Astronomy

What can a regular person use to view the stars?

What can a regular person use to view the stars?



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My favorite thing in this world is looking up at stars but I live in NYC so I can't ever see stars. I was wondering if anyone knew of a device I can attach to a smartphone that would let me look up at the stars and actually see some? I can't afford to buy an expensive telescope. I'm a student and I just want to see some stars. Thanks to anyone who can help.


Binoculars.

This isn't going to attach to a smartphone, not everything in life is best seen through a screen. The camera on a smartphone is remarkable, but your eyes are much more sensitive in low light. Binoculars will make a lot more stars visible, even in heavily light polluted places.

A pair of binoculars is cheap enough for students. They are categorised as, for example 10x50, which means 10x magnification, and 50mm lenses. You want the second number to be big, which means the binoculars gather more light. 10x50 is often thought to be a good compromise between light gathering and weight. You won't want "zoom" or "night vision" or other such features.


If you live in a city, I'd get binoculars like the others have mentioned. But I would also plan a trip out into the countryside. I live 2 hours from a major city and still the sky is dark enough to see thousands of stars, the Milky Way, and even the Andromeda galaxy (faintly).

If you get binoculars, the first thing I would look at is the Pleiades. We can see six of the stars with the naked eye, with binoculars, you can see way more in the cluster. The next thing I would find it he nebula in Orion's belt.


I'm too regular person. I find myself in similar situation as I stay in Mumbai. I too don't want to buy any expensive. Here is how I deal with it.

  1. Star Gazing sessions away from city. I go to star gazing sessions arranged by local astronomy groups every month. I prefer to visit twice a year. One is April and other between Oct to December. This way I cover both summer and winter Sky.

It takes 3 hrs to travel one way to go far away from light pollution. I have been attending this sessions for last 4 years. They have 8 inch and 10 inch Dobsonian reflecting telescopes. Patches of galaxies, nebulae and clusters can be easily seen through it. I made my mom to attend these sessions, she was happy and surprised to see Jupiter and it's moons through telescope. I suggest you to attend these sessions once in a while.

  1. Star Maps or App Before I goto sleep, I use Star app to find constellations, asterisms & planets. Thesr apps use real time star map in app for the night. It is helpful to know when they rise and set.

I bought Sky Safari app and been using it for last 2 years. There are amazing free verisons as well like Stellarium.

Binoculars though can help you looking at stars invisible to naked eye. It's great start but I find using telescopes by attending star gazing sessions more effective way to look stars.


What can a regular person use to view the stars? - Astronomy

The contenders: Orion's 20X-60X 80mm spotting scope, and the Short Tube 80

Can you use a spotting scope for astronomy?

I get this question all the time from terrestrial observers. My response usually runs something like:

1) For terrestrial observations, you need something called a spotting scope.

2) I don't know much about spotting scopes (aside from some quick peeks through some breathtakingly expensive units from Leica and Swarovski)

3) See if there is someone on the web who does what I do, except with spotting scopes.

But I've gotten to wonder over time: Can you use a spotting scope for astronomy? Over the record-breaking snowy 2014-2105 winter, I had a lot of time to ponder questions like this. While browsing the Orion web site over the holidays, I somehow found their $299 spotting scope, #52421, in my shopping cart. It arrived two days later in a long cardboard shipping container. The scope is often discounted check Orion's site if you're interested in buying one. The scope has a rotating body, a small "backwards" focusing knob on the right side, a non-removable 20X-60X zoom eyepiece, a thin plastic screw-on lens cover, and a 1/4" X 20 mounting block. I attached a Vixen-compatible mounting plate to the latter and placed it on my CG-5.

Orion's Short Tube 80 ($199, check Orion's web site for current prices and possible clearance specials) has been reviewed quite a few times on this site and elsewhere. The scope is a known quantity in our hobby as a decent quality, low-cost quick peek scope. As of this writing, it comes very well appointed for its price - rings, plate, 8X40 finder, 20 mm and 9 mm Expanse eyepieces, and a nice zippered carrying case.

With Orion's sale on the spotting scope, the two scopes are identically priced. However, the spotting scope lacks a finder. I have a Rigel Quik Finder ($45) that I've rigged for small scopes. I drilled some holes in the finder's base and threaded a length of elastic I got from Wal-Mart ($.97) as a quick fix. If you think it defaces the scope, you should know I also use it on my Questar (that loud noise you just heard is the horde of Questarphiles firing off nasty emails to me.) The Vixen plate also costs about $20, so factor that in if you intend to use the scope the way I did.

Mike T and John R joined me that night. We mounted both scopes on CG-5 mounts and went observing in single-digit weather. I polled the guys as to their biases beforehand. We're all biased, of course, but in this case, none of us had any idea how this would turn out. We placed the scopes about 20 feet apart and walked between them. To match powers, we used the supplied 20 mm Expanse eyepiece for 20X, and a 6 mm Radian to nearly match the 60X in the spotting scope.

We star tested both scopes on Procyon. The Short Tube 80 did quite well, considering its price. There was very little spherical aberration, with the expected halo of false color. The spotting scope gave us a little more to talk about. It has a trace of astigmatism. It had about the same amount of false color, but the aberration was more rose-colored than we've come to expect. I would classify the spotting scope as an achromat, and given its price, I was surprised the star test wasn't a lot worse, with all of those prisms in the way.

On Jupiter at 60X in both scopes, the views were again too close to call. All four moons could be seen this night, along with two cloud bands on the surface of the planet. Every time one of us thought we preferred one over the other, it would turn out to be seeing conditions getting in the way. It's a good thing the spotting scope capped out at 60X, because the image was already starting to degrade at that power. We noticed the same thing in the Short Tube 80. Neither scope is going to spend a lot of time at high power. Another draw.

Deep sky yielded the same result. On the Orion Nebula, both scopes looked the same, at both 20X and 60X.

No matter what we did, the scopes were nearly identical optically. I was surprised - I expected one to be clearly better than the other, but it didn't turn out that way.

Mechanically, it was a different story. Built for terrestrial use, the spotting scope lacks the astro-specific conveniences on the Short Tube 80. We kept fishing around to find the tiny focuser, for example, a task made harder through thick gloved hands. And I don't know why, but a 45 degree viewing angle never seems to feel right for astronomy. The spotting scope did win minor convenience points for its rotating body and zoom lens, but overall, we all felt that the Short Tube 80 was easier to use.

So it's a close call, but if we had to choose, all of us would take the Short Tube 80 if we needed to go observing.

For an objective reference, I brought along my TeleVue 85 ($2300, OTA only.) How did it compare? Let's put it this way. Remember in Star Trek when they beamed down to find two primitive warring factions?

Wait. that describes a lot of Star Trek episodes.

The TeleVue 85 walked all over the spotting scope and the Orion Short Tube 80. Blacks were blacker, stars focused down to impossibly small points, and the contrast was deep and satisfying. False color left Procyon and Jupiter. On the planet, we were able to push the power to 200X and it still looked good. The Orion Nebula hung in mid air and had that reach-out-and-touch-it quality. Neither inexpensive scope belongs in the same league as the TeleVue 85. At nearly twelve times the price, it had better deliver the goods. But there is a real difference, and if you've never looked through a good apo, visit a local star party sometime and treat yourself to its views.

