Amateur Science on the Rise

About 105 astronomers, amateur and professional, attended the annual Society for Astronomical Sciences symposium.
Robert Stephens
When I travel to amateur astronomy events, I go with high expectations. I expect to meet interesting people, I expect to come away with good ideas for S&T articles, and I expect to have a good time. Usually, my actual experiences far exceed my expectations. And my trip to the annual Society for Astronomical Sciences (SAS) symposium was no exception.   

The meeting was held May 24th to 26th at the Northwoods Resort in Big Bear Lake, California — about a 2-hour drive east of downtown Los Angeles in the San Bernardino Mountains. As has been the case for the past three decades, the SAS meeting was held the same week as the Riverside Telescope Makers Conference (which I also attended).
 
The SAS and AAVSO are the two leading organizations in the U.S. for bringing together amateur and professional astronomers. The AAVSO has been around a lot longer (the organization will be celebrating its 100th anniversary later this year), but the SAS promotes a broader array of scientific projects. And this year’s symposium showcased the impressive variety of research that amateurs are engaged in, and the tremendous potential for future pro-am collaborations.
 
To watch a 10-minute video conversation I had with SAS organizers Robert Stephens and Brian Warner, click here. The three of us discuss some of the highlights of this year’s SAS symposium, the exciting future of pro-am collaborations, and advice for how interested amateurs can get started in scientific research.
 
The symposium included several workshops on Tuesday, May 24th. One of them focused on the recently developed PHOEBE computer code produced by professionals for amateurs to use when they model the characteristics of stars in eclipsing binary systems. Other workshops gave amateurs tips on how to develop and use remote observatories.
 
Talks on Wednesday and Thursday focused on a wide range of topics, including astrophotography, photometry, and the burgeoning fields of amateur spectroscopy and polarimetry. I was particularly interested in talks that discussed how amateurs can participate in scientific research using inexpensive and off-the-shelf equipment. A more detailed summary of the talks, written by SAS attendee Robert Buchheim, can be found here .
 

Richard Kowalski (left) poses with Peter Jenniskens. These two astronomers played critical roles in the discovery of asteroid 2008 TC3 and the recovery of 23 pounds of its material.
Robert Naeye
The final talks were given by amateur-turned-professional astronomer Richard Kowalski and SETI Institute planetary scientist Peter Jenniskens. Kowalski talked about his role in the Catalina Sky Survey, and in particular, how he helped discover asteroid 2008 TC3 less than a day before it entered Earth’s atmosphere and exploded over northern Sudan on October 7, 2008. Jenniskens told the fascinating tale of how he worked with Sudanese scientists and students to track down fragments of the asteroid in a remote desert area, ultimately recovering 10.5 kilograms (23 pounds) of material.   

I left the symposium with a surge of optimism. With all the new equipment coming available to amateurs at affordable prices, there’s no doubt in my mind that more and more amateurs are going to immerse themselves in scientific research, and that we’re going to see a profusion of significant amateur discoveries in the years to come. Sky & Telescope will be at the forefront of covering these exciting developments in the months and years ahead.

One thought on “Amateur Science on the Rise

  1. Richard Kowalski

    I’m glad you had a great time Robert. It was great meeting you too. We need to encourage more amateurs to do real backyard science with there telescopes. There are just so many newly discovered objects that need short and long term observations, that only amateurs have the telescope time available to do this. Professionals need amateur observers now and in the future more than ever before!

    Cheers

    Richard Kowalski
    Catalina Sky Survey

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