The Lowell Oberservatory has created an Amateur Research Initiative. Lowell is seeking help from citizen scientists in several areas. Some projects require citizen scientists to have their own telescopes, while others can be performed only.

Projects that require telescopes include obtaining ultra-deep images of dwarf galaxies, creating light curves for slowly rotating asteroids, determining stellar rotation periods and finding stellar eclipses and giant planet transits, improving the orbits of Centaurs and Kuiper Belt Objects, and monitoring star-forming regions for outburst events.

Other projects include examining old image to find asteroids that were missed by an automated search; examining photometric data for signs of exoplanets, variables stars, or other transient objects; and identifying historic scientific instruments from the Lowell Observatory’s extensive collection.

Written by Astro1 on May 31st, 2012 , Astronomy

NASA has signed a Space Act agreement which turns the nine-year-old, $150-million Galaxy Evolution Explorer (Galex) ultraviolet space telescope over to the California Institute of Technology. Caltech will raise money from various sources to put the telescope back into operation.

Committed funders are the Keck Institute of Space Studies, a consortium of Israeli universities led by the Weizmann Institute of Science near Tel Aviv, Cornell University, and an international consortium that goes by the unwieldy name of GAMA/Herschel-Atlas/DINGO. Caltech is seeking additional funds from private donors, philanthropic foundations, and corporate sponsors.

If this Space Act is successful, it might provide a model for other space telescopes such as Hubble, which NASA plans to decommission in a few years. NASA plans to replace Hubble with the James Webb Space Telescope, but Webb is designed primarily for observations in the infrared, rather than visible wavelengths. There is likely to be some unhappiness when the public realizes that the visible-light images, which have made Hubble so popular, will be coming to an end. With the advent of low-cost launch and space servicing, it might be possible to keep space observatories like Hubble operational indefinitely. The question is, will the low-cost revolution come soon enough, or will Hubble be deorbited before it arrives, much as Skylab came down while waiting for the Shuttle to become operational?

Written by Astro1 on May 16th, 2012 , Astronomy

A new citizen-science project from NASA is enlisting amateur astronomers to help discover near-Earth asteroids and study their characteristics.

The project, called Target Asteroids, will support NASA’s Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security – Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission. OSIRIS-REx, which will study material from asteroid 1999 RQ36, is scheduled for launch in 2016.

Amateur astronomers participating in the project will help characterize the near-Earth asteroid population by recording their position, motion, rotation, and changes in brightness. Professional astronomers will use the information to refine theoretical models, improving their understanding of asteroids similar to the one OSIRIS-REx will encounter in 2019.

OSIRIS-REx will map the asteroid’s global properties, measure non-gravitational forces, and make observations that can be compared with data from telescopes on Earth. In 2023, OSIRIS-REx will return to Earth with 60 grams of surface material from the asteroid.

Previous observations indicate 1999 RQ36 is made of primitive materials. OSIRIS-REx data will provide new insights into the nature of the early solar system and the building blocks that led to life on Earth.

Amateur astronomers have provided tracking observations in support of NASA’s Near Earth Object Observation Program for more than 10 years. This traching data is important for selecting targets for asteroid missions such as OSIRIS-REx.

“Although few amateur astronomers have the capability to observe 1999 RQ36 itself, they do have the capability to observe other targets,” said Jason Dworkin, OSIRIS-REx project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Partner organizations in the Target Asteroid program include the International Astronomical Search Collaboration, the Astronomical League, the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers, Oceanside Photo and Telescope, the NASA Night Sky Network, the University of Arizona Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter, and the Catalina Sky Survey.

For more information on Target Asteroids, or to register for the program, click here.

Written by Astro1 on April 18th, 2012 , Astronomy, Planetary science Tags:

Galaxy Zoo, the Zooniverse project that asks citizen scientists to help classify galaxies in Hubble Space Telescope images, has an iPhone app. Citizen scientists on the go can now classify galaxies on their iPhone (or iPad or iPod Touch).

You can download the Galaxy Zoo app from the App Store on iTunes. Galaxy Zoo also has an Android app available on Google Play.

Galaxy Zoo iPhone and Android apps


Written by Astro1 on April 10th, 2012 , Astronomy

There’s been considerable debate in the last few years about the relative merits of orbital assembly versus superheavy lift.

The argument for superheavy lift is pretty straightforward. Very large rockets enable payloads to be launched in one piece. Their advantage is not simply in the weight they can carry but, more importantly, in their large-diameter payload shrouds. Those very-large shrouds come in very handy for launching things like large-aperture telescope mirrors for future very large space telescopes.

In 2007, for example, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center did a study of how future space telescopes could be launched on the then-proposed Ares V rocket.

