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Chelsea Cook holds the title of solution engineer in the state of Colorado’s Office of Information Technology. Now living in Denver, she’s worked on the state’s accessible website for the blind and visually impaired. Soon, she will be a liaison to the state’s various departments as they develop their own accessible websites. Chelsea said Colorado is committed to making all of its websites totally accessible to deaf, blind, and visually impaired users by 2024.

For two weeks in July and August, Chelsea has been a solution engineer for GLAS Education, working with GLAS staffers Zach Meredith and Olivia Smithmier to write the science background that is part of GLAS’s plug plate project. The project will be presented at the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium Conference in Waukesha on August 12th. The sonification project, started three years ago, was funded by a grant from the consortium. Chelsea is expected to give the project presentation at the conference.

A Virginia native, Chelsea has degrees in physics and math from the Virginia Technical Institute. Chelsea has done some work for the National Federation of the Blind. Yes, she’s blind, but that’s not important. What is important is that she has a passion for the universe and the possibilities of space travel. She gave a riveting Ted Talk presentation about her discovery of other worlds and stars at the age of 10. What we see in astronomical photographs is often beyond what human eyes can see. They are artificially colored to convey unseen concepts in invisible ultraviolet or infrared light. “We must build our instruments to be our eyes,” Chelsea said.

Her introduction to the universe was through author Noreen Grice who publishes books for people who read with their fingertips filled with tactile telescope images of stars, planets, and galaxies. She was also inspired by Kent Cullers, a blind radio astronomer, who uses his ears to explore the cosmos, and by Jimmy Neutron, a 10-year-old cartoon genius who built starships in his backyard to visit other galaxies. Chelsea said that as a 10-year-old, she followed Jimmy on his television adventures, building starships in her imagination. As she grew up, her passion for science and space travel grew as well. In high school, she turned to Discovery Channel’s documentaries about black holes and dark matter and she surfed the NASA website. She attended NASA youth workshops and went to Saturday morning lectures about Mars, impact craters, and the basic characteristics of flight.  

Kate Meredith, GLAS education director and a champion of data accessibility for persons of all abilities, knew of Chelsea’s work through the Astronify Project of the Space Telescope Science Institute. Kate said she made contact with Chelsea by email in 2020, but COVID raised its ugly head and progress stopped for a while. However, the invitation was open, and this year, Chelsea took vacation time to leave Denver and visit Williams Bay for two weeks. She is assisting GLAS with its plug plate project.

The plug plate project is intended to introduce and explain visual astronomy to people who cannot detect the photonic energy generated by interstellar and intergalactic objects. And that’s not just blind people. Sighted people who live in areas with a high degree of light pollution may also have limited knowledge of the night sky. The circular plate has a diameter of about three feet. Twenty holes in the plate correspond to the locations of stars, planets, and quasars. The holes in the plate are connected to tabs. When a user pulls the tab, a tone sounds. The lower the tone, the farther the object is from the Earth. What’s more, the traveling exhibit will explain redshift and blueshift. Most distant astronomical objects are moving away from our Milky Way Galaxy. The farther the object, the faster it is moving away. The light waves from these objects are “stretched,” shifting the visible light into the red and infrared spectrums. A few objects, such as the Andromeda Galaxy, are moving toward us, and the light waves from this galaxy appear to be “compressed” toward the violet and ultraviolet spectra. Explaining these concepts will involve supporting exhibits.

In addition to working on the plug plate, Chelsea said she enjoyed her hands-on experiences with other GLAS visualization projects, including the tactile galaxy cards, a game with 3D representations of galaxies and their classifications and data in print and braille. GLAS has also created 3D prints of images taken by the Hubble and James Webb space telescopes. Chelsea’s favorite is the image of a cluster of galaxies called the Stevens Quintet. “Its name sounds like a musical group,” she said. “Never stop exploring,” Chelsea said. “Take the word ‘impossible’ out of your vocabulary.”

Chelsea is working on her computer while using one of our Tactile Galaxy Cards.

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