(AP)--Amateur astronomer William Bianco doesn't huddle over a backyard telescope
to hunt for undiscovered planets. He logs onto his computer.
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.
Bianco has yet to make a landmark discovery, he savors the rush of teetering on
the cutting edge of research.
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 novices with
personal computers to help pore through images and data--all in pursuit of the
next great breakthrough.
the golden age of astronomy,'' said Bianco, who keeps his day job as a
political science professor at Indiana University.
technology, novices are effectively turning from lonely skywatchers to research
assistants. Even before the rise of virtual astronomy, amateurs did everything
from tracking asteroids to detecting supernova explosions to eyeing new comets.
neophyte stargazer Thomas Bopp gained fame for co-discovering what would be
known as Comet Hale-Bopp. Two years ago, in what was billed as the first such
find by an amateur in 65 years, Jay McNeil of Kentucky took a picture of a new
nebula--an illuminated cloud of gas and dust lit by what is believed to be a
late 1990s, virtual astronomy has boomed. One of the earliest online citizen
scientist projects was SETI(at)home, which distributed software that created a
virtual supercomputer by harnessing idle, Web-connected PCs to search for alien
SETI project hums in the background as a screen saver, the newer efforts
require more human thought.
belongs to an Internet project called Systemic, which boasts 750 amateur planet
hunters. Astronomers have already discovered more than 200 planets in far-off
solar systems using traditional methods, yet there are likely more out there.
download software and rifle through data that measure the tiny gravitational
wobble in a star's motions in search planets that orbit stars other than our
sun. Users also try to decode simulated data of planetary systems invented by
the project managers-- a task that will help the professionals better understand
real extrasolar planets.
participate, users select a star--real or simulated--and adjust other variables
such 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.
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.
an aimless game,'' he said.
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.
no stranger to Web-based astronomy. He helped start another project in which
amateurs point their telescopes at potential extrasolar planetary systems and
look at dimming starlight to learn about a planet's size and composition.
Unlike Systemic, users have to buy expensive equipment--including telescopes and
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 over 240 U.S. amateur astronomy clubs.
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.
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(at)home
can do real science. We can actually help,'' Mann said.
Westphal, associate director of the Space Sciences Laboratory at Berkeley,
praised amateurs--it would probably take his whole life to find all the dust
sprinklings, he said.
stunning how good they are. I think they're better at this than we are,''
Internet has also benefited professional astronomers, who often have to fight
for scarce telescope time at major research observatories.
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 under development, is primarily used
by professionals who want to go to one source to mine archival images. 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.
to take some time and collective effort to find what's out there,'' he said.