Many people enjoy watching the night sky, and some enjoy watching the day sky as well to observe the solar eclipses and sunspots. Using binoculars and portable telescopes, amateur astronomers or stargazers contribute to astronomy by monitoring variable stars, tracking asteroids, and discovering transient objects, such as comets, though scientific research is not their main goal. Amateur astronomy is usually associated with viewing the night sky when most celestial objects and events are visible.

A long time ago, stargazers learned the basics of the night sky with pencils, star charts and lots of patience with their telescopes. Progress in science is often linked to development of new technologies, so scientists and engineers are continually exploring new techniques to improve their ability to collect and analyze the stars.

Now, high-tech equipment and smart phone apps are making the task a lot less daunting for beginners. New point-and-shoot telescopes require only the push of a button to go into action. Just push the button and the device gets its own bearings, aligning itself with the stars above so it can tell you the name of the star or comet seen in the eyepiece.

These automated telescopes that can find celestial objects with no help from humans are not new, they had motors to drive them, allowing built-in processing and databases. Users of some older telescopes can choose any star or planet from the menu on the hand controller, re-centering the eyepiece over the chosen object. But even these telescopes need to be set properly and some people are defeated by the process.

Nowadays, amateur stargazers are trying to find a way to collect data via low-cost technology like smart phone applications. Smart phones, with their cameras and abundant processing power, offer novel features that telescopes cannot. For example, identifying bright stars or planets seen in the night sky, as well as simulating a ride on a spacecraft taking the users on a tour of distant planets.

Dr. Chris Lintott, director of citizen science at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, believes that the availability of beginners’ tools like apps and self-aligning telescopes will help drive interest in astronomy.


The original article was published in the PSC NewsletterSummer 2011 issue.

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