How can I contribute to science as an amateur astronomer? (Advanced)

I am starting out in amateur astronomy, but would like to get more out of the exercise of star-gazing than just - well, star-gazing. I would like to observe (not just read) how far the celestial objects are to us, how fast they are moving, and what gases they are composed of. To this end, a telescope may be a good beginning point, but certainly not the final stop - it would be great to have access to a spectrometer and an UV ray-detecting telescope. Are these hopelessly outside the price range of a conventional amateur?

Hi. It seems that you want to see how easy it is to do science with amateur astronomy equipment, and how much would it cost. The answer is that yes, amateur astronomers can do some significant science, not only redo old experiments but also contribute to the field. To do any UV astronomy is pretty impractical, but there are things you can do with other equipment, for different price ranges.

1) A very simple spectroscope: you can get pretty cheaply (a couple hundred $ or less) a small prism spectroscope, but what you can see is mainly limited by the size of your telescope. In fact, that is true for almost anything. But with this spectrometer (you could even make it yourself) on a moderately sized telescope (say 8-12" diameter) you can see spectral lines in some of the brighter stars. You cannot do too much that is really scientific, since all you see are the lines on a piece of paper. For details, look in the back of a Sky & Telescope magazine.

2) A CCD. For about $500 you can get a very decent CCD camera (an electronic camera) for use on almost any telescope. Things people do are: search for supernovae, search for asteroids/comets, or monitor variable stars. All three areas have had very significant contributions made by amateur astronomers, and they continue to do so. You can find more information on the Sky & Telescope site (, or search for the AAVSO (American Association of Variable Star Observers). A CCD will also allow you to do other things like look at Cepheid variables, track the motion of the moons of Jupiter/Saturn, and similar things that have been done but are nonetheless interesting.

3) A telescope. It is really essential to everything you do. The bigger, the better, but that isn't the most important thing. For info on telescope selection you can also look at the S&T site, but one of the more important things are good sky conditions and a motorized mount (essential for CCD work).

Another option is radio astronomy. This really requires some technical background because it is much more do-it-yourself than optical astronomy, but there is a lot of room for science. Look for either the Society of Amateur Radio Astronomers (SARA) or the amateur radio astronomy mailing list (ara). You can do things like monitor the rotation of the galaxy, listed to noise storms on Jupiter, monitor solar flares, observe meteors, or even search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. You can find info about all of this on the web.


This page was last updated July 18, 2015.

About the Author

Dave Kornreich

Dave was the founder of Ask an Astronomer. He got his PhD from Cornell in 2001 and is now an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Physical Science at Humboldt State University in California. There he runs his own version of Ask the Astronomer. He also helps us out with the odd cosmology question.

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