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My Experience in Variable Star Observing

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#1 Philler

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Posted 01 November 2013 - 10:28 PM

I first bought a telescope and got into this hobby in the '80s. But in the early '90s I became interested in variable star observing and joined the AAVSO. One thing is variable star observing really develops your star hopping skills, identifying star patterns and, comparing star brightness skills. And using a telescope you will end up using most all your f.L. eyepieces and barlow a lot more, and you will be surprised just how faint the stars you can see at higher powers.
I probably did variable star observing for about 4 years. At first, I started out in LP, Mira types, semi irregulars, and R Cor. Borealis types. And I would mix in variables with other general deep sky observing, galaxies and such. But as I began to start observing Cataclismic variables (aka "dwarf novae"), like U Gem, SS Cyg, Z Cam, and SU Ur Maj., it started consuming more of my time--in fact too much time and it was interfering with family life and sleep. I remember really getting consumed for a while with RU Peg. (a U Gem dwarf nova) when it was really putting on some unusual behavior. On top of phoning in results and sending in monthly reports to the AAVSO, it seemed like it was taking the fun out of the hobby. So, I decided to just get completely out of variable star observing and left the AAVSO., and just do what most amateurs here on the CN do: just do what they feel like doing and just do it for fun.

But if you are thinking of getting into some area of variable star observing, supernova hunting or nova hunting--here's a few things I have learned the hard way in my variable star observing.

First: You're not going to end up becoming the next Edwin Hubble with your observations unless maybe you are the first to see and report Anteres or some nearby red super giant blow itself up.

Second: It can become very routine, tedious and taxing on your time, especially if you get hooked on cataclismic variables. Dissapointing if you are also checking some older novae where you are probably going to not see the star and end up reporting what is called an inner sanctum or non sighting of a star.

Third: Try to keep a balance of varaibles with other just- for-fun observing like DSOs, planets, and comets..

Fourth: Never sacrifice family life, marriage, job performance, and the rest of your life just to keep up with the next star outburst or star maxima. There is a nice balance with the real world and our great hobby.

Clear skies and enjoy,
Phil

#2 Rich (RLTYS)

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Posted 02 November 2013 - 06:49 AM

Philler, like your report but I feel you don't need to leave VSOing and the AAVSO to help balance your VSOing with other things. You have excellent words of advice which I've been following for over 40 years of observing.

Rich (RLTYS)

#3 jgraham

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Posted 02 November 2013 - 12:14 PM

Yep, variety is the spice of life. Amateur astronomy offers so many areas to explore it is easy to flow from one topic to another and to keep things fresh and interesting. I've been at this for a tad over 50 years and I'm still having fun. With respect to variable stars, I have a short list of stars that I visit regularly as well as a second list of new stars that are new to me. There is always something new to see and to experience.

#4 Philler

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Posted 03 November 2013 - 03:01 AM

Hi Rich and John,
I am seriously thinking of mixing in a few variables with other DSO observing.
I still have lots of AAVSO star charts and I am thinking of starting to observe several stars of particular catagories that I am very interested in, but that I never really gave enough attention to. I'll look through my AAVSO charts and see what I have. I think I will start out with few of them that I feel I can regularly observe.

It seems that once you have gotten into VSOing you never really get away from it.

#5 RGM

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Posted 03 November 2013 - 07:27 AM

I started VSO a couple of years ago to keep me in the hobby. I was bored with going out and observing the same objects again and again - been in the hobby off and on for 40 years.

VSO gave me a purpose and brought back some excitement. I live north of the Great Lakes and do not have to worry about burnout. The clouds keep my time at the eyepiece in check.

#6 Rich (RLTYS)

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Posted 03 November 2013 - 07:28 AM

Philler, I not only observe variables but also planets and double stars.

Rich (RLTYS)

#7 Philler

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Posted 03 November 2013 - 11:39 PM

I started VSO a couple of years ago to keep me in the hobby. I was bored with going out and observing the same objects again and again - been in the hobby off and on for 40 years.

VSO gave me a purpose and brought back some excitement. I live north of the Great Lakes and do not have to worry about burnout. The clouds keep my time at the eyepiece in check.


I know how you feel, Bob.

