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The future of amateur science: in a roboscope-dominated future, backyard observers will still play an important role in astronomical research.

Amateur astronomers actively involved in scientific research are worrying about the future of their community: visual astronomers fear being replaced by CCD observers, who in turn fear being replaced by survey telescopes. And as online denizens swarm like easily distracted locusts over every new data-mining project on the web before scurrying off to read LOLCats, web forum participants debate whether online "citizen science" might displace telescope-wielding amateurs altogether.

In reality, everyone has a place in the future, but that future will look different from what many might expect. Astronomy has changed drastically with the advent of modern technology. Whereas astronomers of the past spent long, cold nights at the telescope, now astronomers stay warm, accessing the sky via their keyboards. Large surveys, remote observing, and robotic telescopes are altering professional astronomy in countless, generally positive ways, and they're also having a profound effect on how amateurs participate in science. Although technology might squeeze amateur scientists out of some areas, it's also opening up new and exciting paths to discovery.

The Birth of Amateur Science

Astronomers before the modern era often straddled the line between amateur and professional. Composer and concert director William Herschel eventually gave up his music career to study astronomy full-time, but only after he discovered Uranus in 1781 through a self-built telescope. About a century later, sanitation engineer Andrew Ainslie Common pioneered the field of astrophotography. And the early 20th century saw radio operator Grote Reber retune his commercial skills to build a 31-foot backyard dish to map the radio sky.

Amateur associations flourished even as a professional astronomy community began to develop. Most notably, Benjamin A. Gould, editor of the Astronomical Journal, called for observations of variable stars in 1856, and many amateurs responded. In the grassroots movement that evolved, individuals documented changes in the brightnesses of thousands of stars. In 1911 William Tyler Olcott founded the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) to systematically archive these variable-star observations, data that scientists could--and still do--use for research. The AAVSO is the oldest organization shepherding pro-am collaboration, but many more, such as the Minor Planet Center and the Center for Backyard Astrophysics, developed over the next century.

Amateur Research Today

Amateur astronomers today still hold an important advantage over professional astronomers: since they typically own their own equipment, they can dedicate as much time as they want to any particular target. Backyard observers can follow an asteroid or a variable star in a way that professional astronomers can't--night after night, sometimes for years on end.

Dedicated observers who focus their time--and their telescopes--on specific topics continue to make significant contributions to science, primarily via data collection. David Levy discovered and codiscovered 23 comets, Tim Puckett and his team of observers discovered 271 supernovae, and Anthony Wesley observed two unpredicted impacts on Jupiter and the loss of one of Jupiter's bands.

"Citizen science is a great pathway into real science," says Peter Lake, an amateur astronomer and science advisor to iTelescope, an online network of remote telescopes. "Many people study for years and then end up working in a totally different industry. With citizen science, you can 'try before you buy' and work out what you are really passionate about."

In addition to extraordinary individuals, teams have grown around specific science goals, with members providing time as they can. For example, observers in the Gamma-ray Coordinates Network delve into the mysterious nature of the gamma-ray flashes that accompany extremely energetic stellar explosions. When a gamma-ray burst triggers an alarm in a space-based detector, the network notifies individual observers, who attempt to catch the explosion's visible-light afterglow.

Although amateur discoveries continue to make the news, a shift is taking place as dedicated robotic survey scopes come online. Projects such as Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) and the Catalina Sky Survey are churning out hundreds of asteroid and comet discoveries a year, a tough act for amateurs to follow. And robotic all-sky surveys such as the partially-built Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) and the planned Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) will leave very little sky for the amateur to search for transient events, such as supernovae or new variable stars. The robots--or at least the robotic survey telescopes--are taking over.

But even in the era of robotic astronomy, there is still a need for amateur data, especially of single objects requiring many observations per night. Variable stars such as cataclysmic variables (CVs) continue to lend themselves to this kind of research. In these star systems, a white dwarf--the compact remnant of a Sun-like star--feeds on a closely orbiting companion star, brightening as it quickens its meal and fading as it slows down. On rare occasions, stellar material builds up on the white dwarf's surface, igniting a runaway thermonuclear explosion and unleashing a tremendous burst of light. Observer networks, including those led by the AAVSO and the Center for Backyard Astrophysics, document these outbursts to shed light on the stars' volatile interactions.

