Amateur astronomy

POSTED 9 SEP 2004


1. Love those stars

2. Asteroids 'n comets.

3. Very variable


Using a network of small, relatively inexpensive telescopes, astronomers have discovered a planet crossing in front of a bright orange star. By examining thousands of stars simultaneously, this type of "transit" search may find planets at an accelerating pace. When will we find one like Earth? Photo: David Aguilar, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics


Galileo Galilei invented the telescope and discovered the moons of Jupiter. These days, scopes no bigger than Galileo's can detect planets outside the solar system. Image: NASA

Justin Tillbrook with the 8-inch telescope he used to discover his first comet. The observatory was retrieved from a rubbish dump in exchange for a carton of beer. Courtesy Justin Tilbrook Astronomical Society of South Australia

These areas were searched for minor planets by astronomers - amateur and professional alike - during a seven-day period this summer. Courtesy Minor Planet Center


New planet found: Will amateurs catch the next wave?
On August 23, astronomers reported that they'd found a planet outside the solar system. More than 100 have been found over the past decade or so, but this was the first detected with a small telescope.

Planet TrES-1, about the size of Jupiter, is the first planet discovered by the Trans-Atlantic Exoplanet Survey, a network of small, relatively cheap telescopes designed to find planets near bright stars.

yellow sun-like star behind blue planet, black floating particles in forground

Ten years ago, you would have needed an impressive (translated: "astronomically expensive") mountaintopful of equipment to find a planet. But that's changing, says Guillermo Torres of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, a co-author of the TrES-1 report. "This discovery demonstrates that even humble telescopes can make huge contributions to planet searches."

Of course, let's not overstate the case for small-telescope planet-finding. Follow-up observations at the titanic W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii was needed to confirm the discovery of TrES-1.

Although the search was performed by pros, it started with the type of equipment that is becoming available to serious amateurs. "It took several Ph.D. scientists working full-time to develop the data analysis methods for this search program, but the equipment itself uses simple, off-the-shelf components," says David Charbonneau, of Harvard-Smithsonian.

The midget telescopes -- measuring four inches across -- are smaller than what's sold in Astronomy or Sky & Telescope magazines.

Amateur roots
 Bearded man, dressed in black stares stoically. Like most sciences, astronomy had its roots in amateurs who were driven by a sense of curiosity and (Must we mention it?) had another scam for feeding the family. A lucky few got support from royalty, or, like Galileo, quasi-royalty like the Medicis.

These days, galaxies of pro stargazers play with impressive gadgetry that's located on Earth and in space. But if you're an amateur, you better be Bill Gates 2.0 if you want to get your hands on these nifty tools.

Still, amateur gizmos have improved for those who can spare semi-serious spare change. You can "get a pretty good array of equipment for $10,000," says Robert Burnham, senior editor at Astronomy. A good rig includes a telescope, a computerized star-tracking mounting, and a charge-coupled device (CCD) to collect light.

Perhaps as a result, a surprising number of amateurs spend clear nights peering through telescopes or, more commonly, eyeballing the heavens through a computer monitor. Many are looking for enjoyment. But others are making a small, underappreciated contribution to the science of astronomy.

Man in hat holds large, white cylinder scope. Amateurs gained the ability to do "hardcore scientific research" because the technology that previously was available only to a limited number of professionals, which used to cost millions, now can be obtained for quite a resasonable amount by amateurs, says Timothy Ferris, emeritus professor of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, and a frequent author on topics celestial. The recent planet discovery, he says, "Happened to be done by professionals, but it used a 4-inch aperture telescope, the kind of scope you could carry on a commercial flight."

It's hard to overstate the improvement in modern scopes, he says. "An off-the-shelf commercial telescope that you can carry into the backyard costs $1500. When it's attached to a modern $2,000 digital camera, it can give you the resources of the 200-inch Palomar telescope from many years ago." Palomar, we must add, was once the most expensive, most capable telescope in the world.

Amateurs are a microscopic factor in the science of microbiology. So why can a keen eye and a methodical brain add up to a scientific payoff in astronomy? Simply being observational rather than experimental can cut costs. And amateurs are usually in the business of data collection, not discovery, as they observe changing phenomena like meteoroids, asteroids, comets and variable stars.

Oval graphic displaying brightly colored boxes.

The universe is big, and professional astronomers can't keep an eye on all the cool junk they have already discovered. And while scads of bright astronomical objects have already been discovered, Michael Bakich, associate editor of Astronomy magazine, observes that amateurs "also have an advantage, because the equipment is so much better" than in years past.

What have amateur astronomers done for us lately?

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