As data from large telescopes becomes more and more readily available to everyone, hobby astronomers are helping make true contributions to what we know about the cosmos.
December rolls around, and Kevin Alton is short on gift ideas for his wife.
“After you are married so long, you run out of things to buy each other for Christmas. I said, ‘Well, let’s get a telescope.’ It was kind of what we gave each other,” remembers Alton. “And the minute I saw Saturn, which I had never seen through a telescope, I was hooked.”
That notable Christmas purchase was 15 years ago. Today, the retired pharmaceutical researcher remains passionate about the night sky.
“My wife sits in the kitchen, and does whatever it is she likes to do, and we meet up for lunch and for dinner,” he says with a laugh. “No problem, whatsoever. She has her own hobbies, I have mine.”
It used to be that astronomy as a hobby meant dragging a telescope into the backyard or up to the roof, gazing at celestial wonders, tracking meteor showers, or maybe snapping a photo of the Moon. Major scientific breakthroughs were left to the professionals.
Today, an explosion of publicly available space-data and advanced technology means hobbyists like Alton can make significant contributions to the field, at all times of day, and without even leaving their den.
That’s what happened in 2012, when the 66 year old spent an evening observing a passing asteroid. (His telescope is in the backyard, but it transmits images to his computer screen via wi-fi.)
“I said, ‘A ha!’ That’s an interesting star that seemed to have changed over the four-hour period that I was observing this asteroid.”
In the background, behind the asteroid, one star’s brightness seemed to ebb and flow, like it was on a dimmer switch.
“And I did a literature search using the internet—and all the archives and all the databases that were available—and, lo and behold, no one had ever reported that that star sitting at that spot is variable,” says Alton.
His suspicion was that the star was actually two stars rotating around each other, tied together by gravity, causing the light seen from Earth to dim and spike.
So, he plotted his measurements using special software, submitted research to the astronomical group in charge of such things, and was eventually credited with the discovery.
His very own variable star, named GSC 01208-01137.
This guy, with a decent telescope and a bit of luck, advanced the field and added to human knowledge all from his North Jersey home. And he’s not alone. Even professionals are no longer tied to an observatory.
“My laptop is my portal to the world. So wherever I am physically sitting is irrelevant to the science I am doing,” says Andrej Prsa, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Villanova University.
“That stereotypical picture of an astronomer gazing at the sky in the middle of the night—that’s becoming less and less frequent.”
Prsa says much of the raw material for astronomical research now comes from remote mountain-top observatories or telescopes like Hubble, which often make huge sets of data available.
Then there are the projects that translate data into a user-friendly format, allowing armies of amateurs to assist in research from anywhere with an internet connection.
Debra Fischer at Yale University helps run PlanetHunters.org, where 300,000 volunteers log on and sift through data from NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, trying to spot distant planets. Even though computer algorithms can do the same thing, she says humans are actually better at recognizing the telltale patterns.
“In more than 100 cases, there have been unique discoveries of [planets] that would have been completely missed, would have never been found, if it hadn’t been for our users around the world,” says Fischer.
But with the huge interest in these data-heavy efforts, do amateurs risk missing out on the romance of peering through an eyepiece on a clear night, seeing something so far away so clearly?
“There’s nothing like the beauty of the night sky, and every time I walk out of a building, the first thing I do is look up,” says Fischer. “Is the moon up? Is Jupiter up? Is Venus up? What cluster of stars can I see? And it is a really spectacular vision, and it always reminds me of how tiny the Earth is and how vast the universe is, and I think that is a pretty healthy perspective for people to hang on to.”
Kevin Alton agrees that his early draw to the skies had a lot to do with pretty photographs of the moon and stars.
Now, his passion is more number-driven, a result of his own curiosities and the relative ease of making real breakthroughs from his home office.
“This is what rocks my boat right now.”