Citizen Astronomers

The Research Amateur Amateur

I saw a story making the rounds yesterday about how citizens who aren’t necessarily scientists are making great strides in some areas of research simply because they’re interested in the science. I think that’s always been around in some form or another, and none more so than in amateur astronomy.  There have always been legions of dedicated amateurs watching the sky and making contributions to science — although there have been more of them in the past 20 or so years.  Astronomy was largely performed before the 20th century by dedicated amateurs (who were often quite well trained). Today there are amateur observatories out there that rival (and sometimes surpass) many university facilities, and their owners are making valuable contributions to astronomy research.

McNeil's Nebula
McNeil’s Nebula, courtesy of Gemini Observatory. It’s a rare glimpse of the birth process of a star and the discovery of this nebula by Jay McNeil led Gemini Observatory to take a look at this nebula. It lies about 1,500 light-years away. (Click to embiggen.)

When I first got to graduate school, I worked with a number of well-trained amateurs who sent in gobs of images of Comet Halley during its closest approach.  At that time, some professional astronomers scoffed at the idea of amateurs making any kind of contribution, but they were proved wrong. And wildly so.  Take, for example, all the folks who are discovering and providing amazing images of comets and asteroids. They’re helping fill in our gaps of knowledge about what populates the solar system.

Amateur astronomy work isn’t limited to the solar system. Dedicated amateurs have been doing work studying starbirth regions, variable stars, gravitational lensing, gamma-ray bursters, and the list goes on and on.

Every night and day (for solar observers), amateur astronomers train their telescopes (and other instruments) on the sky and make observations that add to the “corpus” of knowledge humanity has about the universe. I remember once hearing a colleague of mine comment that amateur astronomers can do observations that professionals couldn’t do, either because the big observatories are over-subscribed, or because they can’t point those big telescopes so close to the ground (or the Sun). That same colleague also pointed out that if professional astronomers who couldn’t get time on the big scopes knew there was so much “free glass” out there to be used, they’d be rushing to adopt amateur astronomers and their observatories. That was 15 years ago. Today, the amateur and professional communities are indeed cooperating more than ever — largely because dedicated amateurs have the equipment and know-how to perform observations that were once solely the province of the “big” (at that time) facilities.

So, long live the amateur astronomer!  It’s a long and honorable avocation!


  1. In case there are professional astronomers reading this and still having their doubts, they should run to the library and check out Science 318, 192 [Oct. 12, 2007] where the contributions of amateur astronomers to science are discussed with many specific examples.

  2. Pingback: “IYA2009 Citizen Science Programs”: jeder ein kleiner Astronom « Skyweek Zwei Punkt Null

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