As demonstrated this week during a gathering of observers in Big Bear, California, amateur and professional astronomers are joining forces as never before.
Astronomy is one of the few pursuits in which it's sometimes hard to tell an amateur from a professional. Certainly anyone walking into this year's Symposium on Telescope Science, held jointly with the American Association for Variable Star Observers, could easily mistake those gathered for a cadre of academics. But with the advent of affordable, high-quality technologies, such as CCD cameras, and the growth of large collaborations, amateurs are increasingly doing hardcore science that is indistinguishable in quality from professional work. Often they are partnering with professionals, too.
One such pro-am project that has impressed participants here focuses on the eclipsing binary star system YY Geminorum. This pair of small, cool M dwarf stars is only 71 arcseconds from Castor and 7.5 magnitudes dimmer than the brilliant Twin, making the binary incredibly difficult to observe. Leslie Hebb (Vanderbilt University) wanted to see if magnetic activity, such as that which creates star spots, could explain why the stars are larger than expected. However, the extensive observations she needed to map the stars' magnetic fields, as well as how often they flare, whether they have spots, and how their brightness varies, would take too much time on in-demand professional scopes.
So she turned to amateurs for help: she attacked the magnetic-field question with the 3.6-meter Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope in Hawaii, while nine amateurs from around the world attacked the other questions by closely observing the binary's light.
The results of the amateurs' observations, completed over the same time period as Hebb's, show that YY Gem flares a lot — the amateur team recorded 20 flares over the 10-day-long intensive observing run — and also suggest that the stars have star spots. As Utah-based observer Jerrold Foote told attendees, it's too soon to say whether this high activity explains the stars' apparent beefiness. But the ingenuity required to observe the system, the quality of the data, and the observers' crucial role make the project an exquisite example of pro-am collaboration.
YY Gem isn't the only cool pro-am project being presented here. A 20-year campaign to study the behavior of the cataclysmic variable BK Lyncis, a binary system with a white dwarf stealing material from its companion, revealed that it might be the only known example of a system transitioning from a nova (when hydrogen fusion reignites on the white dwarf's surface) to a dwarf nova (when accreting material collapses onto the dwarf).
This switch appears to be just one phase of a much longer process of outbursts, and it might explain the existence and rarity of a class of variable stars typified by ER Ursae Majoris.
Other presenters have already showcased efforts to spot meteors hitting the Moon, to look for signs of interacting galaxies, and to make asteroid parallax measurements perfect for teaching students about the solar system — it all makes you wonder if "amateur" is really a fair designation.