Thursday, January 13, 2011

Amateurs in Astronomy

There are few sciences in which amateurs still play a major role. Astronomy, despite its obvious heavy reliance on giant and very expensive telescopes and observing instruments, is perhaps the most fruitful field for amateur involvement. How is this possible?

Consider the situation: a few hundred professional astronomers in the United States generate data at a rate that exceeds their own ability to analyze it. Further, the fields of view of most large telescopes are so small that only a tiny fraction of the sky is under observation at any given moment. At the same time, the explosive growth of electronics technology have made it possible for many thousands of amateurs to buy equipment that rivals in sensitivity the best professional equipment of a few years ago. This combination of circumstances has empowered amateur astronomers as never before.

Indeed, on-line data repositories have enabled “astronomers without telescopes” to make valuable contributions on a daily basis by means of “data mining” in these vast archives.

Here are a few of the ways that amateurs make valuable, even essential, contribution:

1. Variable star observations. Many stars are variables with periodic changes in brightness. Thanks to decades of diligent work, largely coordinated by the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO), high-quality observations of the variation of brightness with time (what astronomers call a “light curve”) of many thousands of stars can be collected by observers with small telescopes and be made available to professional observers and theorists free of charge.

2. Meteor observations. Virtually all meteor observations are conducted by amateurs. The American Meteor Society (AMS) advises and coordinates observation programs that provide most of our knowledge about meteor swarms, showers, and storms. They provide essential data for constructing and testing orbital evolution models for natural space debris and for predicting future observational opportunities.

3. Comet seeking. Most astronomical comet discoveries have traditionally been made by nighttime observations by amateur astronomers using small to medium-sized telescopes.

4. Asteroid and comet orbit followup. Several major sky-survey programs have been established in recent years for the purpose of discovering near-Earth objects, especially near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) and short-period comets, which present an impact hazard on Earth. These programs include the Lowell Observatory Near-Earth Asteroid Search (LONEOS), Spacewatch and the Catalina Sky Survey of the University of Arizona, the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research program (LINEAR), the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking (NEAT) , and several other smaller programs. The discovery of small, faint, fast-moving nearby asteroids requires relatively large and expensive equipment. However, once discovered, much smaller telescopes can be enlisted to do the follow-up work needed to calculate a precise and reliable orbit. Amateurs are heavily involved in this work.

5. Sun-grazing comet discovery. Data-mining in the on-line database of images of the Sun produced by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) satellite have made it possible for amateurs without telescopes to discover hundreds of Sun-grazing comets.

6. Data mining in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). SDSS has been successfully mined to discover hundreds of distant supernovas, thousands of main-belt and near-Earth asteroids, and hundreds of comets. There have been two major releases of many terabytes of sky-image data (SDSS-I and SDSS-II) to the public domain.

7. Data mining in the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) archives. Recently a supernova was discovered in the HST archives by a 12-year-old girl.

You could make a valuable contribution to astronomy! Amateur astronomers, regardless of whether they own a telescope, can find out more about these opportunities through online searches of the programs listed above. All provide the ability to participate in cutting-edge research programs and contribute to human knowledge.


Bob said...

Real interesting SF story in Analog Aug issue (which synopsizes up to last of 4 parts) "Energized" by Edward M Lerner. It is about asteroid brought to earth orbit as used to construct power sats. Good plot. Also has Science fact article about subject "Lost in Space? Follow the money" by same author. Also see about LFTR "Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor: /what fusion wanted to be." OR another reason to go to the moon. Recent article in Popular Science dealt with same subject.

Fletch said...

Thanks John! I am working on a paper about citizen science and geography, and one piece I was missing was a brief summary about contributions to astronomy. Peace be with you old friend. -Fletch