Ares V launches 8-meter space telescope

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Written by Astro1 on April 10th, 2012 , Astronomy

Citizen scientists who are interested in the Moon can find a wide range of activities. Whatever your level of ability, resources, and interest, there is a citizen-science activity you can participate in.

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Written by Astro1 on April 9th, 2012 , Astronomy, Lunar Science, Nanosatellites, Space Adventures, SpaceX Tags:

A senior review by outside experts has recommended that NASA extend the operating life of the Hubble and Kepler space telescopes.

If NASA accepts the recommendations, which seems likely, Kepler would get another four years of life. That is a major extension for the exoplanet telescope, which was originally designed for a 3.5-year mission. Kepler has been in orbit for just over three years.

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Written by Astro1 on April 5th, 2012 , Astronomy

Astronomy has entered a new era of mega-telescopes, where even ground-based instruments can cost upwards of a billion dollars. The James Webb Space Telescope is expected to cost more than $8 billion. Obviously, such instruments are well out of the range of citizen scientists. The future for amateur astronomy is not dim, however. Smaller, lower-cost telescopes remain relevant and useful for astronomy.

For this reason, both professional and amateur astronomers should welcome the development of reusable suborbital spacecraft which can carry small telescopes on short-duration missions. These low-cost missions will enable many astronomical experiments that benefit from access to space but do not need (and often cannot afford) a ride to orbit.

Flying telescopes on suborbital spacecraft is not a new idea. In the 1960’s, the X-15 rocketplane flew a number of telescopes for NASA. The NASA Office of Space Sciences sponsored the Ultraviolet Stellar Photography experiment, for example, which photographed Alpha Aurigue, Eta Aurigue, and Rho Aurigue from altitudes above 246,000 feet.

Professional astronomers are already starting to develop astronomical instruments for the new commercial suborbital vehicles. Among the first of these instruments is the Atsa Suborbital Observatory, designed by Dr. Faith Vilas of the Planetary Science Institute and Dr. Luke Sollitt of The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina. Dr. Vilas recently left her position as director of the MMT (Multiple Mirror Telescope) Observatory to develop Atsa.

The Atsa Observatory is based on commercial off-the-shelf components. The optical component is a 14-inch Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, with some modifications to increase its ruggedness. The main sensor will be a commercially available Silver 220 or  Thermovision SC4000 infrared camera. Visiting scientists will have the option of bringing their own sensors, however.

Atsa Observatory suborbital space telescope

Atsa (the Navaho word for “eagle”) will fly on the XCOR Lynx Mark III. It will be controlled during flight by a payload operator in the Lynx’s right seat. Having a human in the loop means that researchers won’t have to spend a lot of money automating their experiments and debugging control software. The Lynx spacecraft will do the coarse pointing of the telescope using its maneuvering thrusters, but a gimbal-drive-motor assembly will do the fine pointing. Atsa will ride in the Lynx’s dorsal experiment pod and be exposed to space by a door during flight. Dr. Vilas says, “The best window is no window.”

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Written by Astro1 on March 28th, 2012 , Astronomy, Innovation, XCOR Aerospace

NASA’s space-science program is in crisis. This is partly due to limitations on the overall NASA budget and competition from other programs, such as the Senate-mandated Space Launch System, but it’s mainly due to budget overruns within the space-science program, particularly the flagship James Webb Space Telescope.

The JWST was supposed to cost $1.6 billion and launch in 2011. Now, it is estimated that the telescope will cost $8.7 billion and won’t launch until 2018. The House Appropriations Committee tried to cancel the JWST in 2011, because of the cost overruns. The Senate saved the JWST, but the cost of its salvation is likely to be major cuts in NASA’s unmanned Mars programs and other science missions.

JWST may have dodged the bullet in 2011, but there is no guarantee it will continue to do so in the future, especially if costs continue to escalate. So, now seems like a good time to ask the question: If the James Webb Space Telescope is cancelled, what could NASA do in its place? Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Astro1 on March 24th, 2012 , Astronomy

On February 18, 1930, Pluto was discovered by amateur astronomer Clyde Tombaugh. Tombaugh was a citizen scientist – an amateur astronomer and telescope maker  – who was hired by Lowell Observatory to search for a predicted but undiscovered planet beyond the orbit of Pluto.

Although Pluto’s planet status was controversially revoked by the International Astronomical Union in 2006, the discovery of Pluto remains a powerful and convincing argument for the value of citizen science in training researchers.

One way to honor Pluto’s birthday is to watch “The Pluto Files,” a PBS documentary with Neil deGrasse Tyson. You can buy the DVD or watch for free online at Better yet, you can joint IceHunters and help search for Kuiper-belt objects like Pluto in images taken by the 8-meter Subaru telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii and the 6.5-meter Magellan telescope in Chile.

Written by Astro1 on February 19th, 2012 , Astronomy, Citizen Science (General) Tags: