Astronomy’s New Stars

Thanks to new technology, backyard stargazers have traveled light-years of late to join professionals in mapping the heavens

Star formation in the constellation Orion as photographed in infrared by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope
Star formation in the constellation Orion as photographed in infrared by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope Wikimedia Commons

Stargazing, says Timothy Ferris, an awardwinning writer on astronomical subjects who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley, “is at once one of the oldest and most ennobling, and one of the newest and most challenging of human activities.” Ferris, 58, has been training an eye on the night sky since he was a boy in Florida and has written ten books and two PBS television programs on the universe and cosmology. He even produced for NASA a recording that was placed aboard the Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977, and that would, in essence, speak for Earth and human civilization as Voyager hurtled through the solar system. The recording included 90 minutes of music from around the world, natural sounds of Earth, greetings in scores of languages and more than 100 photographs.

In his latest book, published this month by Simon & Schuster and excerpted here, Ferris reflects on his lifelong passion for amateur astronomy and reports on the worldwide revolution that he says is “sweeping through amateur astronomy, where depths of the cosmos previously accessible only to professionals have been brought within the reach of observers motivated simply by their own curiosity.” Contemplating the heavens has earthly benefits, he adds. As Chinese astronomer Xie Renjiang wrote to Ferris recently, “Astronomy is the most significant [way to] unify us. Although we have different skin colors and live in different countries, we should all be family on this planet. No other cause is so noble in my eyes.”

At sundown, at a star party on the high texas plains near FortDavis, west of the Pecos, the parched landscape was crowded with telescopes. Reared against the darkening skies to the west rose a set of rolling foothills known jocularly as the Texas Alps. To the east of us lay dinosaur country, with its wealth of oil.

The stars came out with imposing clarity—Orion fleeing toward the western horizon, pursued by the dog star, brilliant white Sirius, the square of Corvus the crow to the southeast, the scythe of Leo the lion near the zenith. The planet Jupiter stood almost at the zenith; scores of telescopes were pointed toward it, like heliotropes following the Sun. As the gathering darkness swallowed up the valley, the sight of the observers was replaced by land-bound constellations of ruby LED indicators on the telescopes’ electronics, the play of red flashlights, and voices—groans, labored breathing, muttered curses and sporadic cries of delight when a bright meteor streaked across the sky. Soon it was dark enough to see the zodiacal light—sunlight reflected off interplanetary dust grains ranging out past the asteroid belt—stabbing the western sky like a distant searchlight. When the Milky Way rose over the hills to the east, it was so bright that I at first mistook it for a bank of clouds. Under skies this transparent, the Earth becomes a perch, a platform from which to view the rest of the universe.

I had come here to observe with Barbara Wilson, legendary for her sharp-eyed pursuit of things dark and distant. I found her atop a small ladder, peering through her 20-inch Newtonian—an instrument tweaked and collimated to within an inch of its life, with eyepieces that she scrubs with Q-Tips before each observing session, using a mixture of Ivory soap, isopropyl alcohol and distilled water. On an observing table, Barbara had set up The Hubble Atlas of Galaxies, the Uranometria 2000 star atlas, a night-vision star chart illuminated from behind by a red-bulb light box, a laptop computer pressed into service as yet another star atlas, and a list of things she hoped to see. I’d never heard of most of the items on her list, much less seen them. They included Kowal’s Object (which, Barbara informed me, is a dwarf galaxy in Sagittarius), the galaxy Molonglo-3, the light from which set out when the universe was half its present age, and obscure nebulae with names like Minkowski’s Footprint, Red Rectangle, and Gomez’s Hamburger.

“I’m looking for the jet in M87,” Barbara called down to me from the ladder. M87 is a galaxy located near the center of the Virgo cluster, sixty million light-years from Earth. A white jet protrudes from its nucleus. It is composed of plasma—free atomic nuclei and electrons, the survivors of events sufficiently powerful to have torn atoms apart—spat out at nearly the velocity of light from near the poles of a massive black hole at the center of this giant elliptical galaxy. (Nothing can escape from inside a black hole, but its gravitational field can slingshot matter away at high speeds.) To study the structure of the jet to map dark clouds in M87, professional astronomers use the most powerful instruments available, including the Hubble Space Telescope. I’d never heard of an amateur’s having seen it.

There was a long pause. Then Barbara exclaimed, “It’s there! I mean, it’s so there!” She climbed down the ladder, her smile bobbing in the dark. “I saw it once before, from Columbus,” she said, “but I couldn’t get anybody to confirm it for me—couldn’t find anyone who had the patience that it takes to see this thing. But it’s so obvious once you see it that you just go, ‘Wow!’ Are you ready to try?”

I climbed the ladder, focused the eyepiece, and examined the softly glowing ball of M87, inflated like a blowfish at a magnification of 770x. No jet yet, so I went into standard dim-viewing practice. Relax, as in any sport. Breathe fairly deeply, to make sure the brain gets plenty of oxygen. Keep both eyes open, so as not to strain the muscles in the one you’re using. Cover your left eye with your palm or just blank it out mentally—which is easier to do than it sounds—and concentrate on what you’re seeing through the telescope. Check the chart to determine just where the object is in the field of view, then look a bit away from that point: the eye is more sensitive to dim light just off center than straight ahead. And, as Barbara says, be patient. Once, in India, I peered through a spotting telescope at a patch of deep grass for more than a minute before realizing that I was seeing the enormous orange-and-black head of a sleeping Bengal tiger. Stargazing is like that. You can’t hurry it.

Then, suddenly, there it was—a thin, crooked, bonewhite finger, colder and starker in color than the pewter starlight of the galaxy itself, against which it now stood out. How wonderful to see something so grand, after years of admiring its photographs. I came down the ladder with a big smile of my own. Barbara called a coffee break and her colleagues departed for the ranch house cafeteria, but she remained by the telescope in case anyone else came along who might want to see the jet in M87.

Amateur astronomy had gone through a revolution since I started stargazing in the 1950s. Back then, most amateurs used reedy telescopes like my 2.4-inch refractor. A 12-inch reflector was considered a behemoth, something you told stories about should you be lucky enough to get a look through one. Limited by the light-gathering power of their instruments, amateurs mostly observed bright objects, like the craters of the Moon, the satellites of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, along with a smattering of prominent nebulae and star clusters. If they probed beyond the Milky Way to try their hand at a few nearby galaxies, they saw little more than dim gray smudges.

Professional astronomers, meanwhile, had access to big West Coast telescopes like the legendary 200-inch at PalomarMountain in Southern California. Armed with the most advanced technology of the day and their own rigorous training, the professionals got results. At Mount Wilson Observatory near Pasadena, the astronomer Harlow Shapley in 1918–19 established that the Sun is located toward one edge of our galaxy, and Edwin Hubble in 1929 determined that the galaxies are being carried apart from one another with the expansion of cosmic space. Professionals like these became celebrities, lionized in the press as hawkeyed lookouts probing the mysteries of deep space.

Which, pretty much, they were: theirs was a golden age, when our long-slumbering species first opened its eyes to the universe beyond its home galaxy. But observing the professional way wasn’t usually a lot of fun. To be up there in the cold and the dark, riding in the observer’s cage and carefully guiding a long exposure on a big glass photographic plate, with icy stars shining through the dome slit above and starlight puddling below in a mirror the size of a trout pond, was indubitably romantic but also a bit nerveracking. Big-telescope observing was like making love to a glamorous movie star: you were alert to the honor of the thing, but aware that plenty of suitors were eager to take over should your performance falter.

Nor did academic territoriality, jealous referees, and the constant competition for telescope time make professional astronomy a day at the beach. As a brilliant young cosmologist once told me, “A career in astronomy is a great way to screw up a lovely hobby.”

So it went, for decades. Professionals observed big things far away, and published in the prestigious Astrophysical Journal—which, as if to rub it in, ranked papers by the distances of their subjects, with galaxies at the front of each issue, stars in the middle, and planets, on the rare occasion that they appeared in the Journal at all, relegated to the rear. Amateurs showed schoolchildren the rings of Saturn at 76 power through a tripod-mounted spyglass at the State Fair. Inevitably, a few professionals disdained the amateurs. When Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto, the astronomer Joel Stebbins, usually a more charitable man, dismissed him as “a sub-amateur assistant.” There were of course professionals who kept up good relationships with amateurs, and amateurs who did solid work without fretting over their status. But generally speaking, the amateurs lived in the valley of the shadow of the mountaintops. Which was odd, in a way, because for most of its long history, astronomy has been primarily an amateur pursuit.

The foundations of modern astronomy were laid largely by amateurs. Nicolaus Copernicus, who in 1543 moved the Earth from the center of the universe and put the Sun there instead (thus replacing a dead-end mistake with an open-ended mistake, one that encouraged the raising of new questions), was a Renaissance man, adept at many things, but only a sometime astronomer. Johannes Kepler, who discovered that planets orbit in ellipses rather than circles, made a living mainly by casting horoscopes, teaching grade school, and scrounging royal commissions to support the publication of his books. Edmond Halley, after whom the comet is named, was an amateur whose accomplishments— among them a year spent observing from St. Helena, a South Atlantic island so remote that Napoléon Bonaparte was sent there to serve out his second and terminal exile—got him named Astronomer Royal.

Even in the 20th century, while they were being eclipsed by the burgeoning professional class, amateurs continued to make valuable contributions to astronomical research. Arthur Stanley Williams, a lawyer, charted the differential rotation of Jupiter’s clouds and created the system of Jovian nomenclature used in Jupiter studies ever since. Milton Humason, a former watermelon farmer who worked as a muleteer at Mount Wilson, teamed up with the astronomer Edwin Hubble to chart the size and expansion rate of the universe.

The solar research conducted by the industrial engineer Robert McMath, at an observatory he built in the rear garden of his home in Detroit, so impressed astronomers that he was named to the National Academy of Sciences, served as president of the American Astronomical Society, a professional organization, and helped plan Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, where the world’s largest solar telescope was named in his honor.

Why were the amateurs, having played such important roles in astronomy, eventually overshadowed by the professionals? Because astronomy, like all the sciences, is young—less than 400 years old, as a going concern—and somebody had to get it going. Its instigators could not very well hold degrees in fields that didn’t yet exist. Instead, they had to be either professionals in some related field, such as mathematics, or amateurs doing astronomy for the love of it. What counted was competence, not credentials.

Amateurs, however, were back on the playing field by about 1980. A century of professional research had greatly increased the range of observational astronomy, creating more places at the table than there were professionals to fill them. Meanwhile, the ranks of amateur astronomy had grown, too, along with the ability of the best amateurs to take on professional projects and also to pursue innovative research. “There will always remain a division of labor between professionals and amateurs,” wrote the historian of science John Lankford in 1988, but “it may be more difficult to tell the two groups apart in the future.”

The amateur astronomy revolution was incited by three technological innovations—the Dobsonian telescope, CCD light-sensing devices and the Internet. Dobsonians are reflecting telescopes constructed from cheap materials. They were invented by John Dobson, a populist proselytizer who championed the view that the worth of telescopes should be measured by the number of people who get to look through them.

Dobson was well known in San Francisco as a spare, ebullient figure who would set up a battered telescope on the sidewalk, call out to passersby to “Come see Saturn!” or “Come see the Moon!” then whisper astronomical lore in their ears while they peered into the eyepiece. To the casual beneficiaries of his ministrations, he came off as an aging hippie with a ponytail, a ready spiel and a gaudily painted telescope so dinged-up that it looked as if it had been dragged behind a truck. But astronomical sophisticates came to recognize his telescopes as the carbines of a scientific revolution. Dobsonians employed the same simple design that Isaac Newton dreamed up when he wanted to study the great comet of 1680—a tube with a concave mirror at the bottom to gather starlight, and a small, flat, secondary mirror near the top to bounce the light out to an eyepiece on the side—but they were made from such inexpensive materials that you could build or buy a big Dobsonian for the cost of a small traditional reflector. You couldn’t buy a Dobsonian from John Dobson, though; he refused to profit from his innovation.

Observers armed with big Dobsonians didn’t have to content themselves with looking at planets and nearby nebulae: they could explore thousands of galaxies, invading deep-space precincts previously reserved for the professionals. Soon, the star parties where amateur astronomers congregate were dotted with Dobsonians that towered 20 feet and more into the darkness. Now, thanks to Dobson, the greatest physical risk to amateur observers became that of falling from a rickety ladder high in the dark while peering through a gigantic Dobsonian. I talked with one stargazer whose Dobsonian stood so tall that he had to use binoculars to see the display on his laptop computer from atop the 15-foot ladder required to reach the eyepiece, in order to tell where the telescope was pointing. He said he found it frightening to climb the ladder by day but forgot about the danger when observing by night. “About a third of the galaxies I see aren’t cataloged yet,” he mused.