Exploding stars have long been popular observing targets, but there's still a lot of ground to cover. Professionals and amateurs alike neglected a particular type of variable star for years--these variables get "stuck" in a middlebright phase between luminous outbursts and fainter quiescence. Many of these Z Cams (named after the first such system, Z Camelopardalis) were studied only briefly following their initial discovery. Their provisional designations stood unconfirmed in the literature for years while awaiting further data.

The AAVSO's Mike Simonsen is addressing this need with the Z CamPaign. He leads a group of observers who collect extensive light curves of potential Z Cams with the aim of conclusively classifying each system.

The Z CamPaign has obtained extensive observations of bona fide Z Cams while ruling out "imposters" mimicking Z Cam behavior. "Improved coverage has revealed a richness of behavior never seen before," Simonsen says. "And we still have years to go."

A new project focuses amateurs' skills on a different kind of object: dozens of near-Earth, carbon-rich asteroids, many of which are categorized as "potentially hazardous." Target Asteroids! calls on amateurs to collect observations including astrometry, photometry, and even spectroscopy to refine asteroids' orbits and characterize their brightness and composition. Such observations require, at minimum, an 8-inch telescope, a CCD camera, and an internet-connected computer. Observers without equipment can still take part by teaming up with a local astronomy club or using various remote observatories.

For Target Asteroids! and similar projects, surveys such as the Catalina Sky Survey might provide the initial discovery data, but it's the backyard astronomers together with the professionals who refine the science, one object at a time.

Preparing for the Data Flood

In modern astronomy, focusing on a single source for extended periods is a luxury. Myriad new telescopes and surveys are collecting mountains of data, and the online databases are growing too large for the professional community to explore alone. Fortunately, the same remote-observing technology that's changing amateur science grants public access to professional databases, giving citizens a chance to organize the chaos.

Citizen scientists became involved in data mining with the launch of the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), which studies the Sun's atmosphere and solar wind. Astronomy buffs were soon searching SOHO's data archives for serendipitous observations of Sun-grazing comets. The tally since 1996 is 2,378 and counting.

Organized citizen science really took off with the launch of GalaxyZoo (S&T: Nov. 2011, p. 24), where anyone with a few minutes for a tutorial could learn to classify galaxies imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope. The enormously successful enterprise led to the Zooniverse initiative, a collection of online projects where citizen scientists help discover new planets and find newborn stars.

One of the newest online citizen-science sites is the NASA-funded CosmoQuest, where the public can map out the rocky surfaces of the Moon, Mercury, and the asteroid Vesta. CosmoQuest aims to take citizen science a step beyond individual projects, building a community via online forums, virtual star parties, seminars from leading scientists, a weekly news roundup, and even online classes.

In the future, an active community of online citizen scientists will be crucial for sifting through the ever-growing databases. And amateurs will be just as crucial in providing extensive follow-up on interesting targets.

The LSST-funded mobile app "Transient Events" is already making that future a reality. The app posts coordinates of transient sources, currently provided by the Catalina Real-Time Transient Survey, to amateur astronomers and interested laypeople.

Within the decade, the LSST will add to the app's alert system by discovering potentially tens of thousands of transients every night. Even if most transients will be too faint for amateur telescopes, the plethora of events should supply a steady stream of bright asteroids, comets, novae, and supernovae observable from modest telescopes.

The combined efforts of amateur observers and online citizen scientists will advance astronomy in ways as impossible to predict as Herschel's discovery of Uranus. Amateur research may change, but it isn't going away. The vast sky provides plenty to explore for citizens, amateurs, and professionals alike.

Get involved! Learn more about amateur research and online citizen science programs at

Pamela L. Gay is an astronomer, writer, and podcaster focused on using new media to engage people in science and technology. Hear her take a fact-based journey through the cosmos on Astronomy Cast (
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Title Annotation:Humans vs. Robots
Author:Gay, Pamela
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Date:Apr 1, 2013
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