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What can I contribute to science?

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#1 4ZM

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Posted 02 January 2021 - 06:06 AM

I have done visual astronomy using a 5.1" reflector for a while and I'm starting to get the hang of it. I have no intention of giving that up, but I'm intrigued and excited about the possibility of getting a new rig and contributing to "real" science. To my questions:

  • What type of data and in which areas of science can I realistically expect to contribute data?

I've heard about photometry and reporting on variable stars. Some people seem to be doing astrometry and reporting data to the Minor planets center. Perhaps hunting for super novae? Are there any other types of data an amateur can collect and report to the scientific community? Any books or online resources you can share for some one wanting to get an overview of these areas would be much appreciated.

  • Is it feasible to get into this with a "small" budget in the $2000 region?

I'm expecting that I will have to get a new computer controlled mount, a larger reflector, a camera and some filters. I could consider building a more expensive system over time and start using it for visual astronomy during the upgrade phase.


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#2 Astrojensen

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Posted 02 January 2021 - 06:22 AM

You can contribute already now with your existing rig, by estimating variable stars visually and sending your observations to AAVSO (American Association of Variable Star Observers). 

 

https://www.aavso.org/

 

No need at all to invest a huge amount of money. You can contribute with very important data if all you have is a pair of binoculars. It is a mistake to think that one needs sophisticated, expensive equipment to do science. Several decades of observations of a long-period variable with a pair of binoculars or a small telescope is going to be far, far more scientifically valuable than a few years of digital photometry of the same star, no matter how accurate it is.

 

It is HIGHLY important that we amateurs continue to do visual estimates, as these can be used to link modern observations with old ones. It is also worth noting that the new, upcoming automated surveys will NOT render our work useless, because most of the stars amateurs follow are bright enough that they will completely saturate the sensors on such telescopes. The telescopes may even be programmed to avoid them, lest they burn the sensor out completely. 

 

And if enough amateurs follow a given star visually, the lower accuracy of each observer, compared to digital sensors, will average out and by applying analytical software to the observations, highly accurate light curves can be found. 

 

This doesn't mean that digital photometry isn't important. On the contrary, it can be HUGELY important, because there are so many variables to follow, but it's a more advanced path to follow, one that requires a rigid understanding of the methods and the maths involved. What I'm saying is that visual observation is still highly valuable and require far less equipment. 

 

 

Clear skies!
Thomas, Denmark


Edited by Astrojensen, 02 January 2021 - 06:27 AM.

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#3 TOMDEY

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Posted 02 January 2021 - 08:57 AM

There are a number of coordinated/centralized "team effort" initiatives that you can join.

 

Another approach would be to seek out something so unusual that few or no others are doing it... amateur or professional. A good book on that route is Martin Harwit's Cosmic Discovery. It's Frost's ~Road Not Taken~ perspective.

 

For a beginner... the first approach up there makes sense, because guidance is provided throughout the process.    Tom


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#4 GaryShaw

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Posted 02 January 2021 - 08:59 AM

Hi

As a relatively new digital observer, I can support Thomas’s and Tom’s suggestion. I have spend the past 2-3 months being coached by a Mentor, provided by AAVSO, and just last week submitted my first data to AAVSO. My Mentor is very experienced with digital observing and operates technically at a very high level. The following key activities make up the overall digital process:

 

- decision-making on which variable stars to observe based on your location and equipment

- carrying out the imaging process itself - probably the most straightforward step but not without its challenges

- digital processing of the images very precisely after capturing them to ensure they are comparable with observations of others using different equipment.

- analyzing the star images to determine the magnitude at the precise time of imaging

- formatting and submitting the data to AAVSO

 

Along the way in the above process, you’d likely also need to learn some new software for capturing and processing the images and later doing the analysis... nothing very difficult but it can be time-consuming.

