Waid Observatory

Amateur Astronomy's Scientific Contribution

Ever since Galileo turned his hand made telescope toward the night sky, astronomers have striven to document and share their observations with others.  Before the advent of modern cameras, careful sketches of their observations were the only method available.  This practice required many hours of observations and dedicated work.  At best this resulted in crude representations of the astronomers' observations and was prone to inaccuracies, albeit unintentional, from preconceived ideas and biases of the observer.  Percival Lowell's careful drawings of Mars depicted "canals" constructed by Martins to transport scarce water from the Martian ice caps.  We now know his conclusions were influenced by his own preconceptions. Modern photographic equipment and film revolutionized astronomy by recording very precise images of the actual telescopic observations.  No longer was there a danger of influence by bias in the recording of celestial objects. Precise astometric measurements of stellar and planetary positions were now possible.  The "science" of astronomy was now able to flourish.

The application of photographic media to astronomy was fundamental to many of the great astronomical discoveries during the twentieth century.  The discovery of Pluto in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona was made by carefully comparing photographic plates with an instrument know as a blink comparator.  Edwin Hubble's great discovery of the expansion of the Universe would not have been possible without the use of photographic equipment that enabled him to study the spectrum of galaxies.   As important as photographic media was to astronomy it had its limitations.  The sensitivity of film emulsions required long exposures through very large telescopes in order to gather enough light to record very faint objects.  This in effect limited scientific astronomical study to large observatories with equipment out of the reach of amateur astronomers.

During the 1990s advances in computer technology and the introduction of reasonably priced CCD cameras and computerized telescopes allowed amateur astronomers access to equipment capable of scientific quality observations.  With the modern equipment available, the amateur astronomer is now able to produce images that are as good as, and in many cases superior to, those produced by the largest telescopes of only a few years ago.  This equipment now enables amateurs to contribute scientific data to the astronomical communities.  Main stream researchers now actively recruit amateur astronomers to provide observational data that can be gathered by even modest equipment.  These observations include such things as astrometric observations of asteroids and comets that enable precise orbital information determination, photometric observations to refine and determine variable star characteristics, and even observations and detection of eclipsing extra-solar planets by light curve analysis of their stars.  These amateur observations free time professional observatories need to do research that is only possible with their large and very expensive installations.  The opportunity for meaningful scientific research by amateur astronomers would not be possible without the advent of reasonably priced high quality telescopes, CCD cameras, and computers.

Copyright Donald P. Waid