Spectroscopic madness


The BBC is currently running a 3-part series called BBC Stargazing, hosted by Brian Cox and Dara O Briain. The last episode aired last night, sadly I didn’t have access from here in Germany. There’s lots of discussion and enthusiasm on twitter with the #BBCstargazing hashtag, and not just from the regular crowd of astronomers I follow. Combined with the partial solar eclipse visible from these parts this week, it’s a great week for getting people excited about the skies.

It made me think back fondly to 2003, when I took 6 weeks out of my PhD to work on a BBC programme called All Night Star Party, filmed at Jodrell Bank and on La Palma. A great experience, where I met lots of (weird &) wonderful people – including, briefly, Brian Cox, who was a guest on the programme – from both professional and amateur communities, and from the media.

For those who have mastered the stargazing skill, know their way around the night sky and want to take things further, a paper on astro-ph yesterday talks about the growing community of amateur astronomers who use commercial off-the-shelf spectroscopic instruments with their telescopes to do some cool science. The paper, presented by Thomas Eversberg of the self-founded Schnörringen Telescope Science Institute near Cologne at a conference on “Stellar winds in Interaction” in 2010, describes some of the spectrographs that are currently available to the amateur community and what they can be used for.

[Some background reading tells me that Eversberg, in some places (e.g. Fahed et al, 2010, same proceedings) described as an amateur astronomer, does in fact hold a PhD in astrophysics and is well-published in the major astronomy journals.]

I admit that I’m not as up to date with developments in amateur telescopes and instruments as I should be, and I’m amazed at the quality of the equipment described in the paper. Plug-and-play type spectrographs with resolving power of 10,000 are now available for good amateur telescopes (Meades, Celestrons), and they even come with a user-friendly data reduction pipeline. And then there are the real tinkerers who are building their own spectrographs in the garden shed.

Eversberg talks about the opportunities for professional-amateur collaborations in stellar physics research, and he gives three kinds of research projects that are well suited to amateur participation:

  • long term spectroscopic campaigns, looking at variability of spectral lines
  • surveys in support of ongoing space missions
  • very long term monitoring of specific spectroscopic parameters (over many years)

He refers to the volunteer group Astronomical Ring for Access to Spectroscopy (ARAS), which keeps an overview of ongoing projects on its website – some of these seem better organised than some professional collaborations I’ve come across, and it’s clear that the web plays a vital role for these distributed communities of amateurs.

One example Eversberg discusses is an ongoing amateur spectral survey of Be stars – hot stars that rotate rapidly and have unusual emission lines in their spectra – that are observed by the astroseismology/exoplanet mission CoRoT, supported by professional astronomers in France and Belgium. Take a look at the website, these folks are producing some nice data.

In a section on how to set up such professional-amateur campaigns, Eversberg talks about the importance of having support and guidance from the professional community. He gives some good tips for any person or society wanting to start up a campaign like this, and indeed he highlights the importance of web-based coordination via forums, blogs, mailing lists. He also suggests some financial resources, (dedicated) administrative support, and participation in an observing run at a professional observatory to keep everyone excited.

With spectroscopy, some knowledge of the underlying physics is required to be able to interpret what you see, beyond spotting qualitative changes in line shapes or strengths. That said, some keen amateur astronomers do have a very decent understanding of astrophysics, and are eager to learn. Spending an hour reading the Galaxy Zoo forums will convince any jaded professional that, in the context of a specific project, lots of people are willing to read, listen, learn and participate.

This paper is a great reminder of the value of good relations between professional and amateur astronomers for both parties: given some professional support, amateur communities can support research in an effective way, and such collaborations are an excellent way to transfer knowledge from working scientists back into the community.

Thomas Eversberg (2011). Spectroscopic madness–A golden age for amateurs Proc. of “Stellar winds in Interaction”, editors T. Eversberg and J.H. Knapen arXiv: 1101.0680v1


  1. Hi, Sarah!

    Recently, amateurs have made important contributions to pro-am projects on the Be star Epsilon Aurigae: http://arxiv.org/abs/1101.1435.

    Pro-am projects like these depend on there being a sufficient number of advanced amateurs capable of doing this level of work. Since one has to walk before one runs, we need to faciliate more amateurs getting started in astronomical spectroscopy.

    Up until recently, this field was considered rather esoteric and specialized. Even today, most amateurs still think that to get started in spectroscopy takes thousands of dollars and highly specialized gear.

    However, that’s changing now. (See, for example, the 4-page article on DIY spectroscopy in the August issue of Sky & Telescope.

    Or, this video: http://www.skyandtelescope.com/skytel/beyondthepage/121557614.html

    Thanks for the great blog.



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