 

I had initially planned to observe visually  but the light pollution in my location in Massachusetts made it difficult to see enough stars and several attempts at visual observation resulted in frustration. Possibly with more time, patience and coaching, I might have overcome my initial hurdles with visual observing. I mention this since your location may be a factor to consider in how you want to proceed. If you have dark skies, you’re pretty much ready to begin learning and observing right away. If light pollution approaches Bortle 7/8 as does mine, you may want to consider the digital approach ... but only if you are also a bit technically- minded and prepared for the learning curve.

 

You can learn all about the processes of visual and digital (cmos cameras are replacing ccd cameras that are described in the AAVSO manuals) photometry from the AAVSO website. They provide tutorials and, if you join AAVSO as a member, they will provide a Mentor to help you get started. Unless you already have the equipment for digital observing, I’d encourage you to start by visual observing if your skies allow. Once you have done this for a while, you’ll be familiar with the process, you’ll know how magnitude estimates are made and submitted to AAVSO databases.

 

With this experience behind you, you’d be better informed and positioned to move into digital observing if you want and to go ahead and acquire the necessary camera, filter(s), and software. Whichever way you go, it’s a wonderful learning process and an activity that will allow you to make useful contributions to astronomy.

enjoy!

Gary


Edited by GaryShaw, 02 January 2021 - 09:03 AM.

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#5 Rich (RLTYS)

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Posted 02 January 2021 - 08:59 AM

Thomas is right, your best bet is observing Variable Stars. I've been observing them since 1971. You already have the equipment to start. waytogo.gif


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#6 4ZM

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Posted 02 January 2021 - 03:27 PM

Thanks to y'all for brilliant feedback! I'll definitely look into observing variable starts visually to get started somewhere. The fact that there is a mentoring system sounds great. I'll start reading up on the subject on the AAVSO page. Thanks!

 

A follow up question on reporting to AAVSO: I live in a very light polluted and "thermally active" city area so I usually go to a "dark-ish" site to observe. Do I have to report very frequently for the data to be of any use to the scientists? I will probably only be observing 1-3 times a month (depending on weather).

 

I would also be interested to hear if anyone is doing astrometry using a "cheap" system and and reporting data to the minor planets center or else where. I'm looking to get into AP at some point because of the signal processing aspect of it (I have a background in software development and signal processing) and this looks like a cool application.

 

Clear skies! Anders, Sweden


Edited by 4ZM, 02 January 2021 - 03:37 PM.

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#7 lee14

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Posted 02 January 2021 - 03:55 PM

You can contribute estimates as frequently as you like, or infrequently. They all go to the database regardless. Visual estimates are no longer 'cutting edge', but as Thomas has pointed out there is a long history of amateur observations. This continuity is what is important. While the accuracy of an experienced observer can be around a tenth magnitude, the more important result of multiple ongoing estimates is the highly accurate definition of the light curve. AAVSO data if often sought out by professionals and other researchers for a number of reasons, so every estimate that you make is a valued contribution.

 

Also, light pollution is a relatively minor issue when estimating variables. Your limiting magnitude will be better with dark skies, but higher magnifications can compensate for much of that. When estimating fainter targets higher magnifications are always helpful, they'll improve the contrast between a faint variable and the comparison stars. You'll use a series of charts for most target stars, the 'a' or 'b' charts will be a wider field, containing relatively bright stars, these are considered 'finder charts'. Depending on the magnitude of the variable, fainter targets will require a 'd', 'e', or 'f' chart, with smaller fields and much fainter comparison stars. 

 

When starting out (with charts printed from the AAVSO site), compare your estimates with the current light curve to obtain a feel for the accuracy of your values.

 

Lee

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#8 lee14

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Posted 02 January 2021 - 04:11 PM

Oh yes, I'd definitely recommend reading Starlight Nights, by Leslie Peltier, a lifelong variable star observer and renowned amateur, who was highly regarded by many professionals. He was one of the earliest, and most prolific observers contributing to the AAVSO database. It will give a wonderful feel for the subject as well as amateur astronomy in general.
Lee
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#9 GaryShaw

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Posted 02 January 2021 - 06:21 PM

To expand a bit on Lee’s post, the AAVSO will tell you how frequently they recommend making observations. This depends mainly on the length of the light cycle that each variable goes through.

