By: Dave Scherping
There’s numerous reasons why people become astronomers. Many enjoy the beauty of the night sky, some enjoy technical astronomy, some do it for the camaraderie. Some are “armchair astronomers”, doing most of their “observing” in the pages of Sky & Telescope, while others are active visual observers. Some hunt for comets, some for supernovae, and some love variable stars & double stars. Then there’s the solar observers, the astro-photographers, and the telescope makers. The common thread between all astronomers is an attraction to the night sky and a desire to understand the universe. Throughout the years our involvement & interest varies, sometimes growing stronger & sometimes fizzling out.
I feel that part of my role as president is to help our members continue to grow and not lose interest in astronomy. As with most hobbies, if there’s no variation or challenges, you may lose interest. One way to add variation and excitement is to get involved in one of the activities in which amateur astronomers can make contributions to science.
Astronomy is unique among the sciences in that amateurs can and do play an important role. When was the last time you heard of an amateur chemist, biologist, or geologist making an important discovery? Sure, some amateurs dabble in these sciences but rarely do they contribute significant observations or discoveries. In astronomy, professionals are typically absorbed in teaching and conducting specialized research, and observing time at the major observatories is limited and not easy to come by. This leaves open numerous areas in which amateurs can contribute. Below are a few examples :
Comet Hunting is the field that usually comes to mind when we think of amateur discoveries. Mankind has had an interest in comets since the ancient days, and devotion to comet discovery can be traced back many centuries. Since the invention of the telescope, many individuals have devoted entire lifetimes to being the first to observe a new comet. It’s the one discovery that eternally carries the name of the discoverer. Comet hunting does indeed require dedication. Avid comet hunters are ready to go at dusk nearly every clear night of the year and are up then a couple of hours before dawn, searching the skies again. Some have searched for years with little success, while others have found several. All will tell you, the rewards are worth it.
Supernovae Searching, like comet hunting, requires dedication. Unlike comets, new supernovae do not carry the discoverer’s name, but the good ones are highly publicized, rewarding the discoverer just the same. Most supernova searchers work by an organized plan, observing numerous galaxies on a regular basis and comparing what they see to photographs, written descriptions, and vivid memories. Racing to be the first to find one makes this activity, like comet hunting, very competitive and rewarding.
Variable Star Observing attracts a large number of amateurs. Most are members of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO), which coordinates observations of astronomers across the country. Amateurs involved in variable star observing, enjoy contributing their measurements of apparent magnitudes and periods, to the ever increasing database of astronomical knowledge. These measurements are then often used by professional astronomers worldwide. Information on AAVSO may be obtained from Janet Mattei, 25 Birch St, Cambridge, MA 02138 (617) 354-0484.
Observing Occultations: The International Occultation Timing Association is an organization of about 350 amateurs who, you guessed it, time occultations. The information they compile is used to determine distances, positions, orbits, etc. Information on IOTA may be obtained from Terri & Craig McManus, 2760 SW Jewell Ave., Topeka, KS 66611 (913) 232-3693.
Double Stars: There are estimates that over 1/2 of the stars in the sky are actually multiple star systems. Amateurs can make contributions to astronomy by obtaining data on positions and orbital periods of these systems. You’ll probably want to purchase or make a filar micrometer which is used to measure separation and angle.
Lunar & Planetary Observations: Many amateurs like to draw, photograph, and/or record their observations of the Moon and planets. During the Jupiter/Shoemaker-Levy comet crash, amateurs played an important role in contributing and compiling visual and photographic observations.