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Amateur Astronomers Usher In New Era Of Discovery, Says Report

ProAm collaborations are changing the nature of astronomy; and anybody can take part

  • January 6, 2011

Amateur astronomy has a long history of discovery. In fact, it wasn’t so long ago that the amateurs had a better time of it than the professionals.

In the18th and 19th centuries, the job of professional astronomers was to calculate important information such as the times of sunset and sunrise and to provide military and merchant naval fleets with the astronomical data they needed for navigation.

That left amateurs such as Caroline and William Herschel and others with the task of searching for the skies for exotic objects such as galaxies, comets asteroids and sometimes new planets. (William discovered Uranus in 1781.)

Since then, professionals have begun to hog the limelight. That’s mainly due to the access they have to hugely expensive observing equipment, funded by the public purse.

But in the last ten years or so, certain jobs have become much more difficult for professionals, who are limited in the observing time they can get.

This is where amateurs come in to their own, says Johan Knapen at the Instituto de Astrofısica de Canarias (IAC) in Tenerife. Today he outlines how amateurs are having an increasingly important impact largely because of the amount of time they can dedicate and the huge number of independent observations or calculations they generate.

There is no shortage of examples. Knapen points to the work of Jay Gabany, a highly accomplished amateur astronomer, and David D. Martınez-Delgado, an astronomer at the IAC and others. In one example, GaBany used a 50cm telescope to make a picture of the edge-on galaxy NGC 5907. The image was created over two months by superimposing numerous long exposure images of between 5 hours or more.

That’s the kind of work that professional just don’t have time for. The result is a picture that shows detail ten times fainter than is available from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. The picture and the stellar stream it reveals has given new insight into the behaviour of galaxies: the streams are thought to be the result of a close encounter interaction with another smaller galaxy and this places important constraints on how these galaxies must have evolved.

Another example of an extraordinary ProAm collaboration is the mapping of the asteroid Tercidina. More than 100 amateur astronomers throughout Europe observed Tercidina pass in front of the star HIP19388 on the evening of 17 September 2002. By comparing the time each observer saw the occultation, professional astronomers were then able to work out the size and shape of the asteroid (see image above).

These are impressive pieces of work that any dedicated amateur could contribute to. The difficulty, of course, is in linking amateurs with suitable professionals who can co-ordinate the effort, process the data it generates and publish the results.

That’s strange. It seems surprising today that it is not possible to link people with common interests, perhaps in different parts of the world, to work on large-scale collaborations. That’s something that we’ve learnt how to do quite well in recent years. The internet is filled with examples.

Sounds as if there’s a gap in the market that an enterprising web designer could fill.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1101.0684: Scientific Collaborations In Astronomy Between Amateurs And Professionals

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