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Astronomy
Part II: Amateurs making discoveries
Amateurs still make significant contributions to the fields of astronomy and space science. Comets, for example, are often discovered first by non-professional astronomers.

In this section we list a groups and programs organized to promote amateur and student activities in astronomy. We also include a sub-section on Robotic Telescopes that give amateur and students astronomers access to professional level telescopes via the Internet.

(Here is a Romanian translation of this page via Web Geek Science.)


Amateur Astronomy Projects

The sky is big enough for amateurs to make significant discoveries even in this day of billion dollar research programs. Here are some projects involving amateurs that promise to make significant contributions to science.


The Amateur Sky Survey
This project will use amateur astronomers to carry out a systmatic sky survey that the professionals don't have the resources to do.

"This project, aka TASS, hopes to construct low-cost drift-scan cameras and distribute them to sites around the world; the idea is to monitor bright objects across a large section of the sky." - TASS website

American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO)
This group has involved amateur astronomers since 1911 in observing variable stars for the benefit of astrophysical research. Amateurs make important contributions in this area because the enormous range of observations require exceed what the professional telescopes can cover.

Hands On Astrophysics
(HOA) project is an educational collaboration between the AAVSO and the NSF to inspire amateurs to do real science via variable star observation and analysis. A package of materials including software, starcharts, videotape, and more is available.

Pulsar Search Collaboratory
A program sponsored by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NARO) and the West Virginia University (WVU) in which high school students analyze radio telescope data for new pulsars. The data primarily comes from a nearly 3 month period in 2007 when the antenna was under repair and stuck in one position, preventing researchers from pointing it at their particular celestial areas of interest. There was a huge amount of data collected and would probably never have been examined without the help of the students.

Association of Lunar & Planetary Observers (ALPO)
This organization is described as follows:

The Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers (A.L.P.O.) was founded by Walter H. Haas in 1947, and incorporated in 1990, as a medium for advancing and conducting astronomical work by both professional and amateur astronomers who share an interest in Solar System observations. We welcome and provide services for all individuals interested in lunar and planetary astronomy. For the novice observer, the A.L.P.O. is a place to learn and to enhance observational techniques. For the advanced amateur astronomer, it is a place where one's work will count. For the professional astronomer, it is a resource where group studies or systematic observing patrols add to the advancement of astronomy.

Resources:

Comet Hunting
Finding comets has been a favorite goal of amateur and pro astronomers. Here are resources about comets and comet hunting.

Comet hunting in SOHO images
The SOHO solar observatory satellite generates images of the sun in various wavelengths. A surprising benefit of these images is that comets that would otherwise be too dim to be detected show up clearly.

It has become a fun hobby for people to scan frequently the SOHO images for the sign of a new comet. Most of these comets will soon vanish into the sun and never be visible from earth otherwise. So the observations have little scientific value but the hunt is still an addictive game.

 

Amateur Supernova Hunting
While professional automated systems to search for supernova dominate the field, amateurs are discovering a good number of new events, as well.

TransitSearch.org (Exosolar Planet Hunting)
Program to encourage amateur astronomers to monitor stars for the slight diminution in brightness when a star's planet crosses between the star and our line of sight.

XO Project - another amateur group effort to spot transits of exo-planets.

Other transit searches:

Microlensing Follow-Up Network (MicroFUN)
This Ohio State University based program organizes amateur astronomers help to find exoplanets using the microlensing technique.

MicroFUN is an informal consortium of observers dedicated to photometric monitoring of interesting microlensing events in the Galactic Bulge. Our primary scientific objective is to observe high-magnification microlensing events that give the best potential for detecting extra-solar planets orbiting the lensing star.

Info:

Citizen Sky
Amateur astronomers can participate in this project to help determine the nature of the mysterious companion to the star epsilon Aurigae.

Planet Hunters
This project is part of the Zooniverse program (see below) to organize scientific research projects in which the general public can participate. In Planet Hunters volunteers will analyze data from the orbiting Kepler Observatory spacecraft to look for planets around other stars.

PlanetQuest
PlanetQuest is "a nonprofit organization whose mission is to inspire global participation in the discovery of planets". The

Our Collaboratory software turns your computer into an astronomical observatory and resource library. Our telescopes are focused on extremely dense star regions, such as the center of the galaxy in Sagittarius, and when an observing run ends and thousands of images have been collected, data will be downloaded to your computer and your Collaboratory software will begin analyzing it.

 

Venus Amateur Observing Project (VAOP)
Participants in this project will assist ESA Venus Express scientific studies by carrying out observations during periods

"when parts of the planet are visible from Earth that are not visible from the spacecraft (due to the spacecraft position in orbit). Additionally it is important to compare Earth-based observations with simultaneous spacecraft observations. In particular this will allow us to extend our understanding of the dynamics of Venus’s atmosphere based on the VEX data to observations made prior to the VEX mission, as well as after completion of VEX operations."

