Web opens new worlds to amateur astronomers

Amateur astronomer William Bianco doesn’t huddle over a backyard telescope to hunt for undiscovered planets. He logs onto his computer.

Bianco, who was mesmerized by the intricacies of the universe as a young boy, is part of a growing online community that sifts through mountains of data collected by professional scientists in search of other worlds.

While Bianco has yet to make a landmark discovery, he savors the rush of teetering on the cutting edge of research.

Never before have amateur astronomers had so much unfettered access to celestial data once available only to scientists with huge telescopes. In the latest frontier of astronomy, professionals are increasingly enlisting the aid of students and other novice stargazers with personal computers to help pore through images and data–all in pursuit of the next great breakthrough.

“We’re in the golden age of astronomy,” said Bianco, who keeps his day job as a political science professor at Indiana University.

Thanks to technology, students and other amateur astronomers are effectively turning from lonely skywatchers to research assistants.

Since the late 1990s, virtual astronomy has boomed. One of the earliest online citizen scientist projects was SETI@home, which distributed software that created a virtual supercomputer by harnessing idle, web-connected PCs to search for alien radio transmissions.

The SETI project hums in the background as a screen saver, but newer efforts require more human thought.

Bianco belongs to an internet project called Systemic, which boasts 750 amateur planet hunters. Astronomers already have discovered more than 200 planets in far-off solar systems using traditional methods, yet there are likely more out there.

Participants in the Systemic project download software and riffle through data that measure the tiny gravitational wobble in a star’s motions in search of planets that orbit stars other than our sun. Users also try to decode simulated data of planetary systems invented by the project’s managers–a task that will help professional astronomers better understand real extrasolar planets.

To participate, users select a star–real or simulated–and adjust other variables, such as a planet’s mass and orbital period, by moving a slider back and forth on the screen. The goal is to design a planetary system that best fits the data and then publish the answer online.

So far, online users have pinpointed hundreds of potential candidates, but only about five might actually be real, said Systemic project head Greg Laughlin, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

“It’s not an aimless game,” he said.

Although the Systemic web site provides the search tools, it doesn’t promote any of the discoveries, Laughlin said. Amateurs who want to publicize their find need to look for another outlet, such as a scientific journal, to get credit.

Before internet-based astronomy, it took a long time for novices to report their discoveries. High-speed, always-on internet access has blurred the line between the professionals and amateurs, said Terry Mann, president of the Astronomical League, made up of more than 240 U.S. amateur astronomy clubs.

Last year, Mann signed up to analyze a repository of online images of the first-ever microscopic grains of star dust brought back to Earth by a NASA spacecraft.

The work is painstaking. Mann and her fellow 25,000 volunteers eye hundreds of thousands of digital images in search of minuscule carrot-shaped trails left by the capture of star dust, believed to be the leftovers from stellar explosions.

Mann has submitted 40 possible examples of star dust in the images. If correct, amateurs can get their names published in scientific papers written by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, which manages the Stardust@home project.

“Amateurs can do real science. We can actually help,” Mann said.

Andrew Westphal, associate director of the Space Sciences Laboratory at Berkeley,

praised the efforts of amateur astronomers: It would probably take his whole life to find all the dust sprinklings, he said.

“It’s stunning how good they are. I think they’re better at this than we are,” Westphal added.

The internet also has benefited professional astronomers, who often have to fight for scarce telescope time at major research observatories.

Since 2001, the National Science Foundation has funded a $10 million project to create a “national virtual observatory” that compiles data from ground and space-based telescopes–including dazzling images from the Hubble Space Telescope and X-ray data from the Chandra Observatory.

The project, which is still in development, is primarily used by professionals who want to go to one source to mine archival images. But high school and college students are increasingly tapping into the web site as well, said project manager Robert Hanisch of the Space Telescope Science Institute.

As far as amateur astronomer Bianco is concerned, the more people teasing out the mysteries of the cosmos, the better.

“It’s going to take some time and collective effort to find what’s out there,” he said.


Systemic project


Stardust project


SETI project


National Virtual Observatory


Want to share a great resource? Let us know at submissions@eschoolmedia.com.