Starstruck: The importance of amateur astronomy

Whether it's spotting a supernova from the shed or probing galaxies on a laptop, amateur astronomy is vital to the professionals mapping the heavens, says Alice-Azania Jarvis

As first finds go, it's not a bad one. The "biggest thing ever to be discovered in Irish astronomy" was stumbled upon by Dave Grennan during an evening spent sitting in his garden shed.

The 2010IK, as it was subsequently christened, is a supernova – a stellar explosion so powerful that it destroys not only the star itself but all nearby suns and planets. This one wasn't, in fact, a child of 2010 but of some 300 million years ago. What Grennan spotted was the blast's light as it finally reached Earth; the time lag was a product of the distance the light had to travel. The 2010IK was the first supernova spotted from within Ireland, but what above all makes the revelation special is that Grennan, of Raheny, north Dublin, is not a professional astronomer. He's a 39-year-old software developer.

"It's an example of the heights that can be reached by ordinary people," says David Moore, chairman of Astronomy Ireland. "Astronomy really is unique in being an area where we amateurs can make a contribution."

And recently amateurs have been making quite a lot of contributions. As well as Grennan's discovery, there has been the footage of the earth's surface shot by Luke Geissbuhler and his seven-year-old son Max, using a takeaway container, a weather balloon, an iPhone and a video camera to create the "craft" they sent up into the atmosphere. And there was a set of similar photos taken by students of Potomac School, Virginia, and Australian stargazer Anthony Wesley's sighting of an asteroid colliding with Jupiter (an event missed by Nasa's dedicated telescopes).

Astronomy, it appears, is particularly well suited to the layperson, and the history of the amateur astronomer is not undistinguished. A boom in cosmic interest in the 18th and 19th centuries was largelypioneered by "gentleman astronomers" such as William Herschel, who identified Uranus, and William Lassell, who discovered Triton; such enthusiasts could afford to construct their own observatories and telescopes to indulge their curiosity. "Until the 20th century it was amateurs who were making the discoveries," explains Alison Boyle, Space Curator at London's Science Museum. "It is only more recently that it has become dominated by professionals. Even so, there are still ways for people to get involved."

The thing is, much of astronomy's groundwork is, by nature, observational. And space being a big place, the experts can't watch all of it. In fact, they can't even watch most of it. According to Dr David Clements, a lecturer in astrophysics at Imperial College London, the world's most sophisticated research centres tend to concentrate their resources on what they already know is out there.

"If a new comet comes along, the chances are that there won't be a professional telescope pointed at it. They will already be committed to a relatively small area of sky. So amateurs can act as scouts all of the time. The communication channels are good; they can easily pass information to professionals." Nowadays, the tools needed to get started are within the reach of most would-be stargazers. The naked eye is sufficient for that most rudimentary of sightings, the shooting star. "Simply counting how many you see in a 15-minute period is of scientific value," says Moore. Binoculars and basic telescopes that cost less than a couple of hundred pounds can open up the heavens to the keen observer.

Will Gater is news editor of the BBC's Sky at Night magazine, the UK's largest-selling amateur astronomy publication. He began stargazing while at secondary school, and has just served on the panel of the Royal Observatory's Astronomy Photographer of The Year award. The most striking element of that experience, he says, was the way that improved technology has opened up the field. "The exciting thing is that with the equipment available now, it is possible to conduct real science at home. We had hundreds of entrants from around the world. The winners were really excellent."

Amateur photographs taken today, using digital technology, are liable to outshine prof-essional photos of just a few years back. Non-professional photographers now have the ability to compensate for the earth's rotation, if not by attaching a camera to a telescope then by using a camera drive. The result – as demonstrated by one of the competition's winners, Tom Lowe, pictured above – is a picture that shows stars not as streaks but as sharp pinpricks. Popular telescopes, too, have given amateurs the chance to achieve levels of precision previously the preserve of professionals.

Perhaps it isn't surprising, then, that the discipline continues to expand into popular consciousness. Sky at Night has more than 21,000 subscribers and the British Astronomical Association around 2,500 members. At the Science Museum, the cosmological exhibitions are some of the most popular on offer. Tomorrow evening, Boyle and colleagues will host an evening dedicated to the findings of everyday enthusiasts. Entitled Celestial Skies: Public Eyes, it will celebrate not only the headline-grabbing discoveries of Grennan, Geissbuhler et al, but also the rather less dazzling, though no less important, role of the general public in providing "crowdsourced" data for astronomical research. In this, access to the internet has proven seminal.

In 2007, a group of academics from across the country founded Galaxy Zoo, an online database of a million galactic images taken in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. The founders hope that online enthusiasts would help classify the galaxies as either spiral or elliptical. It's a task at which humans are infinitely better than computers, which tend to get confused by the idea of patterns. Since its launch, more than 250,000 people have participated in refining the database, with tasks evolving from a simple exercise in pattern-choosing to more sophisticated work.

"Having projects online like that means that astronomy doesn't have to be about going out into the cold and sitting alone for hours with your equipment," explains Boyle. "It has opened the discipline up to a much wider audience." More than that: the results have formed the backbone of numerous published astronomical papers.

The age of the gentleman astronomer may have passed, but in an age of everyman web browsers and cheap, digital technology the potential to continue astronomy's populist streak remains. Amateurs – be they desk-bound members of Galaxy Zoo, shed-based stargazers or well-practiced cosmic photographers – can, at the very least, contribute valuable scouting services. And who knows? They might just spot a supernova.

Celestial Skies: Public Eyes will be held at the Science Museum's Dana Centre tomorrow, at 7pm – 9pm. For tickets, call 020 7942 4040 or email tickets@danacentre.org.uk

How to scan the skies

Start simply, using the naked eye

"Get to know the sky," says Dr David Clements. of Imperial College, London. "Try and find a dark place – big city lights will obscure your view – and play tourist. Read around. There are a host of books and magazines out there."

Invest in some equipment without breaking the bank

Binoculars are a good starting point for any stargazer. Beyond that, it's possible to kit yourself out without spending a fortune. "Good telescopes and cameras have become much more affordable of late," says astronomy journalist Will Gater. "It has really opened things up."

Get online

The web has changed the way grassroots astronomy works. "The internet as a communication skill has been around for years. What's new is the way it's being used for research, with things like Galaxy Zoo," notes Clements. Gone are the days when huddling in a freezing observatory was a required exercise. If you can identify the pattern of a galaxy, you can play your astronomical role from anywhere – as long as you have your laptop.

Contact the experts

"The routes of communication are good," says Clements. "Amateurs can get the details of professionals from mailing lists and so on. They can act as scouts for professionals," thus providing a valuable service. For details, visit http://britastro.org and http://www.popastro.com/. Galaxy Zoo has an excellent online forum, available at http://www.galaxyzooforum.org/

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