Can Anybody Do Astronomy?

Sure, Why Not?

When I was watching the Mars Phoenix lander festivities the other night, I thinking about all the scientists and their students who are (as we speak) working with the incredible rush of data being returned by the mission. And, it occurred to me that this kind of science is something I wish everybody could experience once in their lives. It’s a heady feeling, looking at images and data and realizing that you’re finding something new and interesting to share with the rest of the world.

Amazingly enough, discovery in the universe is NOT limited to scientists, although they’re the ones best trained to undertake the years of work that it takes. But, as I learned in my days on the Halley Watch project, there are a lot of amateurs out there who are also well-equipped (both mentally and with access to equipment) to discover unique things in the universe. Much of the work I did on the Halley Watch project (which culminated in an atlas of Halley images that we used to study the solar wind’s influence on comet plasma tails) came from amateur astronomers who submitted images for study. And they were first-rate images, exactly what we needed.

Today, I got a story about an amateur astronomer named Richard Miles, who used a telescope in Australia that is part of the Faulkes Telescope Network to look at an asteroid called 2008 HJ. His work, conducted via the Internet from his home in Dorset, England, proved that this newly discovered asteroid is rotating (spinning around an axis) once every 42.7 seconds. That makes this object the fastest-known rotator in the solar system. In asteroid studies, this is a big deal, since these little worldlets and chunks of solar system debris are hard to see, let alone figure out how fast they’re rotating!

I am constantly amazed at what there is yet to learn in the universe. What this find tells me is that there’s plenty of discovery in the universe, and it’s not all limited to folks in the big labs. There are an increasing number of robotically controlled telescopes available to interested and well-prepared amateurs who want to do some research. As we used to tell the participants in the Halley Watch, there’s room for everybody in the cosmic pool — from first-time stargazer to well-equipped amateur to professionally trained researcher. Jump on in and take a swim!

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