1. Love those stars
2. Asteroids 'n comets
3. Very variable
In 1973, Brian Dana Akers shot this through
an 8-inch telescope during an "eclipse cruise" in the Atlantic.
The universe can be a fascinating place, especially with
the help of a small telescope. Courtesy
Center for Astrophysics
astronomers aren't discovering distant galaxies or black holes.
They don't have ideal equipment for glimpsing star nurseries in
the dust and ash of distant star explosions. But they do have a
role in observing stars, especially those that vary in output. These
brightness changes can stem from several sources, says Robert Burnham
of Astronomy magazine. Sometimes, the light output simply changes
over time. Or one member of a two-star system may occasionally block
light from its partner.
Amateurs have done "very good work" on long-term
monitoring of variable stars, says Timothy Ferris, a star-loving
author and professor emeritus at the University of California at
Berkeley. "There are some quite complicated variable star systems
that can only be deciphered by following what happens to brightness
24 hours a day for weeks or months. The professionals can't commit
their relatively expensive telescopes to that much time."
Amateurs can also, with luck, find supernovas, exploding stars that seed the universe with iron and other heavy elements. The sooner a supernova is detected, the more quickly the Aston Martins of astronomy can be trained on it.
Although supernovas fade quickly, they have transcendent importance to cosmology, the study of the origin and fate of the universe. "The study of supernovas resulted in the discovery of dark energy and the expansion of the universe," observes Ferris. "It's the most important cosmological finding of the last couple of decades."
amateur astronomy is not just about the scientific glory to be derived
from chugging coffee on cold, clear nights, says Burnham. "There
is a flip side that doesn't get talked about very much. Most amateur
astronomers are doing data collection, not doing data analysis.
They are not doing astrophysics; they are taking observations, like
lab technicians, not pulling together all the observations, and
applying the physics knowledge they have and advancing our understanding
of the universe."
Accuracy is everything in astronomy, and pro
astronomers who use data from amateurs know some amateurs are more
accurate than others, Burnham says. "They typically have a learning
curve. ... You provide feedback to the person. You may use a lot
of amateurs... . If you have enough people observing the same thing,
the individual errors will tend to cancel out."
A final scientific benefit of amateur astronomy
is its potential to serve as an entry point for the study of science
in general, says Kelley Knight, of the Austin [Texas] Astronomical Society. "I watch galaxies and enjoy
bringing in other people to show them the beauty of heavens." In
some of her "star parties," she stresses to middle-school girls
and others in the audience that science can deepen existing interests.
"If you have an interest in ballet, knowing physiology can help
you become a better ballerina. Knowing the science behind what you
love to do or look at can help you enjoy that even more."
During middle school, she points out, many girls drop away from
science, driven, perhaps, by peer pressure, negative images on television,
or free-floating nerdophobia. "Something happens when they get into
high school ... and they tend to stop taking science and math, technology."
Early evidence, she says, shows that star parties and mentoring programs like Expanding Your Horizons can boost scientific interest and curiosity among high school girls.
Boost your own astronomical curiosity in our bibliography.