Additional info here:

Amateur Space Based Telescopes

 

Amateur Large Telescope Projects
  • Fremont Peak Observatory Association - this observatory is a "labor of love and ongoing project for dozens of amateur astronomers in the San Francisco Bay Area." It provides a "home for the 30" f/4.8 newtonian telescope" built by Kevin Medlock. The observatory "opened in 1986, and has been open every summer since."

  • LAT - Large Amateur Telescope (Group70) - This volunteer group is building a major telescope using a "mirror blank, found at the University of Tasmania, Australia" . The blank is made "of Pyrex glass and was originally cast in 1938 as a backup blank for the 48in Schmidt Camera now in service at Mt. Palomar Observatory."

    The observatory "will be located in California's 'Dark Sky Corridor', a 200 mile long stretch of ridges in the Coastal Mountain Ranges along the Pacific Ocean renown for its clear,dark, steady skies."
  • Astronomy Centre UK - non-profit group founded in 1982. Operates several telescopes and is working on a 42inch mirror.

Amateur Solar Astronomy
Technology introduced in the past few years allows amateur astronomers to carry out sophisticated observations of the sun that go far beyond just white light imaging of sunspots. In particular, narrow band filters now allow imaging of details in the chromosphere.

New Mexico Skies
This "Guest Observatory for the Sophisticated Amateur Astronomer" is located Sacramento Mountains of New Mexico at the top of Mt. Joy.

The six observatories at the site can be reserved for on-site use. One can be accessed remotely and is used by the Student Telescope Network discussed below.

Planetary Society's NEO (Near Earth Objects)
The Planetary Society has developed this separate site devoted to the study of asteroids and comets that pass relatively close to earth. These objects are very interesting scientifically and it's also a good idea to keep an eye out for objects that are on a collision course with earth

This is an area where amateur astronomers can make significant contributions, especially considering the modest government support for NEO research.

In support of NEO efforts, the Planetary society established the Gene Shoemaker Near-Earth Object Grant to provide money ($5-10k) for amateurs, as well as professional rsearchers, to purchase equipment.

Frank Zoltowski, for example, is an amateur astronomer who received a Shoemaker Grant in late 1998. He used the money for an improved CCD camera that allowed him to make more precise observations of these faint objects.

According to a Planetary Society press release, his measurements of the NEO named "1999 AN10"

"..enabled researchers at the IAU: Minor Planet Center (MPC) to develop more precise future orbital calculations for the object, which is expected to pass within 200,000 kilometers (about 120,000 miles) of Earth in 2027, with the potential for even closer Earth approaches in 2044 and 2046."

Other Asteroid Observation Projects

International Occultation Timing Association
This group organizes efforts to observe occultations and eclipses. Asteroid, as well as lunar occultations, are of interest in studying the occulted star as well as the asteroid. Multiple views of lunar occultations provide precise mappings of the Moon's limb. This, in turn, helps to improve the measurments during solar eclipses of the sun's diameter and energy output

Careful timing is crucial. Multiple observations from as many points as possible can greatly increase the depth of information obtained.

A lunar occultation observed even with just a video camera can be useful. See, e.g. NASA Space Science News: Amateur astronomers capture rare video of a lunar occultation

The IOTA provides "news of meetings, predictions, software, observing techniques and equipment, and results for solar eclipses and lunar occultations as well as for asteroidal occultations."

Center for Backyard Astrophysics CBA has been running a project since 1991 to do long term photometric studies of cataclysmic variable stars with amateur telescopes using CCD cameras. Several sites around the world and they would like to have more.

NASA Star Trails Society
NASA initiative from science@NASA to involve amateurs in real scientific research. Opportunities for amateurs to contribute to projects in astronomy, astrobiology and other natural sciences will be announced several times a month. See, for example, the South Pole Adventure below.

South Pole Adventure
Students and amateur scientists will be invited by Science@NASA to work with the Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica (CARA) on a project in astrobiology in 1999. Stay tuned.

The American Lunar Society
This group is dedicated to the promotion of lunar observation and research. It sponsors various projects including Yearly "Lunar Imagining Contest".

Major Discoveries by Amateur Astronomers
Here are some examples of major finds by amateurs:

 

Zooniverse
This organization offers several projects in which members of the public can participate in genuinely professional science projects. The projects are created with the help of scientists, programmers, & educators at the Citizen Science Alliance. Here are some of the astronomy related projects:

SCOPE (Stellar Classification Online Public Exploration)
This is a citizen science project sponsored by the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI). The task is described there:

Are all stars like the Sun?

The answer to this basic question has driven the field of astronomy and astrophysics for nearly 100 years.

Explore the answer here by observing stars and comparing their features to those of the Sun - by classifying stars. Your participation will be a major contribution, observing stars never before classified. You can be the very first person to measure the temperature of a star never before measured! This is discovery in the purest sense of the word.
To participate go to the Take Part Page.

Virtual Observatories
The many ground and space based observatories in many different wavelengths generate huge amounts of data that will never be fully analyzed. This is especially true for the new generation of automated telescopes doing sky surveys.