Meanwhile the CCD had come along—the “charge-coupled device”—a light-sensitive chip that can record faint starlight much faster than could the photographic emulsions that CCDs soon began replacing. CCDs initially were expensive but their price fell steeply. Amateurs who attached CCDs to large Dobsonians found themselves in command of light-gathering capacities comparable to that of the 200-inch Hale telescope at Palomar in the pre-CCD era.

The sensitivity of CCDs did not in itself do much to close the gap separating amateur from professional astronomers— since the professionals had CCDs too—but the growing quantity of CCDs in amateur hands vastly increased the number of telescopes on Earth capable of probing deep space. It was as if the planet had suddenly grown thousands of new eyes, with which it became possible to monitor many more astronomical events than there were professionals enough to cover. And, because each light-sensitive dot (or “pixel”) on a CCD chip reports its individual value to the computer that displays the image it has captured, the stargazer using it has a quantitative digital record that can be employed to do photometry, as in measuring the changing brightness of variable stars.

Which brings us to the Internet. It used to be that an amateur who discovered a comet or an erupting star would dispatch a telegram to the Harvard College Observatory, from which a professional, if the finding checked out, sent postcards and telegrams to paying subscribers at observatories around the world. The Internet opened up alternative routes. Now an amateur who made a discovery—or thought he did— could send CCD images of it to other observers, anywhere in the world, in minutes. Global research networks sprang up, linking amateur and professional observers with a common interest in flare stars, comets, or asteroids. Professionals sometimes learned of new developments in the sky more quickly from amateur news than if they had waited for word through official channels, and so were able to study them more promptly.

If the growing number of telescopes out there gave the Earth new eyes, the Internet fashioned for it a set of optic nerves, through which flowed (along with reams of financial data, gigabytes of gossip and cornucopias of pornography) news and images of storms raging on Saturn and stars exploding in distant galaxies. Amateur superstars emerged, armed with the skills, tools and dedication to do what the eminent observational cosmologist Allan Sandage called “absolutely serious astronomical work.” Some chronicled the weather on Jupiter and Mars, producing planetary images that rivaled those of the professionals in quality and surpassed them in documenting long-term planetary phenomena. Others monitored variable stars useful in determining the distances of star clusters and galaxies.

Amateurs discovered comets and asteroids, contributing to the continuing effort to identify objects that may one day collide with the Earth and that, if they can be found early enough, might be deflected to prevent such a catastrophe. Amateur radio astronomers recorded the outcries of colliding galaxies, chronicled the ionized trails of meteors falling in day- time and listened for signals from alien civilizations.

The amateur approach had its limitations. Amateurs insufficiently tutored in the scientific literature sometimes acquired accurate data but did not know how to make sense of it. Those who sought to overcome their lack of expertise by collaborating with professionals sometimes complained that they wound up doing most of the work while their more prestigious partners got most of the credit. Others burned out, becoming so immersed in their hobby that they ran low on time, money, or enthusiasm and called it quits. But many amateurs enjoyed fruitful collaborations, and all were brought closer to the stars.

I met Stephen James O’Meara at the Winter Star Party, held annually alongside a sandy beach in West Summerland Key, Florida. Arriving after dark, I was greeted at the gate by Tippy D’Auria, the founder of the Winter Star Party, who led me through thickets of telescopes reared against the stars.

“Steve’s up there, drawing Jupiter through my telescope,” Tippy said, nodding toward the silhouette of a young man perched atop a stepladder at the eyepiece of a big Newtonian that was pointing into the southwest sky. Comfortable in my lawn chair, I listened to the elders talk—a mix of astronomical expertise and self-deprecatory wit, the antithesis of pomp—and watched

O’Meara drawing. He would peer at length through the eyepiece, then down at his sketch pad and draw a line or two, then return to the eyepiece. It was the sort of work astronomers did generations ago, when observing could mean spending a night making one drawing of one planet. O’Meara likes to describe himself as “a 19th-century observer in the 21st century,” and in meeting him I hoped to better understand how someone who works the old-fashioned way, relying on his eye at the telescope rather than a camera or a CCD, had been able to pull off some of the most impressive observing feats of his time.

