How young people can influence astronomical research — part one

Posted by David Eicher
on Thursday, August 18, 2011

Today I’m sharing part one of a guest story by 16-year-old Benjamin Palmer, of Queensbury, New York. Benjamin is an active amateur astronomer, won this year’s Astronomy magazine Youth Essay Contest, and is chair of a committee on Youth in Astronomy for the Astronomy Foundation. Please enjoy the first part of this great article written by Benjamin, with the conclusion to come tomorrow.

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Whirlpool Galaxy (M51) (Image Credit: Kfir Simon)
When pondering the mystique of the cosmos, one unequivocal truth prevails: The only thing certain in astrophysics is the ever-present uncertainty that governs its intricate mechanics. While astronomers dutifully attempt to reveal the answers, myriad new questions emerge. Like a provocative game of chess, with the elusive king avoiding checkmate, the universe manifests evidence to substantiate one hypothesis, then gives credence for another. It’s a tantalizing field, raising the bar for even the most erudite scientific minds.

While every generation builds upon the legacy of its predecessors, there exists a new and influential assembly of scientific detectives. They are today’s youth, poised to make significant contributions in the field of astronomy.

Here are some concrete ways to get involved with this dynamic field and fuel an enriching hobby for a lifetime.

Visual Observing: It’s En-light-ening!

Since the origins of humanity, scientists have attempted to unriddle the cryptic codes of the universe. Our eyes have been instruments, while photons have been the catalyst. Light has served as our primary window to the heavens, chronicling moments of the past like a cosmic secretary. Through its study, we have built the core of knowledge modern astrophysics revolves around, yet there is still much more to learn.

A great way to get a taste of astronomical research is creating a visual observing project. It doesn’t demand great financial or material resources; however, initiative, enthusiasm, and time are essential for success.

As a neophyte astronomer, my first instruments were my eyes, a pair of 10x50 binoculars, and a few observing logs. With these exiguous tools, I started my own research project documenting meteors in the Adirondack skies above my town. That modest survey taught me much, in more ways than one. Two years later, I had a notebook full of observations, including an exquisite fireball that got noted on the American Meteor Society’s website. In addition to meteors, I reached many conclusions about the local environment affecting my sky.

A complex yet rewarding visual research venue for young astronomers is variable stars. Numerous and mysterious, these intriguing anomalies contain multiple secrets yet to be unveiled. Research-wise, that affords a broad spectrum of opportunity for potential new findings. In fact, teens have contributed in this vein since historic times.

John Goodricke (1764–1786), who went on to discover Delta Cepheid variables, began observing variable stars at age 17. Shortly thereafter, his dedication was rewarded with the distinguished Godfrey-Copley Science Award for research on the famous eclipsing binary, Algol.

For an inexperienced observer, a solid variable star project involves visual magnitude estimation. The naked eye and binoculars are the greatest assets in this realm. Using a star chart of your own or one from a website, you can make acute observations of an individual star’s magnitude. As you gain experience, consider joining a citizen science team, such as the Citizen Sky Project or the American Association of Variable Star Observers. These organizations provide the collective knowledge that promotes advanced level research.

For skilled observers with access to quality instruments, develop projects incorporating principles of photometry and astrophotography. Although larger equipment is necessary, it doesn’t have to be extravagant. A simple DSLR camera and 4-inch telescope can easily produce a detailed data palette as well as an adequate stellar light curve. Spend time analyzing your results.

A contemporary way to contribute to visual observing involves the use of spectroscopy. This form of observing dates back to the days of Newton and has prodigious relevance in astronomy today. Once the sole domain of professionals, improvements in spectroscopic technology have made it accessible to the amateur observer.

Spectroscopy’s principle ingredient is diffraction grating. When attached to an eyepiece or camera, a spectroscope divides light into its signature, allowing the observer to view the elements of an astronomical object.

Even with limited funds, a quality diffraction grating can be attained for a couple of hundred dollars. With a decent telescope, a good grating turns the night sky into an expansive research ground. By studying spectra, aspiring astronomers can highlight data in many formats, from charting the Balmer Absorption Series within hydrogen to stellar temperatures and particle behavior on the molecular scale.

Well-documented observations can be of capital importance to astrophysics. Visual observing projects are an excellent baseline for your foray into astronomical research. By starting small, you can develop the patience, focus, and critical thinking skills a scientist requires. Choose an area of study and document your findings. Who knows? You might discover something new around the cosmic bend. – By Benjamin Palmer

Read the conclusion here.

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