 

So, for instance, if you’re observing SS Cygni, which has a total cycle of about 6.6 hours, you might want to take observations every 10-15 minutes, especially if you wanted to document, say 1/2 of the full 6.6 hour cycle. Of course with such a short cycle you could elect to take observations all the way through the 6.6 hours and they try plotting the magnitudes against time to see the shape of the light curve you get. This particular star is a bit faint for binocular observation but the principle is the same....the shorter the cycle, the more frequent the observations can be. Many variables have long period cycles lasting months or years. Observations for these can really be anytime. 

 

The AAVSO will also announce specific observing ‘campaigns’ that astronomy researchers have initiated to support some area of research they are embarking on. Those campaigns likely would include the ‘cadence’ of observations that they are hoping for. 
 

Once you start submitting your observations, you might want to sign up to be automatically notified when your observations have been downloaded for review and use by someone. Sometimes it’s being reviewed or used by researchers and sometimes university in structures have their students download the data to support part of their coursework... 

 

Check out the AAVSO website and read their ‘getting started’ materials and you’ll get a better picture of all this. If your interested in doing AP in the future, you might want to transition into Digital observing after a while. Since images are taken for this type of variable Star observing, you’ll need to learn basis image calibration and processing which I think would be a good ‘lead-in’ to starting AP down the road. 
enjoy!

Gary



#10 lee14

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Posted 03 January 2021 - 12:48 PM

SS Cyg is classified as a dwarf nova, or a U Gem type of variable. The primary period is 50-55 days, with a magnitude range that varies between ~8 and ~12. The 6.6 hour cycle referred to above by Gary is something entirely different, and not well suited to visual estimates. The variation here is a small fraction of a magnitude, requiring the more accurate photometric method, and is a function of SS Cyg's orbital period. 

 

SS Cyg is one component of a close binary, whose companion is losing matter to SS Cyg's gravitational well. Enough of the secondary's material eventually accumulates on the surface of SS Cyg to fuse and initiate an outburst, raising the visual magnitude from 12 to 8. This occurs every 55 days or so, and the maximum outburst lasts only a day or two. 

 

As the secondary is routinely eclipsed every 6.6 hours by SS Cyg, the magnitude of the system drops very slightly and can be measured photometrically. This minor variation is something that need not be considered by a new observer.

There is the possibility that the variation here is also affected by a 'hot spot', where material is accumulating and heating, and SS Cyg's rotation brings this into view. As far as I know this hasn't been confirmed.

 

Most long period variables have much longer cycles, often several hundred days. These are the Mira types, and the astrophysical process that drives these is another story entirely. The attraction to observing SS Cyg is partly due to the shorter (and somewhat irregular) period, and the brief duration of an outburst. One can observe this star for almost two months and see only a 12th magnitude star, then one night it brightens to 9 or 10, and the next night to 8.2 or so. It's one of the few things in the sky that changes on a short, predictable time scale, and it's always a thrill to catch an outburst on its way up.

 

Lee

AAVSO


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#11 mikemarotta

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Posted 04 January 2021 - 10:45 AM

Just on the cusp of some reading and learning this past two or three months, it seems to me that most stars are variables and fewer are solitary that members of sets.

 

Aside from AAVSO, what else is out there? 

And I take TomDey's advice to heart. 

 

There are a number of coordinated/centralized "team effort" initiatives that you can join.

 

Another approach would be to seek out something so unusual that few or no others are doing it... amateur or professional. A good book on that route is Martin Harwit's Cosmic Discovery. It's Frost's ~Road Not Taken~ perspective.

