There were some great astronomy news stories in 2012, but one really stands out for me as a demonstration of why amateur astronomy can still be “more” than a hobby. Dedicated amateur astronomers can make real contributions to science.
Early on the morning of September 10, Mr. Dan Peterson was observing the planet Jupiter with a 12″ telescope in Texas, and saw a bright flash on one side of the planet. The flash lasted perhaps 1.5 to 2 seconds, and was reported to be very bright. Mr. Peterson posted his observation on an astronomy web forum (http://www.cloudynights.com/ubbthreads/showflat.php/Cat/0/Number/5413921/Main/5413225). A few hours later another amateur, Mr. George Hall, posted a photograph of the flash, confirming the earlier report (http://georgeastro.weebly.com/uploads/1/3/3/4/13344093/jupiterimpact.jpg).
This event – likely the impact of a small, previously unknown comet – into the Solar System’s largest planet – would not have been observed at all unless amateurs had seen it, as was the case. With the large number of planets and other interesting objects in our Solar System (especially comets and asteroids), the professional scientific community and the incredible instrumentation provided by earth-based and space-based telescopes can’t monitor everything all the time. There are no spacecraft in the vicinity of Jupiter, and even if there had been, observing an unpredictable event that lasted 2 seconds would be down to sheer luck even if there was a spacecraft near-by.
Even the world-wide network of amateur astronomers can’t catch everything that happens, of course, but the chances are that transient events will be picked up by an amateur first. This isn’t a new situation. The Association of Planetary and Lunar Observers (yes, they use the acronym A.L.P.O. – http://www.alpo-astronomy.org/) has been organizing, recording, and helping people to share observations on the planets, comets, asteroids, and just about everything else in the solar system, for decades. With 14 different “observing sections” covering everything from meteors to remote planets, A.L.P.O. is a great example of people contributing to new knowledge – true citizen scientists. A.L.P.O. even publishes its own journal, in production since the 1940s. Membership is open to anyone interested, whether or not you are making regular observations. They are international and welcome all interests.
There are several ways in which amateurs are contributing to astronomy around the world right now. In addition to observations of Solar System events and the discovery of comets, some are making detailed measurements of the brightness of individual stars over time, called stellar photometry. Many stars are variable, changing their brightness over time for several different reasons. For example, the American Association of Variable Star Observers (http://www.aavso.org/) links up and supports people making observations of stars that are changing brightness because of their intrinsic physics, or even because of orbiting companion stars (occulting binaries).
What’s more, even in today’s light-polluted urban environments, like Southern Ontario, amateur observing programs like these can continue. The moon and the planets out to Saturn, at least, are so bright that useful observations can be made even with the ubiquitous background glow in the sky reducing the contrast of what we can see. Getting involved in a meaningful way in these programs is also not dependent on having large, expensive telescopes. There are observing sections in A.L.P.O. for people observing the sky with nothing more sophisticated than a pair of binoculars, or just their eyes. Knowledge of the sky, patience, and making careful, organized notes are the most important tools any astronomer – amateur or not – brings to the science.
© 2012, David Allan Galbraith