How young people can influence astronomical research — part two

Posted by David Eicher
on Friday, August 19, 2011

Today I’m sharing part two of a guest story by 16-year-old Benjamin Palmer of Queensbury, New York (you can find part one here) . 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.

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Surfing the web, surfing the cosmos

Simon Kfir
As the Internet has expanded over the decades, a novel breed of observers has emerged. These individuals depend not on eyepieces, filters, and CCDs, but rather on imagination and the unlimited power of cyberspace. They are virtual network astronomers, and, scanning the heavens using their PCs, they are a very real component in today’s astronomical research. Significant discoveries like teen astronomer Caroline Moore’s supernova and teacher Hanny van Arkel’s Voorwerp were found in this fashion. If you are a focused and on-the-go youth, this approach is far less time-consuming, yet still yields influential data.

There are two main ways to utilize Internet astronomy. The first method closely follows the construction of a visual observing dataset. Companies like LightBuckets (www.lightbuckets.com), Slooh (www.slooh.com ), and the New Bradford Robotic Telescope (www.telescope.org) fit this definition well. Create a list of objects you wish to observe virtually. Use originality when selecting targets, but home in on objects that are qualitatively important to your research. After setting your observing docket, these programs will provide options on specific details, such as which telescope or filters to use. After completing selections, the virtual instruments will image the objects and send you back results for analysis. To take this process one step further, consider uniting a virtual observing run with a visual session to compare and contrast a particular object from differing perspectives.

The second option virtual astronomy affords is joining an existing citizen science research team. Websites like Zooniverse (www.zooniverse.org), MilkyWay@ Home (www. milkyway.cs.rpi.edu), and SETI@Home (http://setiathome.berkeley.edu/) come into play here. They allow you to observe and record astronomical anomalies on your computer in accordance with their preset research plans. Independent sites promote different objectives. Zooniverse, which catalogs images taken from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, splits its mission into individual projects such as galactic observation (www.galaxyzoo.org ) and searching for solar storms (www.solarstormwatch.com). Projects like SETI@Home utilize your PC to analyze radio data from their telescopes in the hunt for elusive extraterrestrial life.

So the next time you’re browsing the Web, shut down that video game and get observing. An astronomical paradox might be awaiting your call!


Astrophotography: A picture’s worth a thousand words
Astrophotography represents the cutting edge of astronomical research, and young observers are joining its ranks. Although astrophotography requires quality equipment, time, and a hearty dose of patience,the research data can really pay off.

For beginning astroimagers, a good place to start is with an economical DSLR camera attached via a converter to the eyepiece. Combined with a laptop, this can be an astoundingly effective research combo. Using this basic setup, I’ve actually observed photometric variability in stellar magnitudes with amazingly precise results.

Many have exercised serious research motives using astrophotography and have received marvelous feedback for their efforts. Backyard observers have discovered everything from asteroids to quasars with their cameras, and there are unquestionably more marvels to be discovered.

Savvy young astroimagers possess incredible potential to contribute research to highly debated topics of astronomy, such as galactic evolution. If you engage in astrophotography, develop a modest research plan such as imaging the planets. With practice and determination, you might soon be analyzing the mechanics of galaxies and the hearts of nebulae.

Making a Difference
The field of astronomy has changed by leaps and bounds over the past quarter-century. One of the most significant changes is the cohesive bond now formed between professional and amateur observers.Citizen science has taken on new dimensions, and that’s a good thing.


Astronomy’s enigmas are up for closer scrutinization by today’s youth. As the 21st century progresses, capable young scientists can impact the astronomical community in ways previously unimagined.

We are fortunate to be witnessing an exciting epoch in contemporary astrophysics. The eternal variance astronomy encompasses makes it a story without end. Take note, future astronomers: There are engaging new chapters to be written.  – Benjamin Palmer

 

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