So - to answer the question. Can you use a spotting scope for astronomy? The answer is yes. If you're primarily a terrestrial observer who wants to look up at the night sky once in a while, it will do double duty for quick peeks. If you're a regular reader of this web site, however, I think you're still better off spending the money on an astro-specific telescope.


Top 5 Stargazing Tents

This tent, which is from Moutainsmith, has a three-season use, which means that you can use it in most adverse weather conditions. In fact, the tent has a bathtub-style floor so that it’s very difficult for moisture to accumulate on the tent’s floor.

For stargazing, this tent is fairly impressive. When the night is clear, all you’ll have to do is remove the rainfly this provides a fairly unobstructed view of the night sky for the people staying in this two-person tent.

  • Assembly of the tent is very easy in fact, Mountainsmith uses color-coding and J-hooks to make it very easy to pitch this tent.
  • It’s designed to comfortably accommodate two people.
  • The tent has a two-vestibule layout. This means that you can store things like shoes and packs right outside the tent without them getting wet.
  • Despite the fact that this has two vestibules, they are somewhat small.
  • The material could be stronger it can definitely abrade if you’re not careful.
  • The 7000 Series aluminum alloy Yunan poles can break fairly easily.

Stars? Or something else?

With what's presented, it's hard to tell what these are. To me the image on the left looks like a contrail and the image on the right looks like a bright star viewed through clouds, but the absence of further context makes it impossible to know for sure.

However, there is a flaw in the way this data was collected that might not be intuitive at first. When you take an image, you collect a grid of pixels. That grid of pixels is all the data you have, and no resizing algorithm no matter how good is capable of 'adding' detail to the original data. When you resize, screencap, and resize, your phone is filling in the new pixels with its best guess of what data should be there but how it generates the final image is based on its resizing algorithm and not what was actually visible in the sky. These pictures could be stars partially covered by whispy clouds or they could be the result of artifacts generated in the repeated resizings. The best way for us to tell for sure would be to take a look at the original images. Even poor seeing conditions could result in wobbly looking stars that get stretched and artifacted when digitally zoomed.

If you have the original uncropped images we could give you a better idea of what you were looking at

#4 havasman

Hi Zoey and welcome to the forums!

Congratulations on your innovative approach. It may just be me, but I think it is difficult to recognize any familiar star in the image. Is it possible there was some cloud cover? It has been cloudy here for much of the last several weeks or at least has seemed so. The starlight could have been scattered into odd patterns that you have captured and blown up.

Stars are known as point sources. They remain small almost completely round points even when magnified.

Next time you try this exercise, see if you can determine what star you are capturing. Look at direction, measured clockwise in degrees from due N. And look at elevation, degrees above the horizon. See if you have picked the brightest star in that area. Note the time and date of your observation. All these factor into defining the star.

Looking forward to where this goes.

#5 Qwert

At first glance, the images looks like DSOs, but.

I must say the images you took have a pretty good detail after being screenshot and zoomed again and again. The fact that your image is that detailed and not zoomed pixels after being screenshot-zoomed is actually weird. (Assuming what you do is exactly what you told us above).

I think its almost impossible to took a photo of a DSO with 30% phone camera zoom, and then being zoomed again and again and looks like that. Keep in mind that DSOs are small and far. (They are called DSO for some reasons. )

My best guess is that its some cloud you have there.

Because even if it is some bright big DSO, when taken with 30% zoom on your phone camera, it would be very small, and no matter how much you screenshot-zoomed it, it wont get any larger or become more detailed, because what you have are just that several pixels.

To see that the images become that detailed, i think its just some clouds, and a very bright star or moon might explain why they are shining.

Also another thing, i live in a bortle 9 area, when i took a picture of the clouds at night with my phone, the result looks like that. My phone camera is bad, it makes things look more contrast so the grayish cloud become more white-ish and the light polluted orange-grayish sky becomes black, it looks pretty similar to your first image.

Edited by Qwert, 03 May 2021 - 12:18 AM.

#6 Qwert

This is a good example about why screenshot-zooming is useless

Take a look at my images of jupiter i took two nights ago from my phone and how screenshot zooming affect the images.

Its just the same pixels but bigger, by zooming it, the image wont become more detailed as revenhawk82 had said before.

Its just some useless magnification id say, screenshot-zooming isnt quite a good thing to do.

Also its a good example of the thing i said before too, phone camera often has a automatic contrast filter (i dont know others but some of my phone are like that and it sucks!), the sky here is actually light polluted bright yellowish-grayish but it turn black. So a cloud at a light polluted area taken from a bad phone camera might look like your first image even without any stars or moon behind it, it looks shining.

Edited by Qwert, 02 May 2021 - 11:29 PM.

#7 T

What's up with all the formatting code. was that whole post a cut and paste?

What is the significance of 30% zoom, curious why that was chosen?

I'm not sure what you are trying to do by continuously zooming in from screenshots is best practice even given no telescope. That will not produce a meaningful magnification, especially after several iterations. If your device is upscaling or in some way applying a process to zoom in beyond 100% then you may get artifacts, and those will multiply with each iteration. Best to zoom in optically as much as possible then look at the pixels 1:1. Editing or applying an upscaling process should be done with software designed to do so, with astro imaging we often apply a drizzle to increase the scale of the image. Zooming in on your phone and taking screenshots I am afraid isn't worth much discussion, it is just not good practice. But just one thing that stands out to me as odd, if these pictures are indeed not modified other than zooming in several times, they should be extremely pixelated and noisy but they are not, they are quite smooth, which does not correspond with what you describe, rather odd.

Stew, 02 May 2021 - 11:27 PM.

#8 t_image

Looks to me you've captured some clouds illuminated somwhat by the Moon or reflecting light pollution.

I see what could be thought on as a frightening face (is that the demon?) on the left of the top one,

kindof like how people can stare up at passing clouds and see shapes in them (I was never good at that R.inkblot thing) or even see a face in the Moon.

I could be wrong.Maybe some blur from small motions trying to do a handheld shot would be amplified the more the camera "zooms in" with what you describe as a digital zoom method.

Keep looking up! Lots of things to see and learn about!

Lots of great people here to help you enjoy and understand whats up there, esp., with gear that makes things easier.

Take a quick look at the youtube channels of cn members below that use night vision to see in video some cool stuff using image intensifier night vision gear that turns very faint things visible, which makes it easy to tell what they are often.

#9 Zoey100

I have erased alot of the originals but still have a few. I will post them. I was jlooking at the brightest stars,I do not pretend to know all the stars names but The demon star is the one that I pay most attention to.

I googled why the star has the nickname Demon Star and it says because it deplicts hs the Demon Madusa , Funny they say that. How does a ball of fire deplicts anything? Thank you very much for your reply, you do not know how much this means. I started questioning everything because of this and could not anyone that hasn't seen me take the photos to believe I wasn't lieing I have some very wicked images , I'll also post a few of them..

Attached Thumbnails

#10 Zoey100

I definitely will be saving my original from now on. Thank you.

#11 Zoey100

I believe that the skies are God's glory, I am firm in my belief, and will not push my religion upon anyone here.

I am very grateful all of you are replying to me. I will take all of your advice. I am planning on purchasing a telescope. May need your advice on how to work it when the time comes .Thank you again. Zoey

#12 EJN

#13 Qwert

Hi could you clarify what you mean by demon star? perhaps you mean algol (beta persei)?

