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Research activities for amateurs

Amateur or professional ?

If each of us can define what are his/her activities as amateur astronomer, what qualify an astronomer as "professional" ?

Let's take an example. In the radioastronomy world, many "observers" are in fact electronics technician or engineer and are paid to maintain and operate radiotelescopes. Many astronomers specialized in the solar study are physicists in disciplines other than plain astronomy, etc.

In other words, we usually qualify as professional people working in the large field of astronomy but who are engineer or physicists by trade. But does being paid for climbing on radiotelescopes or operating in a dark room make them professional astronomers ? Surely not. Or not really.

Take another example. An amateur operating several nights each year at Pic-du-Midi monitoring the sun activity or even being paid to observe Jupiter using major observatory equipment does not qualify him/her as a professional astronomer; he/she is qualify as an amateur doing professional work.

That occurs each time a researcher gets some money to do his/her experiments. He has then to find observers to do the so-called boring job. In some cases amateurs have the opportunity to do the tedious job of looking the sky all night long from a far exotic site, compare pictures or measure data plots.

In fact, there are a few happy amateurs whose astronomy pictures are hard to distinguish of that taken by the Hubble Space Telescope (without getting closer). But do not dream, these opportunities are not numerous but occasionally it happens.


Some authors will tell you "amateurs cannot help scientists" or "due to their lack of support, amateurs cannot compete vs professionals". Such commentaries are all but true and only reflect their lack of knowledge on this subject. 

Here are clues that confirm amateurs can be very useful to professionals. 

You will find on the next pages a list of research programs that experienced and well equipped amateurs can practice successfully

to help professional astronomers. Take your chance to discover something new !


What equipment ?

We often read here and there or hear in meetings that large amateurs scopes are useless to conduct a research program. Strange opinion, doesn't it... Indeed, this assertion is not true. For those who like to do a rigorous science, large instruments will always be appreciated.

This idea finds however a logical explanation.

An amateur trying to get good results in astrophotography or applied sciences is soon or late interested in buying an instrument as performing as possible what usually means as large as possible, up to 1 meter of aperture for the largest and luckiest. And one day he/she enters intothe "realm of professionals".

Usually this people is almost "lost" for the amateur community. The others, ourselves, remain and have to satisfy with smaller instruments, largely commercialized which present occasionally an exceptional quality. But what we lost there we gain it here by another appreciated advantage : amateurs are not constraint by a fixed observatory, we have a greater mobility than professionals and may count on a large number of observers.

So the remaining question is not to know if such or such people is an amateur or a professional but rather does he/she wants to make scientific observations or to participate in a scientific project ? If the answer is largely "yes", this people should move into the professional community.

The other solution is participating in professional projects by subscribing first in international amateur networks like ALPO, AAVSO, NOAO, IMS, ISN. In practice, better to own a telescope to actively participate in these groups.

If you do not own any instrument, an alternative to work hand in hand with professionals is to participate to their project(s) thanks to either remote robotic telescopes or distributed computing, aka grid applications like Einstein@Home, SETI@home, etc (there are more than 130 projects so far).

Three grid applications among many projects running in the BOINC environment under Windows and other OS. From left to right, Quake Catcher Network (needs an USB probe), Einstein@Home, and Climateprediction.net. Documents T.Lombry.

For readers using a telescope, there are tens of examples of amateurs using large but also small instruments, and conducting a scientific project or having discovered a comet or an asteroïd.

Example of advanced amateurs conducting monitoring programs with large scopes :

- The 16" SCT maintained by NOAO is involved in an amateur astrophotography program

- In Australia Gordon Garradd's 17.7" is dedicated to the asteroids study

- Tim Pucket's 24" conducts a supernovae monitoring program

- A 29" Obsession is used to do visual magnitude estimations of bright quasars

- The "small" of Pic-du-Midi is dedicated to amateurs a few nights each year

- The 3.50m at Lowell Observatory opens his door to amateurs according a strict schedule too, etc.

For smaller budgets and telescopes, discoveries may occasionally happen and professional results can be achieved :

- Akira Fujii produces his best results using a reflex camera, 12" scope and an astrograph.

- Mark Armstrong discovered several supernovae using a 12" LX200 with CCD

- The Optical SETI at Columbus uses a 10" SCT

- Osawa discovered the spikes in Saturn's ring using a homemade 8" scope

- New comets are till discovered by amateurs using 4" to 8" instruments and CCD

- New asteroids and supernovae are discovered nearly each month by amateurs using 8" instruments and CCD.

To read : Eurêka!

What to do if you find something unusual in the sky ?

Obs.du Mt-Mégantic

610 mm

Tim Pucket

600 mm

Ralph Nye

400 mm

Juan Salmi

300 mm

Famous or incognito ?

Amateur astronomy is a hobby first, that brings you enjoyable moments of relaxing while your mind is directed towards the sky and its mysteries. The purpose of this hobby depends on your resources, both in time and financial participation and of course of weather conditions.

This is to you to decide what you want to spend in this activity. According to your decision you will buy a more or less large scope and more or less accessories. You are free to work alone or sharing your knowledge with the members of a club. If you like applied sciences you can conduct some scientific observations otherwise nobody will hurt you if you simply look at the sky for the pure pleasure, what most of amateurs do. For an amateur Science must be consider as a bonus rather than a basic requirement. Of course for a minority of us it will be always gratifying to know the why and the how of things.

I am always amazed by the fact that many of my friends amateur astronomers are doing astronomy but with no desire to join in a club or to be known. They do their observations and go throughout life nearly incognito. Many of them use medium scopes (8-12") but complete them with expensive accessories transforming their observatory in a mini-Palomar and do a rigorous scientific job. Sometimes they temporary acquire some celebrity in publishing a report in an international magazine or are visited by the local television. But quickly this attitude slows down.

These amateurs are known in some regional circles but very few really know how these amateurs work once back under their dome or in their garden.

Some of these famous unknown discover a few supernovae each year. Others record light variations of some 60 variables stars each night using robotic telescopes, while others discover asteroids using CCD or Sun grazer comets by analysing SOHO pictures. All these activities are fascinating and erect these amateurs on places envy by professionals ! But the celebrity does not interest them.

The most amazing is that these days there are amateurs who are not intimated by NASA near daily discoveries and the differentiation between their both investments in rigorous science, the first sparing his few bucks each year to buy his expensive accessories, the second searching for billionaires sponsors.

But the first, the clever amateur, own something more than NASA, le Feu-sacré, the feeling to be the first, the one "suited" for that activity as nobody else, because this is all his live, his small but useful participation in the big Science.

These amateurs, fierty of our community have to be preserved by maintaining the amateur status. Because if we had to work as NASA, blasting our instruments in pieces for economical reasons, then there would not have had place for people like Hershel, lord Rosse and their peers. Hopefully we have preserved some vocations, the one of explorers able to be fascinated by a variable star, the slow move of an asteroid or the blast... of a supernova.

Useful reading

Eurêka (on this web)

The Sky is Your Laboratory: Advanced Astronomy Projects for Amateurs, Robert K. Buchheim, Springer Praxis, 2007.

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