VSOing is like watching a mystery or detective story. We keep up over the years on the changing theories of these various stars we observe, and sometime are amazed with what we see.
For example, RCB stars were actually considered "reverse novae" a long time ago. Now I guess their mag. drops are still considered due to carbon "soot clouds". But who knows what further we will learn. Maybe there is something else going on with these stars that hasn't yet been figured out.
My point is, who can say they have found the final answer on any of these stars?
And that's part of what makes VSOing fascinating.

#8 MtnGoat

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Posted 05 November 2013 - 02:00 AM

What got me started on variables was Burnham's books. I'd never really thought about variables all that much, other than as oddities I'd of course read about. But reading that darned book and seeing all the light curves and their variety piqued my interest.

I wound up going of in pursuit of nightly looks and photos of SS Cyg. I did start to obsess in late afternoon if it looked like it was going to be cloudy, how will I get the data, and spent more than one night waiting out sucker holes for 3 minutes of time after being out there thinking this next one has to be it...for three hours.

It got to where a couple months in, I was thinking geez, this is work..but if i stop, i'll break up the data!

So the night it began to rain for real (and continued for more than a couple), it was getting to be a race between getting home in time to catch it before the tree line anyway... I sensed that was it for this year, and it was. A relief!

I haven't let myself go that overboard since, and it's more fun. Although Nova Del did get a lot of special attention. I justify that when 'another SS' pops into my head by thinking no, this one is once and done.

#9 Philler

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Posted 05 November 2013 - 02:57 AM

What got me started on variables was Burnham's books. I'd never really thought about variables all that much, other than as oddities I'd of course read about. But reading that darned book and seeing all the light curves and their variety piqued my interest.

I wound up going of in pursuit of nightly looks and photos of SS Cyg. I did start to obsess in late afternoon if it looked like it was going to be cloudy, how will I get the data, and spent more than one night waiting out sucker holes for 3 minutes of time after being out there thinking this next one has to be it...for three hours.

It got to where a couple months in, I was thinking geez, this is work..but if i stop, i'll break up the data!

So the night it began to rain for real (and continued for more than a couple), it was getting to be a race between getting home in time to catch it before the tree line anyway... I sensed that was it for this year, and it was. A relief!

I haven't let myself go that overboard since, and it's more fun. Although Nova Del did get a lot of special attention. I justify that when 'another SS' pops into my head by thinking no, this one is once and done.


I had completely forgotten about Burnham's. Years ago I got a hold of them in a library and read quite a bit of them. It was a real treasure back when I first got into the hobby. We are lucky enough where I live to have a science and tech library, and I will have to go see if Burhams's are there and read through them. Since it's a private library though I can't check them out.

#10 MtnGoat

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Posted 05 November 2013 - 10:42 AM

They turn up in used book stores fairly often. I picked up pristine copies of 1 and 3 in addition to my full set for ten bucks each. This way two nice ones stay on my shelf while the two dog eared ones go observing. As dated as it is, it is still loaded with good stuff and Im constantly using them.

I've never seen a reference work in any other science which covers as much ground in the science, history, art, literature, coins, all at once. A masterpiece I can't imagine being without. My girlfriend likes me to read to her from it while she's looking at the object in question. Pretty cool.

#11 BrooksObs

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Posted 10 November 2013 - 09:16 AM

Having been a serious variable star observer for 50+ years now I will admit that the field tends to be ill-suited to most casual hobbyist types, requiring above average curiosity, dedication, and the willingness to expend some serious time "learning the trade."

However, it is today really the only worthwhile pursuit easily available to visual observers where meaningful data can be gained that may indeed help advance astronomy. Long-term observation of variables ultimately reveals a host of unexpected/undocumented behavior and indeed can gain the observer notoriety (if that is a part of one's aims). Years of looking at the same deep sky objects, the moon and planets, etc., while perhaps briefly amusing, in the end generates nothing of lasting value.

BrooksObs

#12 Ed Wiley

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Posted 10 November 2013 - 07:50 PM

BrooksObs sez: "However, it is today really the only worthwhile pursuit easily available to visual observers where meaningful data can be gained that may indeed help advance astronomy."

