By Peter N. Spotts | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
As cosmic objects go, Tempel 1 is something only an astronomer could
love -- a pockmarked potato half the size of Manhattan spewing dust
and gas, as it sputters along through the sky.
Nevertheless, the comet is getting star treatment of late from
hundreds of people across six continents who have been tracking its
movements with telescopes and feeding images of the comet to
professional astronomers. The reason? On July 4, an American
spacecraft will launch a projectile to slam into the comet and offer
clues to what Tempel 1 is made of.
Whatever secrets it uncovers, the mission -- dubbed Deep Impact --
also highlights the key role amateur scientists play in several
aspects of astronomy. Unlike the world of, say, biology or physics,
the cosmos remains one of the few realms of science where dedicated
amateurs can still make consistent, significant contributions. They
feed professional scientists with data that track changes in variable
stars. They discover and track comets and asteroids, hunt for planets
beyond the solar system, and record changes in the afterglow of
powerful gamma-ray bursts.
And while the glory associated with Deep Impact will go to the
National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the scientists who
conceived the mission and will record the July 4 collision with mighty
mountaintop telescopes, some credit should be given to the amateur
astronomers doing reconnaissance work.
"Observations from the amateurs ... have proved very useful," says
Tony Farnham, a University of Maryland astronomer. The key is
Dr. Farnham has been observing the comet once a month since January
from the Kitt Peak Observatory near Tucson, Ariz. That's generous for
professionals, who must vie for hours at major observatories. But
"ideally, we would like to get images more frequently" in order to
track changes in the comet's output of dust and gas, any sudden
emergence of jets of gas, or changes in the form and structure of the
comet's features, he adds.
The data amateurs provide help fill those gaps. And they aid in
planning his next mountaintop observing run. The images are not as
detailed as those from the telescope he uses. Still, "there are some
very talented observers out there, and they have been getting some
very high-quality images."
At least 250 amateur and professional astronomers are participating in
the small-telescope science program. Sixty-nine are individuals
operating from small observatories and backyard sites. Others are
working in teams averaging at least four members apiece.
Their telescopes host light-gathering optics that range in size from 6
to 36 inches across. Some are commercially made, some are homemade,
and none of the setups comes cheap. The participants must replace
their eyepieces with digital imaging equipment sophisticated enough to
meet the Deep Impact team's specifications. That can run into several
Amateur groups got tapped in a roundabout manner, says Gary Emerson,
an engineer and amateur astronomer who works for Ball Aerospace &
Technologies Corp. in Golden, Colo., which built the Deep Impact
The impact may kick up enough dust to brighten the comet from a
telescope-only object to one visible to the naked eye under dark skies
or via binoculars under less favorable conditions. So the mission's
public-outreach coordinator initially came to Mr. Emerson and asked
about opportunities to involve amateur astronomers in visiting schools
to give talks or hosting comet-collision parties during which the
public could view the comet through amateurs' telescopes. Indeed, the
mission has a component -- the amateur observers' program -- that
follows through on that idea.
"But I said: 'There's a lot of really advanced amateurs around the
world who would love to get involved in some serious science,' "
Emerson recalls. He says he'll be recording the event from a new
backyard observatory at his retirement spot in southwestern New
Squashed like a bug
When the comet slams into the spacecraft's impactor at some 23,000
miles an hour -- an event one astronomer has likened to a 767 colliding
with a mosquito -- no one knows what the outcome will be. The
projectile could ding the comet's ice-and-rock surface, excavating a
crater the size of a house. Or it could carve a hole as wide as a
football stadium and 14 stories deep. The Deep Impact spacecraft will
observe the proceedings -- fleetingly -- as it speeds past the comet,
then beam the results back to Earth for the first close-up of the
anatomy of a comet.
But long after the big telescopes have turned elsewhere, the cadre of
amateurs will still be staring at the afterglow of the celestial
fireworks of the Fourth of July.
Copyright 2005 The Christian Science Monitor.
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[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: This proposed collision of the comet
and the satellite on July 4 has caused some interest at the
Independence High School and the Community College, where the
Astronomy class plans to observe it through a telescope that day. PAT]