Also thank you for sharing the original image, now i think im positive the images you are sending is just the small dot in your original images being forced to get larger.

From the original images you sent above, the weird images you got is just the effect of zooming, as ravenhawk82 had stated,

When you resize, screencap, and resize, your phone is filling in the new pixels with its best guess of what data should be there but how it generates the final image is based on its resizing algorithm and not what was actually visible in the sky.

The weird object you are asking about is nonexistent, its just the result of the useless zooming process where the very small dot in your original images are forced to become larger.

It is not a real thing lol, you cant just zoom the small star in the original pic and boom you could see the star clearly, like no matter how much i zoom the pic of jupiter i send above i will never be able to see its bands lol. there is no such thing like the thing you refer as 'wicked images' in the sky, its just your phone's algorithm trying to find the most suitable zoomed image based from the very small dot you have lol.

Also to calrify a thing, medusa is not a demon, in the greek mythology medusa is a gorgon.

And for your question about how algol depicts medusa. first im not an expert in history so i could be wrong but in the ancient times, the ancient greeks study the visible bright stars and connect some near stars into a line, that lines shaped some sort of figure called a constellation. Then the ancient greek use their power of 'imagination', where they name these constellations from the names of heroes, gods, objects, and else. The constellation where algol is in, is called perseus, it is the shape of a man holding the head of medusa like in the mythology. Algol here represents the head (or more precisely the eye) of medusa perseus is holding, you better search it on google for yourself, i dont know if i remember this right.

And one last thing, no offense, but it kinda feels like you are just trolling lol.


'100 Things to See in the Night Sky': A Stargazing Guide for Beginners

Update for Dec. 14: Amazon has temporarily sold out of "100 Things to See in the Night Sky," but you can still order the book from Barnes & Noble here. It will be back in stock on Amazon on Dec. 17.

Have you ever looked up at the night sky, scratching your head and wondering what planets and stars you're seeing? Or have you ever wanted to wish upon a shooting star, but don't know where to find one?

For anyone who enjoys looking up, but feels lost in the sea of stars, planets and other objects overhead, a new book called "100 Things to See in the Night Sky" breaks down everything you need to know to stargaze like a pro.

Written by Dean Regas, an astronomer and public outreach educator at the Cincinnati Observatory in Ohio, this book is perfect for prospective stargazers or amateur astronomers of all ages &mdash no prior skills or telescopes necessary!

"100 Things to See in the Night Sky" provides a simple and accessible field guide for recognizing stars, constellations and asterisms (star patterns that make shapes) in the sky. It also includes some tips for seeing things that aren't as constant or predictable, like meteor showers, auroras, eclipses, satellites passing overhead and other astronomical events. Each celestial sight is listed with a brief story of the object's history, a description, instructions for locating it, and a measure of how difficult it is to see.

"Almost everything can be seen in the city, and almost everything can be seen with the naked eye," Regas told Space.com. The book starts with the brightest and most obvious sights, including the sun, with the bulk of the rest of the book dedicated to the stars and constellations visible in the northern hemisphere every season. (A southern hemisphere edition of the book is scheduled to be released in June 2018.)

The arguably more thrilling astronomical sights toward the end of the book &mdash like comets, meteors, satellite passes, auroras and eclipses &mdash are "kind of like the icing on the cake," Regas said. "You learn the things that are there on a regular, predictable basis &mdash the stars, planets and constellations &mdash and that's the part I like the best. The other things are the kind of 'wow!' moments" that can catch people off guard if they're unaware of them beforehand, he said.

While telescopes or binoculars are not required to see most things in this book, either will come in handy for making out the details of certain celestial sights. "Binoculars will definitely help with a few of the objects, like a couple of star clusters," Regas said. "For the planets, that's where a telescope really comes in handy, because you can identify the five naked-eye planets" (Mercury Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn), he said. "Seeing Saturn in a telescope, it is just incredible to see those rings. It just looks totally fake, like someone put a sticker up there, and it's just so perfect."

That said, the majority of the book is dedicated to naked-eye astronomy and helping beginners become familiar with what they can see when looking up. "It's the idea of trying to get kind of a foothold in the sky and some landmarks you can go back to and then expand out from," Regas said.

"I think people can get kind of intimidated by trying to identify things, but if they can get five or 10 that they really know where they are, then they'll feel like they can go to other things."

"100 Things to See in the Night Sky" is officially intended for readers who are high school age and up, but Regas said he's gotten excellent reviews from fifth-graders. The book is simple and straightforward and doesn't contain any undefined scientific jargon, plus it's loaded with useful illustrations and maps of the night sky, so "there's a lot of stuff that even younger kids can get out of it," not just adult beginners, Regas said.


How Astronomy Can Change Your Understanding of Life

Astronomy can open our eyes to the wonders of the universe but it can also provide deep spiritual insight and shift our perspective on the role we play in the collective. Find out how you can have more celestial encounters in your life and get the most out of your experiences. (Estimated reading time: 6-7 minutes)

“For small creatures such as we, the vastness of the Universe is bearable only through love.”

— Carl Sagan

Until the early 1500s, our understanding of our existence in the Universe was heavily influenced by religious dogma.

Virtually everyone back then believed that Earth was the center of the Universe and that we humans played a superior role in the cosmic kingdom, as decreed by the church authorities.

This theory was eventually challenged in 1543 by a polish scientist named Nicolaus Copernicus, who proposed that Earth, along with other planets, revolved around the sun. Although his model was not completely accurate, it provided a breakthrough in the scientific world, and was developed further by Galileo Galilei in 1632.

Most people, particularly those that head religious institutions, were not ready to accept this truth. Copernicus cleverly published his findings two months before his death to avoid being penalized for questioning the sanctity of the Catholic churches’ beliefs.

Galileo didn’t wait until his last days to declare his findings and had to face charges for committing heresy, and found himself under house arrest.

Fortunately, we’ve come a long way from those days. Nowadays, we’re led by our curiosity and we’re open to examining any new theories and assumptions that we have about the Universe.

Our collective evolution, along with burgeoning technological advancement, has allowed us to literally reach for the stars and get more acquainted with the wonders of outer space.

Most of us learn about the solar system and space in school, but once we step into adulthood, we retract into our own personal bubble and lose that ‘cosmic consciousness’ and inquisitiveness that we’re naturally born with.

As a kid, I had a deep fascination for astronomy. I stuck glow-in-the-dark stars in my room, watched Star Trek every week, and dreamed of becoming an astronaut one day.

My interest faded away once I got preoccupied with life and the complexities of growing up. It was not until my sophomore year in college that I was able to rekindle my passion. My father gifted me a DVD box set of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos documentary series. What I loved most of about Sagan’s narrative (besides the mind-boggling facts) was his ability to intertwine the study of the cosmos with spirituality.

According to Sagan, science is not only compatible with spirituality but it is a profound source of spirituality. And he was not the only one to suggest this. Several astronauts who have seen Earth from space have had profoundly awakening, spiritual experiences. A number of them have experienced significant cognitive and spiritual shifts, invoked by feelings of oneness and unity with a Higher Power.

