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Past meets future at AAVSO's centennial.

With speeches, cake, memories of decades long gone, and excitement about the very different data-rich decades to come, more than 100 people celebrated the 100th birthday of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) on October 6th. But hanging over the room was the knowledge that the old days and old ways are fast disappearing.

Eyeball estimates of variable stars' brightnesses, which most people at the gathering had done for much of their lives, are on their way to becoming as obsolete as vacuum-tube radios and rotary-dial telephones. Serious variable-star observers now use CCD cameras or photometers to make measurements that are much more precise. But automated sky surveys promise even bigger changes. The day is in sight when, for instance, the planned 8.4-meter Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) should gather more star-brightness data each night than all the AAVSO's eyeball estimators have done in a century. The LSST is supposed to start work late this decade, but its construction is not yet fully funded.

Addressing this impending sea change was Charles Alcock, director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics a mile up the street. Alcock told the crowd that floods of sky-survey data already outstrip astronomers' ability to look for what they contain beyond the needs of a specific project. These data sets are full of objects that deserve the kind of individual follow-ups that well-equipped amateurs can study--if interesting objects can be recognized via the types of global data management that the AAVSO sees as a big part of its future. Many small-telescope users equipped with photometric CCD cameras and spectrographs will be needed to perform quick follow-ups and long-term studies on fast-paced or mysterious objects. "The amateurs of the world," Alcock said, "will have a great opportunity."

Rick Fienberg, Sky & Telescope's former editor in chief and now the press officer for the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Washington, D.C., informed the crowd that the AAS recently closed down its committee on amateur-professional collaborations. This, he explained, is good news. Amateur-professional collaborations on things such as variable stars have become so routine that there's no longer a need for a committee. "It astonishes me how many professional papers now routinely have amateur contributors as coauthors," Fienberg said. He closed by pointedly congratulating the AAVSO for "the bright future you have as you move wholeheartedly into the digital age."

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Title Annotation:News Notes; American Association of Variable Star Observers
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2012
Words:393
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