find this faintly ridiculous, given how long astro.se has been running (and therefore how little stock is left in arguments like "it would skew their site definition), but this is how things have stood for some time and SE doesn't seem to be in a rush to update things.

So, there is definitely a good call to make a choice as a community, between the two options above (and to set the scope for the latter), but the existing proposals don't really reflect the current reality, unfortunately.

• Interesting info and given the options (short of persuading SE to let us migrate to a beta site) I think I would prefer the option of leaving things as they are. I don't like the idea of blanket bans on types of astronomy questions - there's a huge grey area and we'll just be frustrating people. Best of two not great options, IMO. Thanks for the clarification of how things work. Nov 25, 2020 at 20:32
• Emilio, in a comment in the OP, Jim proposed asking in Astronomy SE whether they'd have an opinion on the topic. I took a look there and got the impression (e.g., from this answer) that they'd think it's up to us. But I also saw you've contributed to discussions on their meta in the past so, if you also think this is a good idea, would you mind asking them there? Nov 27, 2020 at 21:03
• @stafusa My activity on their Meta is five comments on a single thread in 2016 -- I'm as qualified to take this on as you. (But I don't have the time for it.) Dec 1, 2020 at 21:53
• @stafusa More generally, astro.se does not get a say in how we set our scope. It is polite to consult them when setting up a migration convention, but what's being decided is whether amateur observational astronomy is on- or off-topic here. Dec 1, 2020 at 21:55
• I agree, @EmilioPisanty, that would be the idea. At any rate they didn't answer to a message by PM2Ring in their chat room and I'm increasingly convinced they'd not care much about what we decide here. And, BTW, what will we decide? Are the 15 upvotes for the question enough for a change? Is up to the moderators? Dec 1, 2020 at 22:33
• @stafusa I read the voting on this thread as a moderate consensus in favour of the proposal in your answer. I don't think many more votes will accumulate over the next couple of weeks. I think it would be appropriate to mark your answer as accepted to make it float to the top -- and I would suggest making it clearer that it is a policy proposal rather than an overall discussion. Dec 2, 2020 at 14:44
• I agree. I marked it as accepted now, though this doesn't bring it to the top in my viewing settings. I also edited the question to make it explicitly a proposal. Dec 2, 2020 at 14:48
• Ah, indeed, self-accepts don't float, even on meta. Dec 2, 2020 at 14:49

Thank you for your thoughtful replies.

In view of the current (3) answers and comments let me spell out my suggestion and perhaps clarify a few points first:

1. Emilio Pisanty already provided an important clarification, namely that adding Astronomy SE as a migration option isn't possible as long as the site is in beta; this is unfortunate, as it'd be my preferred option, but let's consider it out of the table, since I don't see us swaying SE on this;

2. Making the whole of astronomy off topic is of course nonsense;

3. Ban is also too strong a word - if we decide to make observational astronomy off topic here, it will still be up to the voters to decide themselves, for each post individually, where it best belongs;

4. Some examples of questions I'd personally consider migrating to Astronomy:

My two-part suggestion:

1. Make amateur observational astronomy off topic now$$^*$$.
2. Add Astronomy SE as a migration option when it becomes possible to do so.

$$^*$$ And flag moderators so that they can take care of migrating them. This shouldn't be a lot of extra work, since these questions don't really pop up all the time.

• That is, I"m essentially picking the second option of Emilio Pisanty's answer. Nov 25, 2020 at 22:54

Is it time to rethink that decision a bit, and make off topic here questions about technical astronomical topics such as observation and equipment?

I would like to see Astronomy SE added to the list of options to migrate a question to, but not to make questions like this completely off-topic here.

This allows the option to either "close" the question by moving it to Astronomy SE or to keep the question alive on Physics SE. This makes it easy to migrate the questions without needing to make a hard and fast rule about what is Astronomy SE and what is Physics SE territories.

I don't think having astronomy off-topic helps users. It will most likely arise with new users and having your question closed and being told to do it all over again on a different SE just puts off new users. Let's help them by helping ourselves easily vote to move questions to the best site.