Dr. Edgar Mitchell, who was the sixth person to walk on the moon, documented in his scientific biography about his moment of transcendence and enlightenment, which he had on his way back from the moon.

While looking at Earth and the cosmos from his spacecraft window, he acquired a deep knowing of our interconnectedness and how we humans get consumed by greed and ego when we miss the big picture.

Upon returning to Earth, he tried to make sense of the other-worldly sensation he experienced in space, by referring to ancient Indian religious scriptures. He found that the description of samadhi, which is when someone’s consciousness temporarily dissolves into Brahman (the highest state of consciousness), matched what he felt during his spiritual awakening. He described it as “seeing things in their separateness, but experiencing them viscerally as a unity, as oneness, accompanied by ecstasy”.

The majority of us won’t have the opportunity to visit outer space in our lifetimes, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t experience a similar sense of awe and wonder from celestial encounters. We can find great beauty, wisdom and perspective in exploring this arena, by seeking tantalizing glimpses of our planet, solar system and universe, which have evolved over billions of years.

We can do a number of things to connect with our ancient home, such as visiting planetariums, stargazing (with or without a telescope) in our backyard, observing astronomical phenomenon’s such as eclipses and meteor showers, or traveling to places that have exceptionally clear night skies, and following NASA and other space-oriented organizations on social media.

I’m convinced that if we step out of the minutia of our daily existence and allow ourselves to soak in the cosmic magic, we’ll instantly elevate our state of mind and being. We’ll develop a cosmic consciousness that’ll give us a humble perspective of our place in the grand scheme of things.

Here are some other ways astronomy can change our understanding of life:

1. You’ll broaden your horizons: Learning more about the infinite nature of the cosmos will help us experience an expanded reality that’s beyond our regular 9 to 5 schedule. When we see ourselves as living in an incomprehensibly vast Universe, instead of the limited horizons of one small planet, our whole paradigm of existence shifts.

Our imagination will stretch as we ponder over what it might be like on the mysterious, red terrain of Mars, or the millions of stars that exist within our own Milky Way galaxy. The enormity of our Universe will make us realize that there’s so much more than what meets the eye.

2. You’ll be influenced to ask the big questions: As humans, we’re curious creatures with a tirelessly inquiring mind. We’re baffled by the bigger questions such as: How was the universe created? Why are we here? Where did we come from? Are there other intelligent life forms out there? If there are, what will they be like? Astronomy may not be able to give us definite answers just yet (some prefer to get their answers from religious or sci-fi theories), but looking up at the stars does quench our thirst for wanderlust and keeps us on our toes when it comes to asking profound questions.

3. You’ll see the Earth as one big family: The biggest causes of conflicts and tensions between nations have been the result of an “us versus them” mentality. An ego-driven identification with one’s country or race causes mistrust, fear and hate. Learning astronomy will eradicate extreme ethnocentricity and inspire us to embrace our differences.

We’ll develop an identity that isn’t overly attached to our cultural background or our nationality. Instead, we’ll see ourselves as citizens of the world, who are open and loving towards everyone we meet, no matter what their racial, religious, social or economic background is. We’ll realize that we’re all inhabitants of this one tiny, precious planet.

4. You’ll feel a deeper sense of responsibility towards the planet: When we know more about other planetary systems, we’ll realize that our planet is the only one that can sustain and nourish life in our solar system. It is the only home that’s within our reach because other planets are inhospitable and cannot support any form of life. Knowing this will hopefully make us value and cherish our planet more. A home as beautiful, lush and bountiful as ours needs us to care and preserve its treasures.

Sadly, the realities of global warming and growing animal and plant extinctions shows that corporate and political agendas have taken precedence and moved us in the direction of greed and corruption. Yet, we can still turn the ship around by doing our part in caring for our planet.

5. You won’t feel so alone: As you develop a deeper understanding of the Universal laws and patterns that govern the planet and cosmos, you’ll begin to feel a connection with something larger than yourself. You’ll experience the Universe as intelligent, loving and harmonious, and you’ll feel supported by its high vibrations. Having knowledge about the basic laws of life and energy will give you the ability to tap into cosmic support while manifesting your dreams. When connected to this Universal flow of energy, you’ll feel invigorated by a sense of belonging to the cosmic family.

So the next time you’re having a tough day, take a deep breath and tilt your head towards the sky. As you observe the soothing hues that color the heavens, let go of your worries and allow your mind to drift into sweet reveries of faraway lands floating in our cosmic ocean.

All my best on your journey,

Question for you: Do you enjoy learning about astronomy? If you do, how has it changed your understanding of life?

Did you like this post? Sign up below and I’ll send you more awesome posts like this one every week.


Ep. 66: How Amateurs Can Contribute to Astronomy

Astronomy is one of the few sciences where amateurs make meaningful contributions to discoveries. Many professional researchers work hand-in-hand with teams of amateurs to make discoveries that just wouldn’t be possible without this kind of collaboration. In fact, Pamela regularly relies on dedicated enthusiasts for her data on variable stars.

Shownotes

Organizations to Check Out

    – do real science with variable stars of all types – help find transiting exoplanets – Humans can classify galaxies way better than computers ever could – put those unused computer cycles to work searching for alien life on observing meteor showers: when, where, how – where to report your meteor shower observations and turn it into useable data – make sure your meteor isn’t actually a satellite – help discover the shape of asteroids or mountains on the moon – track and combat light pollution – tracking light pollution by looking at Orion

Want more info on some of the science we talked about this week? Check out these old episodes (and their show notes) from our archive.

  • Episode 2: In Search of Other Worlds
  • Episode 14: We’re All Made of Supernovae
  • Episode 22: Variable Stars
  • Episode 30: The Sun, Spots and All
  • Episode 36: Gamma-Ray Bursts
  • Episode 37: Gravitational Lensing

Pamela’s Favourite Variable Star Observing Set-up

Transcript: How Amateurs Can Contribute to Astronomy

Fraser: This is one of the shows we’ve had a lot of people ask us about, so I’m really glad to be able to do this one.

Astronomy is one of the few sciences where amateurs can make a meaningful contribution to the advancement of science. Many professional researchers work hand in hand with teams of amateurs to make discoveries that wouldn’t be possible without this kind of collaboration.

We’ve got a special guest here today – Pamela, you do this kind of collaboration. Why don’t you regale use with a tale of your research?

Pamela: I’m a variable star researcher. I study these little stars called RR Lyrae stars that are perhaps most famous for all pretty much being the exact same luminosity. This means these lights are all their own little moral equivalent of 100W light bulbs. When we look at them, we measure how bright they appear and we can figure out where in the universe they’re located by knowing the luminosity. I’ve used this example a million times, but it’s the same way we’re able to figure out how far away cars are at night by looking at how bright the headlights appear.

Fraser: How do amateurs come into your work?

Pamela: Well, RR Lyraes are most famous as standard candles. That’s not why they’re most interesting. These little pulsating variable stars, over the course of human lifetimes, can actually be seen to evolve and change. If you watch them night after night, year after year, you can see their periods change, you can see them occasionally pick up, you can see them go through these weird multi-period effects where it’s like 2 windshield wiper blades that aren’t quite in sync. Sometimes they’re both moving to the left, and sometimes one is going to the left and the other is going to the right.