To try to tackle more of this data there are several projects aiming to take advantage of the talents and energies of amateurs and students by making some of this data available on line.

The participant can examine a given section of sky just as if a telescope is moved to look there, but in reality it will be imagery already gathered from that region of the sky that will be presented .

Assembling the Digital Sky: U.S. astronomers are gathering terabytes of data into a worldwide “virtual observatory” that will be accessible to scientists and laymen alike -Technology Review - Nov.23.02

 

Other Advanced Amateur Astronomy Resources
Related topics at HobbySpace

Robotic Telescopes

Gradually more and more telescopes have come online that can be control over the web by students, amateur astronomers and professionals as well. The setups vary somewhat, but generally the puts in a proposal for an observation. If accepted the observation might be then be done automatically or, in some cases, the participant takes over control of the scope and can direct it.


Student Telescope Network
This project was developed by a high school student to

"...enable high school students interested in astronomical observing, to access a telescope with digital camera in a remote dark location via the internet, and to pursue basic observational research."

The article Student behind global telescope network - CNN.com - Apr.13.02 describes how Ryan Hannahoe and other high school students developed this system to provide high school students around the world access to a high powered telescope in an area with little light pollution.

The Youth Activities Committee (YouthInAstronomy.org) of the Astronomical League. supports the project.

National Schools Observatory
This UK program allows British students to use world-class observatories around the world. Observing time is reserved on the telescopes for student proposed projects.

Includes

 

Faulkes Robotic Telescope Project
This major project provides access to large telescopes in Hawaii and Austraila for students in Britain, Australia and Hawaii. Both telescopes use 2 meter diameter main mirrors and sophisticated control and imaging systems.

RoCCoTO -
The Robotic Telescope You Control
The University of Glamorgan in Wales will host this new 40.6cm robotic telescope that students and amateur astronomers will operate over the Internet.

"Students and astronomers will be able to send instructions to the control centre which will communicate them directly to the telescope using Internet technology. The telescope will then take over, responding to the series of commands sent each day. "

Dome is home to robotic telescope - BBC - Oct.21.01

SLOOH.com
"Astronomy, Remote Control Telescopes, Observatories, View the Universe". This program offers a robotic telescope service on a commercial basis. Users pay a subscription fee to access a large telescope on the Canary Islands.

In October 2010, Slooh and Google Earth announced a partnership that combines the astronomical images generated by Slooh and the Google Earth sky database:

Slooh also announced the Slooh Space Camera Lanch Cards:

[...] a new retail product sold in RadioShack and Toys "R" Us stores nationwide for $9.99. The packs of 10 collectible cards give kids 8+ the chance to explore the universe by initiating live online missions to outer space. Each pack of cards come with launch codes specific to a particular category of celestial objects such as Star Cities or Sun Clusters. With the "Explore the Unknown" card kids have the power to discover and photograph celestial objects never before captured with Slooh's Space Camera. After punching the launch code into the online Launch Pad, card-users take control of the telescope and join 5-minute featured missions into space accompanied by audio commentary.

More about Slooh:

Bradford Robotic Telescope
This is a 46cm telescope in West Yorkshire, England that is totally autonomous. The telescope

"...decides when the conditions are good enough to make observations of the sky by itself (an astronomer does not need to be present)

Anyone on the Internet can register and ask the telescope to look at anything in the northern night sky. Observations are automatically prioritised and scheduled and completed by the telescope as time allows. Other data (weather information and reports) are obtained and updated on this site automatically every day..."

The eSTAR Project
The eSTAR (eScience Telescopes for Astronomical Research) project aims "to build a prototype robotic telescope network, to test computing infrastructure and software which could be used for larger scale projects." Stargazers watch via the web - BBC - May.3.02

Global Rent-a-Scope
This service provides amateur astronomers with Internet access "to highly sophisticated remote astronomical imaging platforms"

NASA's Telescopes In Education (TIE)
This JPL/NASA sponsored program allows students around the world to access a robotic telescope. The program currently

"..utilizes a science-grade 24-inch reflecting telescope located at the Mount Wilson Observatory, high above the Los Angeles basin in the San Gabriel Mountains of Southern California. The telescope has been used by students in grades K-12 to observe galaxies, nebulae, variable stars, eclipsing binaries, and other ambitious projects and experiments. Hundreds of schools in the US and around the world (including Australia, Canada, England, and Japan) have successfully used the prototype telescope on Mount Wilson..."

NASA- GAVRT
Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope

In this project students gain access to one of NASA's powerful radio telescope antennas in California. The students will "collect real-time data with sophisticated science equipment through distance learning."

The project is run by the Lewis Center for Educational Research is part of the GLOBE program to involve students in hands on research.

 

Torus Technologies
This optics and telescope company has become a major supplier of robotic telescope systems. See the article Torus Technologies Makes Astronomy a "Hands-on" Experience for Students by Jamie Ambroson - ASP/Mercury - Jan/Feb 2002
More robotic telescope resources

 

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