A++ on that remark. :bow:

Ed

#13 sound chaser

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Posted 24 November 2013 - 02:42 PM

It was a book that got me in to variables.
I collected a few old astronomy books from second hand shops over the years, and around the time I decided to get 'serious' I found an old copy of Peltier's 'Starlight nights'. Perfect timing, that little book opened up a whole new meaning of what 'observational' astronomy is.
Sharing your observations with amateurs and pros all around the world, that's the real buzz.

#14 JRiggs

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Posted 24 November 2013 - 07:51 PM

I was a variable star observer for the AAVSO from 1980 to 1992. Prior to this I was a deep sky person and that experience helped me considerably when I turned my attention to variable stars. I was an enthusiastic observer at first. Eventually, I stopped observing variables on a consistent basis for a number of reasons, some of which may surprise you. At the time, after you made an observational report to HQ in Cambridge, chances were you never heard anything further. This lack of reciprocity from HQ was disturbing. It would have made a difference if, from time-to-time, you received some sort of feed back. In addition, on two separate occasions, my monthly reports were lost by the staff at HQ. I didn't learn anything about it until long after the fact when the yearly totals were published. I then had to go back and write up a new monthly report, a time consuming process given the number of variables I was observing. It seemed apparent at the time that the office procedures were somewhat sloppy. I also had occasion to meet some of the astronomers I was making observations for. After meeting them, I asked myself, "why am I observing for this person?" Of course, not everyone was like this, but it was a factor in turning away. This is not to say observing variables is any less interesting. I still observe them myself. I love watching SS Cygni in outburst. I just find the argument for science somewhat less than compelling.

My main emphasis has now returned to deep sky. No, my observations of these objects will not contribute to science. But observing is an "experience", an enjoyable experience. I often like to characterize amateur astronomy as night-time nature study, similar to birding or hiking or even playing golf or swimming. No matter what you like to observe, it need not lead to anything further to justify its pursuit.

John

#15 Ed Wiley

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Posted 25 November 2013 - 11:57 AM

John:

I think you would find the AAVSO culture much different these days. For example, you can access your observations relative to others fairly quickly to see how your observations stack up with others. AAVSO also has several different classes for beginners to more advanced observers, I have taken three and they are quite good. There are discussion forums and live chat. So, I think AAVSO is doing a good job of keeping observers connected with both their data and with other observers. The photometry tools are first-rate.

The other part of the culture is a bit harder to address. I am almost 40 years into a biology research and teaching career. I publish my own data and test my own hypotheses. I do this because I was trained, I understand (usually) when I have sufficient data to address a problem I want to solve and I open myself to peer review (and sometimes get rejected). I can see the problem of collecting data for someone else to (eventually) analyze. So, I spend a lot of my observing time measuring and studying double stars -- and publishing the measures and conclusions under my own name in the JDSO. But, I also see the "collective good." Double star observers over the past 200+ years have contributed measures that are folded into some of my studies, several of my papers would not be published without these measures. I do this because I have just enough experience to be able to contribute useful data and in some cases have the skills to analyze somemthese data. The "problem" with variables is that the observer/contributor does not publish his/her measures but only submits them to to AAVSO where they may be folded into a publication sometime in the future. But, if you are sufficiently trained, you can use such data to publish papers. The problem is that most of us are not so trained, anymore than all of the observers who submit data to the Minor Planet Center are trained in critical orbital calculations. They let the MPC do these things. So, you have to make a decision: contribute data to science or not. I chose the middle ground, Some of my data (double stars) get published under my name and some of my data (variables) goes to the "greater good."

All of this is wrapped into individual decisions that make people comfortable or uncomfortable with the eventual fate of the data they work hard to collect. You made a reasonable decision in 1992 based on your comfort level but the nice thing is that your data continue to contribute.

BTW: I also enjoy the deep sky and love to attend star parties and go to our dark sky site.

Clear skies,
Ed

#16 JRiggs

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Posted 25 November 2013 - 01:43 PM

Ed, thanks for your reply. It's nice to know the AAVSO has improved their communication with their observers. They were certainly in need of it compared to when I was an active observer. I conveyed my own experiences in the past and some of the reasons I left. The main point I was trying to make at the end is that you don't have to be doing "science" to justify your observational choices.

Thanks again, John

#17 Ed Wiley

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Posted 25 November 2013 - 10:47 PM

Hi John: Your point is both well taken and appreciated!

Clear skies,
Ed






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