When you get these periods beating against each other, you get the same sorts of beats and increases and decreases in how the star’s behaving. These really weird stars are the ones that interest me.

But it takes lots and lots of nights of telescope time to understand what’s going on. Telescope time at national observatories and university facilities is extremely hard to get. By working with amateurs, who are generally happy to look at the same star night after night, month after month, I’m able to get enough data to de-couple all these different weirdnesses that are going on.

Fraser: What kind of setup would one of your contributors have?

Pamela: A lot of the people I work with have your normal, off-the-shelf Meade or Celestron telescope. Something eight inches in diameter or bigger is good for getting into the harder science – 12 inches is just about perfect.

Attached to this is a special type of digital camera called a CCD. They’re generally made for amateur use by SBIG Corporation (Santa-Barbara Instruments Group) and by a company called Apogy. These special digital cameras are used with filters that only let certain colours of light get to the detector. This allows people to take data all over the world and then combine the data together to get one great combined data set.

Fraser: Okay, so let’s say you’re interested in astronomy and you want to contribute. What kind of a budget would you be looking to lay out for that?

Pamela: You’re probably looking to spend about 5 thousand dollars, as an initial buy-in, to start doing good, hard science.

Fraser: But you’re going to be able to use this telescope for…

Fraser: …pretty astro-photos and showing your friends Saturn, as well as doing hard science.

Pamela: This is a telescope you can use for everything.

Pamela: So you’re doing the digital imaging. You’re doing filtered scientific imaging. You’re looking at pretty objects with your eyes by pulling the CCD off and putting the eyepiece that came with the telescope in. It’s a very versatile, flexible system.

Fraser: Maybe in the show notes, we’ll describe what we think the perfect setup for that. This is not going out with binoculars and your eyes and learning your constellations. This is the next level of stuff, but at the same time what are the rewards? I mean, beyond contributing to the knowledge of humanity… you can get your name in journals, even speak. I’ve seen some pretty neat things happen in these kinds of collaborations.

Pamela: I’m actually in the process of putting together two different research papers where other than me, all of the authors are going to be amateur astronomers that I have collaborated with on two different projects. In one case, the first author on the paper is one of the people that I’ve worked with through Swinburn Astronomy Online, who’s an amateur astronomer who’s been taking some online classes to work to get an advanced degree in this thing he does as a hobby.

You can see your name in the peer-reviewed literature, but I think the most cool thing that comes out of particularly studying variable stars is you can, over the course of a single night, see a star change. You can watch it get brighter, get fainter and its behaviour from night to night isn’t always identical with the RR Lyrae stars I study in particular.

There are other types of stars that are misbehaved out there as well. You can just watch their strange variations and get involved in why it is. Not everyone is sure. We don’t really have solid reasons for some of these misbehaviours that are going on. The data that normal people in their backyards are taking is the data that is someday going to help us solve these mysteries.

Fraser: I think as well there’s a certain amount of innovation that’s going on with some of the people with the smaller telescopes. They’re having to learn some tricks, having to learn some image processing techniques. There’s actually something they have to teach the professionals again. It really is a true collaboration.

This is going to sound like a total laundry list, and I apologise in advance. We kind of brainstormed all the areas we could think of and I can’t really think of a way to string it all into some kind of logical narrative.

We talked a bit about variable stars. Why don’t we start with that? What are the kinds of variable stars that amateurs can help out with?

Pamela: The best way to get involved is to check out the website of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). They have a lot of different ways that you, as a normal person with a telescope, can go out and get involved in doing real science.

There’s variable stars that intrinsically vary – RR Lyraes, Cepheid stars…. These are individual stars that are changing in brightness. You could also study binary stars. These are stars that appear to vary, but it’s really two stars with one that’s passing in front of the other. We can use data to figure out the masses of these stars, the distance to the stars, how their orbits are evolving over time.

There’s one type of variable stars called cataclysmic variables where one of the two stars is sucking material off of the other star. Occasionally these flare up as nova events.

There’s recently been a set of Hubble Space Telescope images that were taken for Paula Scodi, a researcher out in Washington. She got ground-based data from amateur astronomers to support this data. If this particular cataclysmic variable she was observing had gone into a nova event while Hubble was looking at it, it would have been too bright for Hubble’s instruments. She needed to work with the amateurs to make sure her star stayed nice and non-nova for the duration of the Hubble observations.

There’s also the biggest boys of all, the supernova. There are still amateur astronomers out there who search the sky by eye and by digital camera night after night, imaging in some cases hundreds of galaxies looking for that one elusive supernova that might crop up out of all these galaxies.

Fraser: With the supernovas, that’s really important. A lot of astronomers need to study those, right?

Pamela: Supernova get used for a bunch of reasons. There’s the whole standard candle thing that we’ve all heard so much about. But you and I are made out of supernova material. So by understanding the nearby supernova that are close enough we can get good images, we can get good spectra, and we can measure how much of all the different elements is getting produced in this supernova event. By looking at these nearby supernova events getting discovered by amateur astronomers in many cases, we can better understand where the stuff that made you and I originated.

Fraser: From what I understand, the techniques for finding supernova is a little different. With a variable star, you just point your telescope at the object and report over a long period of time and send in your observations. With supernova, you don’t know where you’re looking. You’re just scanning the skies based on your knowledge of how bright a galaxy should be, looking for a strange star in one of them.

Pamela: The supernova discoverers are some of the most amazing observers in some respects. I got a chance to know one out at McDonald Observatory, Bill Ren. He’d take his telescope out and every night he’d scan through over a hundred galaxies with his eyes, jumping from one galaxy to the next, to the next to the next. He’d memorized what all of these galaxies looked like. As he jumped from them, he’d be looking for changes where any change he saw just might be that next great, cool, supernova that everyone turns to look to.

Fraser: So that’s where the training and where the amateurs have something to tech the pros.

Pamela: Yeah, we can’t find anything on our own.

Fraser: What about finding planets? I know the search for planets sometimes involves dimming the light of the star, making it a variable. Are amateurs involved in that?

Pamela: This is another place where amateurs are out there keeping up with the big boys with the big telescopes. There’s an organization called transitsearch.org, and they go out and study the stars that have planets transiting them. They’ve gotten together pockets of amateur astronomers to help out in this.

There are a number of planets we know of that cross directly between us and the nearby bright star they orbit. We can see at sometimes just the 1% level (or even less than that – the 0.1% level), the light of the star dimming as the planet passes in front of it.

Even though this is such a small change in the brightness of the star, if you have a four-inch telescope, just a little one, and you calibrate it really well, it’s possible to go out and observe planets in your backyard from a dark enough location. That’s really cool.

Again, these are things amateurs have already done.

Fraser: I guess the problem with observing extrasolar planets is that you don’t know where to look. If you find the right star, with the planet moving in front of it on a regular basis, you could have that dimming of the light by 1% on a periodic basis, but the problem is there are millions and millions of stars to look at.

This is one of those situations where many eyes makes light work. Many different astronomers can be looking at many different stars and recording. You’ve also got to record over a long period of time. You can’t just look one night and go “no planet�. You’ve got to watch one star for night after night after night after night, watching for that dimming, right?

Pamela: Transit searching for amateurs can fall in a couple of different ways. It can be just as simple as someone with a big telescope doing spectroscopy and looking at Doppler shifting, finding the star has a planet and seeing if we can go out and see it as a transient.

