Consider Being a Citizen Scientist – Amateur Astronomy with a Purpose

There are a lot of different, wonderful reasons to be interested in astronomy. One of the more interesting is that everyone – amateurs anywhere – can actually contribute to science through their hobby. This is not something that is true for many kind of “amateur” activities (those that are done for the love of the thing, not because you’re a professional). Amateurs are sometimes the most interested, creative and knowledgeable people in the fields they’ve chosen. Passion runs high among amateurs, and that’s a wonderful thing.

Recently there was a great example of amateur astronomy brought to my attention. In August a nova appeared in the constellation Delphinus. Given the very straight-forward (if not particularly sexy) name Nova Delphinus 2013, this newly appearing star was discovered on 14 August 2013. At the September 2013 meeting of the Hamilton Amateur Astronomers (, John Gauvreau, HAA’s Observing Director, presented an overview of what’s known about Nova Del 2013. He pointed out that observers all over the world have been looking at the new star and judging its brightness, using the standard way of expressing the brightness of a star, in apparent magnitude. Magnitude is a sort of reversed scale. The fainter the star, the higher is its magnitude. When Nova Del 2013 was discovered by Koichi Itagaki in Yamagata, Japan on August 14, it was at magnitude 6.8. It reached its peak, about 2 days later, at magnitude 4.3. It then started to fade. By the time I took a photo of the nova on 24 August, it was down to about a magnitude 5.5.


Nova Delphinus 2013, imaged from Ripley, Ontario on 24 August 2013. Ten days after the nova was discovered, it had already faded considerably.

As of this date (14 September, a month after discovery) the nova is being reported at about a magnitude 7.5 – pretty tough to see with the unaided eye, but well within the grasp of binoculars or a small telescope.


The light curve of Nova Del 2013, plotted by the data access facility of the American Association of Variable Star Observers on the morning of 14 September 2013. The curve is a representation of thousands of individual estimates of the brightness of the nova, reported by people around the world.

What’s great fun is that you can contribute to observations of things like the brightness of variable stars. There’s a great organized hub for all of this, the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) ( Anyone can learn to judge the brightness of a star (that takes some time, but it’s very doable) either with your own eyes, or with the help of a camera, and then submit your reports to the AAVSO database.

There are other ways of contributing your own observations in astronomy, contributions that mean that your own hobby is more than a past-time, but is really helping science. There are also organized groups of amateur lunar and planetary observers, and even some amateurs that get involved with complex observations like recording stellar spectra. You can also contribute through programs like Galaxy Zoo, where you can help classify hundreds of thousands of photographs, helping observational astronomers chart the cosmos.

Copyright © 2013 David Allan Galbraith