Amateur astronomy

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. Photo: Brian Dana Akers

Pro astronomers don't always have the time to watch variable stars. But amateurs are always looking for new targets for their telescopes.

The universe can be a fascinating place, especially with the help of a small telescope. Courtesy Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Very variable
 Black circle backlit in ghostly blue.Amateur 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."

Stayin' awake. Stayin' accurate.
Astronomy can spark scientific interest among young people But 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."

Calling all amateurs
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."

Girl in pink shirt looks through giant telescope. 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.

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