Or it can be what you just said. You go out and observe a chunk of the sky, say an open cluster of stars – a large busy section filled with lots of stars. You look at this field night after night after night. You find the RR Lyraes in it, you find Cepheids in it, you find the binary stars in it. You also find those occasional stars with those tenth of a percent changes in magnitude that are varying because they have planets.

Fraser: I wonder how long ago people could have found planets. I guess a big part of this is the technology. You’ve got these CCDs that can measure the light coming in from an object with such precision that you can know the light is decreasing by 1%. It would be hard to look through photographic plates and go “that object’s 1% dimmer tonight�

Pamela: Just 10 years ago, people struggled to be able to do this. Once we started finding planets, it was a struggle to look for the transits. Now people are doing it with four-inch telescopes. The technology, the digital cameras have gotten much more precise, much lower noise, and it starts to make these sorts of detections possible.

Fraser: There’s the micro-lensing too, right?

Pamela: Another way we can find planets around other stars is when a nearby star passes directly in line with a background star. The star’s gravity can cause the light from the background star to appear to get brighter because some extra light beams that were originally headed off to a different part of the universe, get bent due to gravitational lensing to point directly to us.

Fraser: We did a whole show on this, so if you want to reference how the gravitational lensing works, you can listen to our show on it. But to recap…

Pamela: In a few cases you get: foreground star lenses background star, makes background star appear much bigger, and then as this alignment starts to change, you see the background star getting fainter and fainter and fainter. Occasionally you’ll get this second spike. This second spike is caused by a planet going around that foreground star also passing in front of the background star and adding its own little bit of lensing to the game.

We’ve found some of the smallest planets we know about because of their gravity, not because of them transiting or causing Doppler shifts. These are planets that are out in the edges of the Milky Way in some cases, and we have no other way of finding them.

Fraser: This is one of those situations where astronomers detect the transit and then they make an announcement to a whole group of amateurs to point at it. The amateurs can watch the transit and confirm if there’s a planet or not, and the details of the transit. So once again this is a great example because in many cases it’s hard to get big telescope time at the drop of a hat. In many cases you can inform a large network of people and they can go out within the hour and see if they can confirm the transit or the micro-lensing.

Pamela: One of the things you can do with amateurs much easier than you can with professionals in some cases, is get a whole group of them together that are spread all over the globe, and get 24-hour coverage of an object. If you can find something near the celestial equator, you just bounce from nation to nation (and in some cases hemisphere to hemisphere), drawing together Canadian observers, New Zealand observers, Japanese observers, Turkish observers, bringing in people from all around the globe to look at one micro-lensing event, one supernova.

Gamma ray bursts are another place that amateurs get involved looking at the gamma ray burst afterglows. There are so many different ways that professionals just couldn’t do the science they want to do without amateurs being out there willing to help out and willing to invest the money to have fun contributing to science.

Fraser: All right. We’ve talked about a bunch of stuff that’s outside the solar system. Let’s talk about stuff amateurs can help with inside the solar system.

Pamela: Yeah, we haven’t escaped the solar system, have we?

Let’s start with the Sun. One of the things we keep track of is how many Sunspots the Sun has at a given moment, where they’re located on the Sun. this is how we tell we’re coming out of solar minimum: when do we start getting spots on new parts of the Sun, when do the spots jump from the equator to the poles. So we have networks of amateur astronomers around the globe who count Sunspots.

We also have amateur astronomers who use radio equipment a lot of times home-built, to listen for bursts of the Sun’s energy hitting our atmosphere and creating solar ionospheric disruptions (SIDS). These get recorded. This is again something you can work with the AAVSO to do. Our Sun is one target.

Another target, and in fact something that allows you to potentially permanently make your name part of the astronomical record, is looking for comets.

Nowadays, there’s so many different automated telescopes that the majority of the comets are starting to get found by these automated systems, like LINEAR – we’ve all heard of different Comet LINEAR-this or Comet LINEAR-that. They’re not all the same comet, but people like David Levy are still out there searching by eye for comets that are their own comet. You can go out and look for comets. If you find one, your name gets to go on it. People are still finding new asteroids pretty much everyday of the week.

There is a lot of junk out in our solar system, just waiting to be found by someone patient enough to look for it and then report it correctly. Harvard university has an entire minor planet association there where you can get checked out and contribute in three different ways. You can follow up on objects that are well-known and help refine the orbits.

Fraser: Hold on a second, can we talk about that for a second? That’s pretty important. The stereotype when astronomers discover an asteroid is an astronomer looks through the telescope, spots the asteroid and goes, “oh my God!�

Pamela: That is so not true.

Fraser: “That’s going to hit the Earth!�

But that’s not what happens at all. It’s a painstaking process where people watch it and watch it and watch it, and refine their orbit over time. So once again there’s only so much telescope time the big observatories can dedicate to watching that random jumble of letters, 2007GR 906. But if an amateur has the time and equipment, they can watch it and determine its location and report in, a week later give another reading, and really help astronomers refine the location of these rocks.

Pamela: This is one of the more important things that you can be involved in. we occasionally misplace things because we don’t know their orbits very well. We see them on one pass around the Sun, and on their next pass we have no idea where they went. Individuals going, “hey, this object needs more data,� are able to help us better understand how things are moving around in our solar system.

Then there’s also just follow up on discoveries. There’s the objects we sort of/kind of know, but we need more data to understand them very well. Then there’s the objects that are brand new that no one’s ever seen before. We need to confirm those. You can get involved by saying, “I just got an alert there might be a new object. I’m going to follow up on this and help confirm if it’s a new object or not.� Is it just somebody had a crazy lightening bug interfering with their data? (not that I think that ever happens, but I’m trying to come up with something that could interfere with data)

Pamela: But you do occasionally discover new things. You’re out there taking images of Saturn and you do this three nights in a row and notice one of the stars in your image is slowly escaping. That slowly escaping star might just happen to be an asteroid that happens to be lined up with Saturn when you’re taking pictures.

Fraser: What about some of the actual planets in the solar system. Is there stuff that amateurs can spot?

Pamela: Storms. Just as there are storm chasers here on planet Earth, there’s also storm chasers that are the first ones to call out, “hey – Mars has a huge dust storm coming up!� Mars now has its own network of weather satellites, but at the same time amateurs still play a role in helping understand these.

Jupiter’s junior red spot, when it changed colours it was an amateur who noticed it. Tracking the spots on Jupiter is something amateurs participate it.

Fraser: I hate to belabour this point, but I think that most people really underestimate how much of the sky is being observed at any one time. I think people have this idea that there are telescopes watching everything out in space at all times and they see everything going on. In fact, telescopes can only see a teeny-tiny slice of sky and can only look at a couple of targets a night. In some cases, Hubble will take pictures that will be of the same object for dozens or even hundreds of hours. There’s no way they can look at anything but one tiny little target.

To have all these eyes out there, all the time, looking at as many things as possible, lets the astronomers catch the stuff they never really thought of. How could the people not notice there’s a new storm on Jupiter? The reality is people aren’t watching Jupiter everyday. They just don’t know – and they’re not keeping really, really careful measurements about what they’re seeing.