 

For a beginner... the first approach up there makes sense, because guidance is provided throughout the process.    Tom

To me, this is a lot like writing. I get paid to write. But I write a lot of other stuff without pay because it pleases me to do so. (I am writing now.) On that basis, I would be willing consider roads not taken. 



#12 RussD

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Posted 04 January 2021 - 04:40 PM

All,

In addition to the excellent AAVSO projects, small telescopes can contribute to a variety of other projects.  Here are some of the other areas were smaller telescopes can do good work.

 

1) Asteroid light curve analysis.  See Brian Warner's CALL website and http://www.minorplanet.info/home.html   You can publish your results in the Minorplanet Observer.  I have been doing this for almost 20 years now and have collaborated with backyard astronomers and pros all over the world.    Software such as MPO Canopus are typically used for analysis.  Brian Warner's book on asteroid phototmetry is a must read.  Scopes ranging from 12" up are best for this. 

 

2) Asteroid Astrometry.  Track and follow asteroids, including newly discovered asteroids to refine orbits.    See the minor planet centers guide to astrometry here.  https://www.minorpla...et/iau/mpc.html

     The old mpml user group still exists over on groups.io  https://groups.io/g/mpml/topics     

 

3) Center for Backyard Astrophysics  https://cbastro.org/   Work on campaigns to follow cataclysmic variable stars.  

 

 

I have focused primarily on area 1) above along with some variable star work and it has kept me busy for a long time.  There is no shortage of work or projects for dedicated folks.   There must be other projects out there as well, but these have been the big three for me outside of AAVSO.

 

Russ


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#13 radial195

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Posted 04 January 2021 - 11:19 PM

Another area of astronomy amateurs can contribute to are asteroidal occultations of stars. This can be done with relatively little equipment. Go to the International Occultation Timing Association website to learn what equipment is needed, how to do it, and where to report your results.


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#14 555aaa

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Posted 05 January 2021 - 11:04 AM

Monitoring galaxies for supernovas, spectroscopy of supernovas and other fast transient phenomena. The French are probably the leaders on this.
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#15 Voyager 3

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Posted 05 January 2021 - 11:24 PM

Is it by comparing to nearby stars that we can tell the magnitude of the variable when visually observing ?

#16 GaryShaw

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Posted 05 January 2021 - 11:36 PM

You do that yes, but you use specific ‘comparative’ stars from special charts for which the AAVSO has well known magnitudes established. Go to the AAVSO website and read their ‘how to get started’ sections and go through a few tutorials to give you a better idea of the process. 
 

Also, if you join AAVSO, they will match you up with a Mentor who will show you everything you need to know. 
Have fun..

Gary


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#17 Mjorgensen

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Posted 09 January 2021 - 08:41 PM

I've just started with the AAVSO beginner observations and really appreciate all of the great info on this thread. One question I have is whether there are maps online or a database of some sort where one can look up apparent magnitudes for comparison stars (besides the couple maps in the AAVSO beginner manual). I've googled as well as looked through the AAVSO links but am not finding anything really useful. Thanks in advance for any pointers.
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#18 lee14

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Posted 09 January 2021 - 08:57 PM

I've just started with the AAVSO beginner observations and really appreciate all of the great info on this thread. One question I have is whether there are maps online or a database of some sort where one can look up apparent magnitudes for comparison stars (besides the couple maps in the AAVSO beginner manual). I've googled as well as looked through the AAVSO links but am not finding anything really useful. Thanks in advance for any pointers.

On the home page, scroll down to 'Resources'. You enter the star's designation, and then click on 'create a finder chart'. You can then print a chart at whatever scale you need. 'a' or 'b' for brighter stars and the widest field of view, or 'd' or 'e' for the fainter phases of a variable, with a much narrower field of view. All of the charts will contain an appropriate range of comparison stars for making an estimate.

 

Lee

AAVSO


Edited by lee14, 09 January 2021 - 09:01 PM.


