New Space and Tech

Scientific Collaborations in Astronomy Between Amateurs and Professionals

By Keith Cowing
April 8, 2013
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Johan H. Knapen: “Both professional and amateur astronomers have been studying the skies for centuries. Their respec- tive roles, however, have changed considerably. In the 18th and 19th century, for instance, one of the main tasks of professional astronomers was to calculate astronomical data to be used by the merchant fleet and the military, and to provide the society at large with important data such as the times of sunrise and sunset and, in fact, time itself. Amateur astronomers meanwhile entertained themselves with what most astronomers might now consider more interesting activities, such as discovering planets and comets, and observing nebulae. Well-known amateurs include Caroline Herschel (1750-1848) who discovered several comets, and her brother William (1738-1822) who discovered Uranus, several moons of that planet and of Saturn, created a catalogue of nebulae (a term used at the time to describe any extended object), and observed double stars. He constructed hundreds of telescopes, and made a number of important discoveries related to light and radiation. Needless to say, amateur astronomers at the time were wealthy individuals.
While in the 19th century the interests of professional and amateur astronomers started to overlap more and more, they diverged again during the 20th century. One of the main reasons for this is that professionals started to use expensive and exclusive telescopes, such as the ones used by Hale and Hubble in California, which were out of reach of all amateurs.

We are now at the start of the 21st century, and one of the characteristics of our modern times is the almost ubiquitous availability of high-quality yet relatively cheap technology. So whereas professional astronomers now use very advanced instruments, including very large optical and radio telescopes, and massive supercomputer power, interested amateurs can start to use technologically advanced telescopes, cameras, and computers at a cost which is accessible to many millions of citizens around the world. In the next Section of this paper, I will summarise some of the areas in which amateurs can, and do, use these tools to help advance professional astronomy.”

Johan H. Knapen, Published in proceedings of “Stellar Winds in Interaction”, editors T. Eversberg and J.H. Knapen. Subjects: Instrumentation and Methods for Astrophysics (astro-ph.IM); Solar and Stellar Astrophysics (astro-ph.SR) [More information] [PDF version of paper]

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