Pamela: It’s not just looking at the sky to observe parts of the sky that aren’t being observed (and there’s a whole lot of parts of the sky that aren’t being observed). Just for perspective, the moon is about 30 arcminutes by 30 arcminutes in size. The telescopes I used for a lot of my dissertation research had a field of view that was 7 arcminutes by 7 arcminutes in size. They couldn’t even see one ninth of the moon.

If your typical professional telescope is lucky to be able to see one ninth of the moon, which doesn’t take up a whole lot of sky… the majority of the sky at any given moment isn’t being observed by anyone.

As well as trying to keep track of what’s going on in the sky, there’s a ton of data that’s getting taken by automated missions, different satellites, automated telescopes that also needs people to take a look at it. One of the most famous examples is looking for Sun-grazing comets in SOHO images. That’s somewhere where there are lots of amateur data-mining astronomers who are sitting in their living rooms poring over data and pulling out and discovering all these comets in the process of zooming to their doom.

Fraser: You don’t even need equipment for this. This is one of those situations where you can sit at home with an internet connection, the right data and be able to pull up discoveries.

Another great example of that is you look at the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which is one of these automated network of telescopes observing vast swaths of the sky (a percentage of the sky, I don’t remember the final number will be, 20-30%) at a pretty high resolution. All that data is available on the internet. When I write articles on Universe Today, many of them are like, “this team was looking through the Sloan Digital Sky Survey to measure the brightness of quasars� or “this team has turned up 10 thousand unknown asteroids�. In many cases it’s more about being a good programmer and knowing how to grind through that data – being a good database analyst. So in many cases if you’re a programmer or a database researcher… there are lots of ideas people have, they just don’t have the time or software to grind through this automatic data.

I think another good example is the Galaxy Zoo is pretty cool. Have you played with that yet?

Pamela: It’s a really neat thing. The data they’re getting with Galaxy Zoo… just having individuals look at galaxies by eye (because humans can visually classify things better than any computer can), by just going through, looking at these things and saying, “yes, the arms are wound clockwise/counter-clockwise, we’re looking at it edge-on. This is an elliptical galaxy. This is something so irregular it looks like the letter Q�.

Fraser: A computer does a really terrible job of grinding through the Sloan data, but a human can really spot them and say that galaxy’s left/right/spiral/elliptical.

Pamela: This is data that astronomers have been dying to get. The sky is so big, there’s so much to do, and it takes human eyes to do it. To do statistically valid samples – to look at 10 thousand objects, you’re either looking at torturing a whole pack of graduate students for 3 or 4 years, or sending out to the entire population of the world and saying, “hey world – help me do science�. We’re finding people are more than willing to help out if you just give them the tools.

They’re doing some really amazing things with Galaxy Zoo and they’re also having fun. One project going on the side is trying to find galaxies that look like all the letters of the alphabet. While that’s thoroughly silly and not really leading to great science, it’s the type of thing that will get people interested in looking at the science. While they’re looking for the elusive letter Z, they’re also classifying galaxies, and their classifications will allow scientists to statistically valid and significant studies.

Fraser: I know there’s some really interesting research that’s already being worked on right now, and there’s even a couple hints I’ve heard of some almost ground-breaking discoveries that might get made. There seems to be a strange imbalance of galaxies.

Pamela: Once they’re done with the information, I’ve been promised we will be told so we can…

Pamela: … bring it straight to all of you.

Fraser: Then there’s [email protected] Once again you don’t even have to be there – just turn your computer on, let it crunch through data, and find aliens!

Pamela: And occasionally find things like pulsars and other things that make systematic noise in the sky.

Fraser: Then, there are some things you can do outside anyway, that doesn’t necessarily require your computer. It doesn’t necessarily require a telescope. I’m thinking looking for meteors.

Pamela: Every year we get a whole bunch of meteor showers – the Leonids, the Perseids, the Geminids are coming up next week.

Pamela: To help us better understand the distribution of the junk in the solar system, left behind by the comets and asteroids that formed these meteor showers, people can go outside and just draw on a celestial map where the meteors they’re seeing seem to pass through the stars, and write down the times.

By writing down the positions and the times of all the different shooting stars you see, we as astronomers can better map out where the tail of Comet Enke is, or the tail of all these other objects that have led to these meteor showers.

Fraser: Is there a place people can go to turn their data in?

Pamela: Sky and Telescope Magazine, every time there’s one of these coming up, lists the appropriate body for the particular storm that’s coming up. They’re a great resource for finding where to report your meteor shower findings.

Fraser: I usually send people to amsmeteors.org, which is the American Meteor Society. I also get emails fairly often from people who say, “I saw something really bright flash through the sky. What was it?� I tell them to report it as well. If you’re just outside at night and you see a really bright fireball, that’s very important. You can report that to one of these meteor agencies. We’ll put a list of places in the show notes as well.

Pamela: One other resource that’s useful is the website heavens-above.com. It will tell you if you actually just saw a satellite. There are some satellites up there that do make fairly bright appearances in the sky. You can sort out the meteors from the satellites by going to heavens-above.com

Fraser: I’m looking through our laundry list of things that we thought of. There’s a couple I think we missed or weren’t able to categorize. One is occultations.

Pamela: Occasionally, we’ll see asteroids or even planets or the moon go in front of background stars. By getting a bunch of people all across the planet, they can look at these occultations. We can actually start to determine the shapes of asteroids, or the shapes of mountains on the moon a lot more accurately. This is another thing people can get involved in. there’s an international organization: IOA, the International Occultation Association. Get involved and go out and just watch a star wink out and time what time it occurs.

Fraser: What if you find a meteorite on the ground?

Pamela: This is one of the great mysteries: I found a rock. It might be a meteor – what do I do with it? Take it to your local geology department. If it is real, they might be scientifically interested in it. Here in the United States you actually get to keep it. You can probably make some scientist’s day by going, “here, do you want to play?� and letting them take slices out of it to see what our solar system’s made out of.

Fraser: We’ve got a couple more here: auroras?

Pamela: You can look and see how it is that the Sun’s particles that it spews our way interact with the Earth’s magnetic field by looking up, observing what colours you see. A lot of times your local weatherman will report when this is going on and tell you who’s tracking what particular event.

The next thing I think you’re going to get to is there’s also galaxies out there that vary similar to how stars vary: blazers. Occasionally you can hook up with researchers at your local university who are interested in active galaxies. If you have larger telescopes (here we’re talking 12 inches and above, and CCD equipment), you can also observe the active feeding of black holes in the centres of galaxies.

Fraser: There’s one last one, which I think is very near and dear to my heart: fighting the spread of light pollution. Many cities are just getting brighter and brighter, and I know that amateurs have been working to try and catalogue just how light polluted the skies are above various regions of the world. In many cases there are dark skies associations that you can report how bright the sky is at night, and they can keep track of where things are starting to go pretty bad. You just need your eyes – no expensive telescope.

Pamela: The International Dark Sky Association and the Globe at Night both do programs to measure light pollution. If you do like playing with technological toys there’s a little Canadian device that’s a dark sky meter. You can go out, use it to measure how dark your sky is, and then report what you measure through the internet.

Fraser: I think hopefully we’ve given the listeners enough of a list of places to get going, that I think you could spend your whole life participating in this scientific research.

