Call Goes Out for Amateurs to Scope the Night Sky

If you have a computer, the right software, and a decent telescope with an electronic camera, Lowell Observatory astronomers want to hear from you.

Using a telescope perched on a mesa near Flagstaff, Ariz., Lowell scientists have started gathering images of the night sky in a program to find asteroids that may pass too close to Earth for comfort.

Lowell's astronomers are recruiting amateur astronomers to provide follow-up observations of the discoveries. Researchers will use those observations to boost the accuracy of asteroid-orbit calculations.

Lowell's plea highlights the important role amateur astronomers play in tracking comets and asteroids, researchers say. In February alone, some 80 percent of the sites reporting such observations belonged to amateur astronomers, notes Gareth Williams, associate director of the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. For 20 years, the center has encouraged amateur astronomers to send in position information on comets and asteroids.

"We've had remarkable responses" to the observatory's help-wanted ad, says Bruce Koehn, a Lowell astronomer. "Fifteen to 20 people have said they're eager to do the follow-up observations."

The field is wide open for the serious amateur since scientists at big mountaintop telescopes tend to study more-exotic cosmic quarry such as quasars, distant galaxies, and black holes. And the few observation programs dedicated to near-Earth asteroids often are intent on surveying the skies for new ones in an attempt to better quantify the potential threat.

"We'll follow one for a day or two," says Eleanor Helin, an astronomer at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., who uses a special camera atop Hawaii's Mt. Haleakala for her asteroid searches. Once those initial observations are made, she adds, amateur astronomers play a key role in providing subsequent tracking.

Several hardware improvements - from personal computers and digital cameras to more detailed star atlases and dirt-cheap astrometry software - have brought asteroid tracking back into the amateur realm.

"The work now has become too easy to ignore," says Dennis di Cicco, an associate editor at Sky & Telescope magazine. Mr. di Cicco is credited with 113 asteroid discoveries from his home 20 miles west of Boston. Using his 16-inch telescope with a digitized camera where the eyepiece normally goes, he says he can spot faint objects that in the past would have been accessible only to instruments such as the 100-inch telescope atop California's Mt. Palomar.

Amateur astronomers most likely to follow up quickly on newly discovered objects tend to live in Japan, the Czech Republic, and Italy, Dr. Helin notes.

Di Cicco attributes this to a tendency among American amateurs to view astronomy as a recreational activity - one fueled by an abundance of relatively affordable equipment. "I hear complaints from people overseas saying that Americans are a hardware-rich group of amateurs, but they don't do a lot of heavy-duty science."

Please like those from atop a windswept Arizona mesa may change that.

* For information about measuring and reporting asteroid or comet positions try: cfa-www.harvard.edu/iau/info/Astrometry.html

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