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Here's to amateurs

Stars over Hardraw
Amateur astronomers enjoying the stars over Hardraw in the Yorkshire Dales CREDIT: Megan
While recording the Jodcast news for August, I realised that I'd written about three discoveries by amateur astronomers in the one month. Firstly there was the start of the long-awaited eclipse of ε Aurigae discovered by Robin Leadbeater in the UK, then the impact feature on Jupiter spotted by Anthony Wesley in NSW Australia, and finally the mysterious white spot on Venus observed by Frank Melillo in the USA. This is a rather nice illustration of how amateur astronomers can contribute to real science. How many other fields of endeavor can you think of where this is the case?

This is something I've written about before. Back in August 2005, the magazine Astronomy Now published a letter from a reader asking what the point of amateur astronomy was, given the huge surveys now being undertaken by professional facilities. The writer wondered whether it was worth the effort since there wasn't much left to be discovered with small backyard telescopes and the growing blight of light pollution was growing ever worse. Working on supernovae, a field where new discoveries are often made by amateur astronomers, I wrote a response pointing out that amateurs can (and do) play a vital role in modern astronomy. Here's the gist of it:

"Many supernovae, comets and asteroids are discovered by amateurs as they scan the skies from their backyards. One easy example is the discovery of supernova 2005cs in M51 (as reported in AN August, p19) which was discovered by Wolfgang Kloehr, a German amateur. Discoveries like these are reported to the whole community through IAU circulars, allowing researchers with access to larger telescopes to rapidly make follow-up observations. In the case of SN2005cs this is exactly what happened: we observed 2005cs with MERLIN, the UK's radio telescope array, within a few days of its discovery. Amateurs also provide valuable data on meteor showers, variable stars and the fading of supernovae, all events which are labour intensive to observe, but which can be measured accurately with modest equipment. The problem with large facilities is that there is huge demand on the time available, and many have small fields of view or are otherwise not set up for all sky surveys. As for observing from a city, two of our students managed to observe and estimate the magnitude of 2005cs using a 10-inch Meade from Manchester city centre so (as I said in AN), although it requires some perseverance it is far from a dead loss!"

It seems pretty obvious to me that amateur astronomers do a lot of really valuable work. Many of them are highly dedicated observers, building their own observatories, making the most of clear evenings and often traveling large distances to find a dark observing site. Their discoveries are numerous, they are using increasingly sophisticated equipment and techniques, and are producing some pretty impressive results. Some of their images are truly spectacular - just check out any issue of the popular astronomy magazines to see reader's pictures. Just as important though, amateur astronomers run astronomical societies who run or help out at public observing events and encourage newcomers to take their interests further. I know several societies who actively talk to school groups and run popular public events. This encourages an interest not just in astronomy, but more generally in science, engineering and the world around us.

So, here's to you amateur astronomers. Keep it up.

Posted by Megan on Monday 03rd Aug 2009 (13:05 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink


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