I know in the past the argument is that this does not arise very often. OK, but it's not a huge change to implement and maybe it will be used more often if we do have the option.

I think we also need to consider that maybe sometimes answers from the Astronomy SE will be more specific and cover more than we do here. Also the rules on Astronomy SE are a little different - there is less of an issue with history related questions and homework closing is no an official reason to close on Astronomy SE. So maybe a question we won't deal with well here could fair better on Astronomy SE.

EDIT :

In view of Emilio Pisanty's very helpful post I would amend my preference to leaving the status quo. No off-topic bans for subsets of astronomy questions and we just suggest the user consider the Astronomy SE site as a better fit if we think that way.

I would still prefer we could migrate directly to Astronomy SE but as Emilio points out it is not possible as it's a beta site, we can only hope SE move it to full status and make the other option viable.

• This isn't how migration works -- see my answer for details. We can't decide to migrate questions without also making them off-topic. So let's build a consensus around a choice that's consistent with the existing system =). Nov 25, 2020 at 17:29
• Stephen, we can't migrate, but mods can, so we could close as off topic and flag the moderators to migrate it - that's the suggestion I now posted as an answer. Nov 25, 2020 at 23:44
• @stafusa I don't think we should rely on mods (or admins) when we would (ideally) have it as part of the automated site functions. The mods are busy enough as is. Nov 26, 2020 at 6:52
• Stephen, I completely agree it's not ideal, but I wouldn't worry about the moderators workload. They are busy, but not overloaded and, most importantly, there are only a handful of astronomy posts every week and small fraction of them would be off topic. Nov 26, 2020 at 15:10

Yes, I think it is. But I would prefer to migrate them rather than say they were off-topic.

I think there is a reasonably clear distinction between questions about astrophysics and questions about astronomy.

I do agree that questions about astronomy would be better to migrate to Astronomy SE.

Maybe the distinction here is to ask yourself, where would I go and look for the answer to this question - would I look on Astronomy SE or Physics SE?

For most professional astrophysicists/astronomers, they would appreciate the difference and head to the appropriate site, but if they didn't find it there then they would head to the other.

For the non-professionals and general public, the distinction is not that obvious - but they would tend to go to Astronomy SE first for anything "astro-related", and this would be especially true for astronomy questions (as opposed to astrophysics). In other words, an astronomy question asked on Physics SE, especially one which is about amateur observing or the night sky, is in danger of being lost to its likely audience.

My solution would be to migrate anything that you couldn't tag as astrophysics, cosmology or as some branch of experimental physics. And yes, I know there will be grey areas - but the question cited in this post is not an example.

• "Maybe the distinction here is to ask yourself, where would I go and look for the answer to this question - would I look on Astronomy SE or Physics SE?" Isn't this precisely the question the OP is asking about here? Nov 25, 2020 at 13:58
• @BioPhysicist and my answer is that in this case, Astronomy SE, and that the kind of person interested in the Bortle scale isn't going to look at Physics SE. Nov 25, 2020 at 14:45
• Sorry I need to be clearer. This meta post is essentially asking us to evaluate how we differentiate PSE posts from ASE posts. So saying the solution to this issue is just to ask the same question doesn't seem very helpful Nov 25, 2020 at 14:47
• @BioPhysicist Q: "Should we leave technical astronomy questions to Astronomy SE? A: Yes. The question isn't asking about the mechanism. Nov 25, 2020 at 15:20
• I'm sorry I'm just not getting my point across clearly. Oh well. Nov 25, 2020 at 15:35
• @BioPhysicist Ask a different question if you have one. Nov 25, 2020 at 15:37
• I'm not trying to ask a question. I'm trying to point out a misunderstanding you have about this meta post. Nov 25, 2020 at 15:54
• "This meta post is essentially asking us to evaluate how we differentiate PSE posts from ASE posts." It isn't me who is misunderstanding. Though your question is interesting too. @BioPhysicist Nov 25, 2020 at 16:20
• This isn't how migration works -- see my answer for details. We can't decide to migrate questions without also making them off-topic. So let's build a consensus around a choice that's consistent with the existing system =). Nov 25, 2020 at 17:29