I really think this whole area has opened up in the last 10 years, with the real advancement of CCD technology and a lot of automated tools that let you guide telescopes. It’s made guided telescopes that can detect this kind of really faint fluctuations in brightness within the reach of most amateurs. You get a really nice telescope you can use it for science at the same time. It’s just opened up the floodgates and really encouraged this kind of collaboration.

I think astronomy could really serve as a model to other research fields. I think that in a lot of other places, there’s the scientists and then there’s the amateurs or the enthusiasts. In many cases the difference between someone who is an amateur/enthusiast and someone who’s a professional is in many cases just some additional schooling, but in many cases one person’s a little more street-wise and the other person is more book-smart. I think the more of that kind of collaboration we can help bring together, science as a whole will take off.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. We’re in the golden age of astronomy, and this is one of the corner stones of that golden age.

Pamela: There’s no reason to be using your telescope just to look at Messier objects. Do that to inspire people, to inspire yourself occasionally – we all need to take our favourite pretty picture now and then. You can do science: all of you listening right now can go out and do science. Get involved, find some way to help increase our understanding of the universe.

Fraser: We also get the emails from the person who wanted to be an astronomer as a kid and… I don’t know, become a banker. Listening to Astronomy Cast has reignited their interest in science. Here’s the part where the rubber hits the road: if you really are interested in science, if you’re interested in astronomy and want to rekindle the childhood aspirations, there’s a way you can do it (especially if you’re a banker!).

There’s lots of ways you can get involved and the scientists really need your help. You’ve picked the right hobby.

Let us know! We’d love to hear if you’re already an amateur that participates with a professional observing or if you want to make that transition. Drop us an email and we’ll give you personalized tips and try to match make. If you’re a professional astronomer and need more amateurs, let us know. We’ll try and make some love-connections.

This transcript is not an exact match to the audio file. It has been edited for clarity.


Amboy Crater

Part of Mojave Trails National Monument, Amboy Crater rises 250 feet above the almost-ghost town of Amboy and is &ldquothe absolute darkest spot in the Mojave Desert that you can go to that has safe parking, bathrooms and you&rsquore less than 2 miles away from gas, food and water,&rdquo says Brandon Finnigan, an &ldquoamateur astronomer&rdquo who has been visiting for the last five years. Adjacent to the historic Roy&rsquos gas station on Route 66, the extinct cinder cone boasts parking lots and covered picnic areas. Finnigan says there&rsquos nearly no light pollution from Las Vegas or Los Angeles, though there&rsquos a bit from Twentynine Palms.

Amboy Crater
(Photo: Lance Gerber/DESERT magazine)

&ldquoIf you have even a small scope, a backyard telescope, pack it in the car and take it out with you,&rdquo he says. &ldquoYou&rsquore really going to push the limits of what it can see in a place like Amboy.&rdquo

Finnigan sets up a small tent next to his 8-inch dobsonian mounted reflector and says the spot is perfect for introducing his young son to the stars. &ldquoIt&rsquos so bright out there on clear nights in Amboy, I don&rsquot even use a flashlight to read my star charts by,&rdquo he says. &ldquoIt&rsquos bright enough that I can read by the light of the Milky Way.&rdquo In the coming months, Finnigan notes you&rsquoll also be able to see the Andromeda Galaxy. &ldquoYou know you&rsquore having a perfect night at Amboy if, when you look up and look toward the south, it&rsquos a feature I call the Dark Horse,&rdquo he adds. &ldquoIt&rsquos actually a cloud of dark, I guess, molecular gas in the Milky Way that kind of obscures the background light of all the stars behind it and it literally has the shape of a horse that&rsquos trotting.&rdquo

(Photo: Lance Gerber/DESERT magazine)


Although Kitt Peak itself doesn't allow any camping, the Gilbert Bay campground is a great option nearby that has the benefit of good stargazing surroundings. To keep the surroundings dark, there are no wood fires allowed. However, there are electricity hook-ups and water available on site.

The campsites at Joshua Tree will only accommodate RVs of 25 feet or less, and there are no electrical hook-ups here, but this campground does have flushing toilets and potable water. The altitude of over 4,000 feet makes for a good stargazing spot, and with the nearest city over 300 miles away, there is very little light pollution to impair the view.


In Fall 2021 Star Parties will be virtual until further notice and on Friday nights in September and October.

September: 10, 17 & 24

October: 1, 8, 15, 22, 29

Virtual Star parties are 8-9 p.m. on the Fridays. They are free and open for everyone. Come as you are anytime between 8-9 p.m.

For virtual Star Parties the “weather permitting” caveat is lifted. We will host you on zoom between 8-9 p.m. every Friday in September and October in Fall 2021.

What is a Star Party?

Since 1980, thousands of people of all ages have come to the UIS observatory for Friday Night Star Parties, as well as for special astronomical events such as lunar and solar eclipses and comets.

At a typical Star Party, visitors learn about galaxies, the sun, stars,
and stellar evolution, as well as star and constellation identification
prior to using the telescopes. These discussions take place in the stairway
gallery of astronomical pictures on the way to the rooftop observation
deck atop Brookens Library. Then, the observatory director and qualified
volunteers help visitors use each of the telescopes.

Over the years, stargazers have seen many celestial objects, including the moon and planets, deep-sky objects such as the Orion Nebula and other fascinating star systems, the beautiful yellow-blue double star Albireo, and the open star cluster called the Pleiades.

The Astronomy Program also offers Sunday Night Star Parties for people who are challenged by stairs and ladders and their friends and families.

How do I get more information?

For general questions about Friday Night Star Parties call 217-206-8342.

What do you do if it is cloudy?

This is NOT a thing for virtual Star Parties in Fall 2020. For virtual Star Parties we will do them regardless of clouds in the sky.

When we are back to in person Star Parties, in order to learn if the weather is suitable for viewing, please call 217-206-8342 after 7:00 PM on the night of the Star Party.

Is there elevator access to the Campus Observatory for a Friday Night Star Parties?

Again, not an issue for virtual Star Parties in Fall 2021.

For in person Star Parties at the campus observatory: No. Not during a Friday Night Star Party. Visitors to a Friday Night Star Party must be able to climb up and down four flights of stairs AND climb a short 5 ft ladder up to the main telescope dome. If you or a loved one that wants to attend a Star Party has trouble with stairs or ladders you should call 217-206-8342 and ask about our Sunday Night Star Parties for people with disabilities. Those Star Parties are fully accessible and require no stair or ladder climbing.

Are regular Friday Star Parties accessible in 2021?

Sorry but accessible Star Parties are canceled until the University lifts restrictions in place for COVID.

But if you are interested and you want to attend an accessible Star Party sometime in the future you are encouraged to express your interest. Please contact John Martin (217-206-83442) about Sunday Night accessible Star Parties.

Where is the UIS Campus Observatory?

The Campus observatory will be closed until the University lifts restrictions in place for COVID.

The Campus observatory is on the roof of Brookens Library. The door for the observatory is on the southeast corner of the library (side opposite the UIS fountain) and the door is marked “Observatory.” You have got to go all the way round the corner to see the observatory door. The observatory is through that door and up five flights of stairs to the roof. We appologize for the deplorable lack of signage. We are working on it. On that map below the library is building #7 and the door for the observatory is on the lower right corner of the outline of the building.