#19 robin_astro

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Posted 10 January 2021 - 07:44 AM

 spectroscopy of supernovas ..... The French are probably the leaders on this.

It is true that there is a concentration of spectroscopic expertise in France, centred around the ARAS forum

http://www.spectro-aras.com/forum/

(though less so more recently as the word is spreading and the forum (and the area in general) is now quite multinational

 

There are only a couple of amateurs who have been confirming and classifying supernova spectroscopically though as far as I am aware.  Me (English)

https://www.wis-tns....fier=leadbeater

and more recently Claudio Balcon (Italian)

https://www.wis-tns....assifier=Balcon

 

This is the kit I am using

http://www.threehill...troscopy_20.htm

and if you are interested, I talk about how I got into spectroscopy and in particular supernovae in this BAA meeting video

https://britastro.or...deo/11250/12234

 

Cheers

Robin


Edited by robin_astro, 10 January 2021 - 07:47 AM.

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#20 Mjorgensen

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Posted 10 January 2021 - 11:00 AM

On the home page, scroll down to 'Resources'. You enter the star's designation, and then click on 'create a finder chart'. You can then print a chart at whatever scale you need. 'a' or 'b' for brighter stars and the widest field of view, or 'd' or 'e' for the fainter phases of a variable, with a much narrower field of view. All of the charts will contain an appropriate range of comparison stars for making an estimate.

Lee
AAVSO


Thank you, Lee! This was exactly what I was looking for.
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#21 Rich5567

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Posted 02 February 2021 - 03:31 PM

I've being observing variables for around 20+ years now. Every single clear night I'm out doing visual estimates.

 

I've used all types of scopes from 20" to binoculars, and I've found that lately I've just been using Bin's to observe around 40 or so bright variables each night. No set up time, no having to wait for objects to clear the trees etc. So simple.

 

Many of these 'bright' variables are under observed, and it's nice to be able to contribute in some small way to the greater picture.

 

Case in point: I have added to my observing programme the star RR Cygni. On the BAA VSS database this star was last observed on 2nd January 1894. I thought, Thats going onto the list, and on 7th January this year I began to estimate its brightness. Its around 8.5 mag so easy in a small scope or binos.

 

Variables are great, and addictive!.

 

Rich.


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#22 garyhawkins

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Posted 03 February 2021 - 04:10 PM

Photometry can certainly be done on a low budget, along with exoplanet transit measurements.  I'm using a C8 SCT/F6.3focal reducer/EQ6-R and a ASI533MC, no filters.  Everything secondhand would be in your budget.

 

Here's an example light curve of the eclipsing binary V474 CAM.  That's just a 0.5 magnitude variation.

 

image.png

 

 


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#23 t.r.

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Posted 19 February 2021 - 12:36 PM

It seems the Aavso crowd has grabbed you up however, there is the ALPO Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers who compile solar system observations just as methodically as the Aavso for when you get “burnt out” (pun intended) looking at stars!!! And as luck would have it, this year happens to be when Jupiter’s moons occult and eclipse each other and the timing of those events is both fun and valuable.

Edited by t.r., 19 February 2021 - 12:39 PM.

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#24 Guido

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Posted 14 March 2021 - 01:25 PM

Hi

 

another interesting area is the observation of comets and minor planets. Newly discovered specimens in particular should be carefully observed and their position measured. The Minor Planet Center (MPC) collects these observations, which of course should be delivered with the appropriate accuracy. The MPC has a very nice tutorial for beginners. However, the demands on your equipment are increasing.

 

https://www.minorpla...Astrometry.html

 

http://www.astrometrica.at

 

cs Guido


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#25 ziggeman

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Posted 28 March 2021 - 01:43 AM

Are new comets still named after the finder/first observer i wonder.Like comet Halley etc?

And what about asteroids? Can they be named after the finder? Who determines what name new found  objects in space get?




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