A closer look into the unique world of amateur astronomers By Jacqueline Bastianon

A jam-packed parking lot is the last thing you'd expect at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum during a freezing cold night in March. Despite the frigid temperatures and abnormal time of day, the monthly meeting of the Royal Astronomy Society of Canada (RASC) attracts a loyal group of enthusiastic amateurs to the auditorium on a regular basis.

The Ottawa centre of the RASC has been up and running for several decades, so many members such as Brian McCullough and Tim Cole (president of the Ottawa centre) are longtime friends. They take time to gather and talk shop in the hall before the meeting over coffee and refreshments, swapping stories about upcoming events and new observations.

Tim Cole stops in a Timothy's to reflect on the astronomy community on his way to do solar observation with members of the public. Photo by Jacqueline Bastianon.

The relationship that exists between the amateurs and professionals in the field of astronomy is unique. It’s an accessible science, which is why non-specialists are able to do work that is used and appreciated by those in the professional community

Amateur astronomers are unique in that their work can help expand the knowledge of professionals. "There's a tremendous amount of work [in the astronomy field] that requires diligence, more than fundamental training,” said Cole. “You can learn enough from a few books that, with diligence, patience and an inquiring mind, [you can] make a contribution."

Brian McCullough points to various craters on an in-depth map of the moon located in his observatory. Photo by Jacqueline Bastianon.

There are less than 50 advanced telescopes around the world that remain open and, according to Melanie Hall, a professional astronomer who works in Calgary, Alberta, the competition among professionals to use them is fierce.

Due to the limited time and resources, Cole explains that if you get access, "You don't have the luxury of looking at the same things over and over again." Amateurs on the other hand, use their own equipment and have no time restraints. Unlike professionals, they can observe any part of the sky and record changes that they see over long periods.

"For some things, (like finding a comet and creating light graphs) it's more about being meticulous than having great equipment," said Cole. He explains that professionals will not waste their years of university training doing such tedious work, which is why it falls to those who choose to do it for fun.

Brian McCullough often uses this meteorite and other props at workshops to help give participants a more tangible experience of the astronomy field. Photo by Jacqueline Bastianon.

Amazingly, only three Canadians have ever discovered a new comet and, one night in 1989, Douglas George, an amateur and long-time member of the RASC, became one of them.

George was 'comet hunting' at the time, which is a process that involves scanning the sky repeatedly, looking for objects that aren’t supposed to be there. "It's a painstaking process," he said, but eventually his work paid off.

As he was looking through his telescope, George noticed a small blurry object that he'd never seen before and, after careful observation, he realized it was moving. "It was hugely exciting," he said, "I knew it was a new comet, so I had to rush back and report it." Another amateur astronomer made the discovery around the same time, so the comet was named "Skorchenko-George" after both contributors.

Brian McCullough uses a tangerine as a prop to help explain the different phases of the moon. Photo by Jacqueline Bastianon.

At the time of the comet discovery, George was using the RASC club observatory, but as he explains, one can be involved in the amateur astronomy field at a very low cost.

Before spending a lot of money on expensive equipment, members of the RASC, like Brian McCullough, say it’s important for beginners to get acquainted with the night sky using simple tools.

"The first thing we tell people is don't go out and buy a telescope," said McCullough, a RASC veteran. "Get yourself a copy of ‘NightWatch’ by Terence Dickinson (a beginner's guide to stars and constellations) and some binoculars."

"It's a progression," said Hall, "You might eventually get to that big telescope as your passion grows, but you don't need that type of thing to be able to look deep into the sky."

Brian McCullough stands in front of the "Brightstar Observatory" which he built in his backyard. Photo by Jacqueline Bastianon.

David Prosper, who works as a contractor for NASA Night Sky Network program in California, acts as bridge between professional and amateur astronomers. He said that crowd-sourcing projects are another important way that amateurs help contribute to the professional field. There is such a vast amount of information being collected constantly and amateurs are an important resource to help interpret it.

"Professionals love the support of the amateurs, and they will often request data [from them]," said Prosper. He highlighted ongoing projects such as ‘Galaxy Zoo’, which involves sorting through pictures and categorizing galaxies based on a set of given criteria. Amateurs submit their findings back to the organization so that they can be used to map the night sky.

All five sources agreed that without the work of amateurs, the field of earth and space science would be very different. "There would be less surprises," said Prosper. “There have been discoveries that amateurs will notice and that professionals might not."

Prosper points out that without the work of non-specialists, some new discoveries and information would go unnoticed. It’s amateur groups that take the time to study the shapes, sizes, mass measurements and path of objects in space, such as asteroids which professionals often overlook.

“Those are actually quite important, especially if it's a near-Earth asteroid,” said Prosper. “Someday [we might] detect an asteroid that's going to hit, and it's all thanks to someone who spent a little extra time in their backyard checking it out."

In addition, McCullough said he believes that without the work of laymen, astronomy for the most part, be inaccessible to the general public. Hall agreed, "As professionals and as scientists, communication is really important. There's no way that we can get what we're doing across to the public without amateur astronomers."

Brian McCullough has collected various artifacts over the years including these pieces of a lunar meteorite. Photo by Jacqueline Bastianon.

While seated at his kitchen table flipping through mounds of publications and artifacts, McCullough enthusiastically traces his love for astronomy back to his childhood. On Christmas Eve, 1968, the Apollo 8 spacecraft began to orbit the moon.

“I remember going out in my backyard and looking up, I couldn’t believe that there were people in orbit," said McCullough, “That’s a moment I have never forgotten, and it’s the moment I hang onto.” The next day he found his first telescope under the Christmas tree, and he’s been fascinated with astronomy ever since.

McCullough said he observed and learned on his own for 30 years before discovering the RASC. There, he joined a community full of like-minded people, passionate about the universe and eager to "share knowledge and enjoyment of the astronomical sciences." According to Prosper, the RASC is only one of many amateur clubs that exist around the world, all of whom share this common thread.

Cole emphasizes that it’s this curiosity and passion for the universe that keeps amateur astronomers going out night after night. "We are amateurs in the literal sense,” he said, not as 'lesser[s]' but as in 'people who do it for love.'"

Tim Cole often uses his telescope to take pictures of space objects and loves to share the results with anyone who shows interest. Photos by Tim Cole.
Created By
Jackie Bastianon

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