Pro/Am Scientific Collaboration in Astronomy

On January 2, 2011, 10-year old Kathryn Gray of New Brunswick, Canada become the youngest person to discover a supernova (Supernova 2010lt in the galaxy UGC 3378). Using images provided by family friend David Lane, it reportedly only took Kathryn about 15 minutes to find her supernova. Her discovery should't be much of a surprise; her father has found six supernovae.

In my opinion, Kathryn's discovery is wonderful for three reasons. First, Kathryn is a girl. We all know that astronomy as a hobby and as a profession is dominated by men. It's great to see a girl make a discovery like this and perhaps inspire other girls to participate in citizen science. Second, Kathryn is young. Again, we can all hope that she will inspire other children to learn more about science and astronomy. Third, regardless of gender or age, Kathryn has reminded all of us that this is a great time for citizen science and anyone who is interested can play a part.

You may be wondering what citizen science options are open to you? Good question! Fortunately, Johan H. Knapen of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, Tenerife, Spain and the Departamento de Astrofísica, Universidad de La Laguna, Tenerife, Spain has come to the rescue. In a paper titled "Scientific collaborations in astronomy between amateurs and professionals", Dr. Knapen has outlined seven areas where amateur and professional astronomers can collaborate. You can find his paper at – choose the PDF link on the right. (This paper is part of a proceedings volume titled "Stellar Winds in Interaction". You can download the full proceedings volume from this web page, as well – see the Comments section.) Dr. Knapen's seven areas for Pro/Am collaboration are:

  1. Ultra-deep Exposures.  Professional astronomers rarely have the telescope time to devote to very long imaging sessions on a single object. Amateur astronomers have plenty of time. Dr. Knapen's paper has a beautiful image of the galaxy NGC 5907 that illustrates his point. This image was taken by R. Jay Gabany and D. Martínez-Delgado and their colleagues using a 20-inch RC Optics telescope at the privately owned Blackbird Observatory in New Mexico. Their image "reaching up to ten times fainter than images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey" shows a set of stellar streams that may have originated from a past encounter with a companion galaxy and "yield very interesting constraints on cosmological models of galaxy evolution". Amateur astronomers with strong imaging skills can make significant contributions in this area.
  2. Meteors and Meteorites.  Meteorites can be examined and chemically analyzed providing valuable data about the history of our Solar System. Observations by amateurs can help to identify the trajectory of meteors and the possible location of where meteorites may have fallen. Amateurs can also assist with the recovery of meteorites. Have you ever seen Meteorite Men? You too could share that sense of discovery!
  3. Asteroid Shapes.  This option is all about strength in numbers; lots of amateurs working together to determine the shape of an asteroid. How does this work? Lets start with a four relevant facts. First, the orbits of many asteroids are known "to significant precision". Second, the positions of bright stars are very well known. Third, because of facts one and two it is possible to accurately determine when an asteroid will occult (pass in front) of a bright star. Four, when the asteroid passes in front of the star the star will dim for an amount of time dependent on the linear size of the asteroid. If you have enough observers measuring the occultation you can combine their data and actually determine the shape of the asteroid. One professional astronomer – even with a very large telescope – could not accomplish this feat on her own. A large number of observers is required.
  4. Comets and Bright Supernovae.  Ten year old Kathryn Gray (see above) and her father are great examples of amateur astronomers focused on this category of research. Between the two of them they have discovered seven supernovae. As Dr. Knapen points out, it is true that most new comets and supernovae are discovered by professionals. However, there is still opportunity for the individual citizen scientist to make important discoveries.
  5. Time Series and Variability.  Citizen scientists involved in this category of collaboration are active in the fields of photometry and stellar spectroscopy. The document referenced above by Johan Knapen is part of a larger proceedings volume titled "Stellar Winds in Interaction". The proceedings detail a ProAm collaboration to study WR 140, a colliding-wind binary star and provide an excellent example of the kind of ProAm collaboration that would fall into this category.
  6. Classifying by Amateur Volunteers.  Citizen scientists active in this area examine large amounts of data provided by professional astronomers and classify the data for further follow up by the professionals. GalaxyZoo is a great example of a Pro/Am collaboration in this area. GalaxyZoo volunteers studied images of galaxies collected by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and then answered questions about the galaxies to aid in classification (e.g., spiral, elliptical, etc.). Large numbers of volunteers helped ensure the results were accurate and there were definitely lots of volunteers. In the first year alone 150,000 citizen scientists provided over 50 million classifications. The most famous GalaxyZoo participant is Hanny van Arkel discoverer of Hanny's Voorwerp. (Hanny was the first person interviewed by Share Astronomy – you can find her interview here:
  7. Distributed Computing.  Many people will be familiar with this category because of the huge popularity of SETI@home. SETI@home started in 1999 and since then over 5 million individuals have allowed this project to use their home computers to execute calculations that aid in the search for extraterrestrial life. Other distributed computing projects are available, as well.

Share Astronomy will be devoting considerable time and other resources to the world of citizen science in the future. We are planning detailed interviews and articles, so be sure to "stay tuned". In the meantime, here are some links you might find interesting:

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1 Response to Pro/Am Scientific Collaboration in Astronomy

  1. Pingback: Tom Krajci – Citizen Scientist and Wrench Turner | Share Astronomy

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