Jim Fox – Profile of a Variable Star Observer

Jim Fox Small ImageLast week I wrote about Tom Krajci and how he is supporting the work of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) and other organizations by hosting a telescope farm on his property near Cloudcroft, New Mexico. The subject of this blog post is Jim Fox who lives near the town of Mayhill, New Mexico (only a few miles from Tom Krajci). Jim also supports the work of the AAVSO but in an entirely different way. Jim is a variable star observer and the Committee Chair of the AAVSO Photoelectric Photometry (PEP) Observing Program.

Variable star observations can be done in a variety of ways but the three most common are: visual observations, photometry with a CCD camera and photoelectric photometry. Photoelectric photometry, which is Jim's specialty, requires a telescope and a photoelectric photometer. The photometer provides a precise measurement that can be converted (reduced) into a magnitude. (One company that makes photometers is Optec, Inc. You can learn more about photometers on their web site.)

Jim's equipment consists of a Meade 10" (254mm) LX200-ACF Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope and an Optec SSP-3 photoelectric photometer that are housed in a dome observatory a few yards from his home. His primary research targets are the 36-48 program stars that are part of the PEP Observing Program. The program stars studied by Jim and the other members of the PEP program share two common characteristics: first, they are mostly too bright for professionals (their CCDs would be oversaturated by many of these stars) and second, they vary in brightness by very small amounts ranging from a few tenths of a magnitude to a few hundreths of a magnitude. Because these stars are not commonly observed by professionals they make great targets for amateurs who want to make a contribution to "real science".

The number of people participating in the PEP Observing Program is small and I asked Jim why. He cited several reasons. For one thing, there aren't large numbers of people actively involved in astronomical observing of any kind and the number of people involved in science activities is even smaller. In addition, there is a large amount of rigor and attention to detail required for these observations and some people just aren't interested in making that type of commitment. For example, Jim estimates that it takes him 30-45 minutes per star to do the required measurements and reductions. (PEP observers do not just measure the target variable star – they also measure the brightness of a comparison star, a check star and the sky background near each star and they do this multiple times during an observing session.)

Jim and his wife Stephanie (who was the first female engineer hired by 3M) moved to New Mexico from Minnesota a little over a year ago and since then Jim's observing opportunities have increased dramatically. In Minnesota, he had 2 or 3 nights per month with the required photometric quality for his observations and could normally manage 70 – 100 measurements per year. In New Mexico, he now has 2 or 3 nights per week with the necessary photometric quality and in 2010 he collected 174 measurements between March and the end of the year.

During my discussion with Jim I became curious how he got started with variable star observing. It's actually a very interesting story. Jim went to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. While he was a student there he used to take a small 4.5" (114mm) Richfield Newtonian telescope out to a dark sky site near Dearborn Observatory for observing. One night an astronomy professor at Nortwestern named Dr. Karl Henize noticed Jim and struck up a conversation. When he learned how serious Jim was about astronomy, he offered to let Jim check out a key and use one of the scopes at the observatory if he would agree to do some variable star observing for the professor. Jim agreed and got his start as a variable star observer. Karl Henize went on to be an astronaut and died in 1993 from high altitude pulmonary edema on Mount Everest.

So, what does Jim do when he isn't measuring the magnitudes of variable stars? Well, not surprisingly, he does more citizen science. He mentors new variable star observers participating in the PEP Observing Program. Jim also supports the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers (ALPO) by measuring the brightness of Uranus and Neptune. (These measurements are used to study changes in cloud reflectivity, for example.) Jim's citizen science activities aren't limited to astronomy, either. He did bird banding in Minnesota and hopes to continue with bird banding in New Mexico in the near future.

My goal with this profile of Jim Fox and the article about Tom Krajci was to show that there are many options available to individuals interested in citizen science – even within the category of variable star observing. In my next blog post I'm going to describe the most amazing amateur roll-off roof observatory that I've ever seen.

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