While still a teenager, O’Meara saw and mapped radial “spokes” on Saturn’s rings that professional astronomers dismissed as illusory—until Voyager reached Saturn and confirmed that the spokes were real. He determined the rotation rate of the planet Uranus, obtaining a value wildly at variance with those produced by professionals with larger telescopes and sophisticated detectors, and proved to be right about that too. He was the first human to see Halley’s comet on its 1985 return, a feat he accomplished using a 24-inch telescope at an altitude of 14,000 feet while breathing bottled oxygen.

After nearly an hour, O’Meara came down the ladder and made a gift of his drawing to Tippy, who introduced us. Clear-eyed, fit, and handsome, with black hair, a neatly trimmed beard, and a wide smile, O’Meara was dressed in a billowing white shirt and black peg pants. We repaired to the red-lit canteen for a cup of coffee and a talk.

Steve told me that he’d grown up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the son of a lobster fisherman, and that his first childhood memory was of sitting in his mother’s lap and watching the ruddy lunar eclipse of 1960. “From the very beginning I had an affinity with the sky,” he said. “I just loved starlight.” When he was about 6 years old he cut out a planisphere— a flat oval sky map—from the back of a box of cornflakes, and with it learned the constellations. “Even the tough kids in the neighborhood would ask me questions about the sky,” he recalled. “The sky produced a wonderment in them. I believe that if inner-city kids had the opportunity to see the real night sky, they could believe in something greater than themselves—something that they can’t touch, control or destroy.”

When O’Meara was about 14 years old he was taken to a public night at Harvard College Observatory, where he waited in line for a look through its venerable Clark nine-inch refractor. “Nothing happened for a long time,” he recalled. “Eventually people started wandering off, discouraged. The next thing I knew I was inside the dome. I could hear a whirring sound and see the telescope pointing up at the stars, and a poor guy down there at the eyepiece—searching, searching—and he was sweating. I realized that he was trying to find the Andromeda galaxy. I asked him, ‘What are you looking for?’

“‘A galaxy far away.’ “

I waited a few minutes, then asked, ‘Is it Andromeda?’ There was a silence, and finally he said, ‘Yeah, but it’s difficult to get, very complicated.’

“‘Can I try?’

“‘Oh, no, it’s a very sophisticated instrument.’

“I said, ‘You know, nobody’s behind me. I can get it for you in two seconds.’ I got it in the field of view.

“Everyone who had waited in line got to see the Andromeda galaxy through the telescope, and after they left he said, ‘Show me what you know.’ He was just a graduate student, and he didn’t really know the sky. I showed him around, acquainted him with Messier galaxies and all sorts of things. We stayed up till dawn. The next morning he took me to the business office and they gave me a key, saying that if I helped them out with open houses, in return I could use the scope any time I wanted. So now I was a 14-year-old kid with a key to the Harvard College Observatory!”

For years thereafter the observatory was O’Meara’s second home. After school he would work afternoons in a Cambridge pharmacy, then spend his nights at the telescope, patiently making drawings of comets and planets. “Why draw at the telescope? Because what you get on film and CCD does not capture the essence of what you see with the eye,” he told me. “Everyone looks at the world in a different way, and I’m trying to capture what I see, and encourage others to look, to learn, to grow and understand, to build an affinity with the sky.

“Anyone who wants to be a truly great observer should start with the planets, because that is where you learn patience. It’s amazing what you can learn to see, given enough time. That’s the most important and critical factor in observing— time, time, time—though you never see it in an equation.”

In the mid-1970s, O’Meara studied the rings of Saturn at the behest of Fred Franklin, a Harvard planetary scientist. He began seeing radial, spokelike features on one of the rings. He included the spokes in the drawings that he would slip under Franklin’s office door in the morning. Franklin referred O’Meara to Arthur Alexander’s The Planet Saturn. There O’Meara learned that the 19th-century observer Eugene Antoniadi had seen similar radial features in another ring.

But the consensus among astronomers was that they must be an illusion, because the differential rotation rate of the rings—they consist of billions of particles of ice and stone, each a tiny satellite, and the inner ones orbit faster than the outer ones—would smear out any such features. O’Meara studied the spokes for four more years, determining that they rotated with a period of ten hours—which is the rotation period of the planet, but not of the rings. “I did not find one person, honestly, who ever supported me in this venture,” O’Meara recalled.

Then, in 1979, the Voyager 1 spacecraft, approaching Saturn, took images that showed the spokes. “It was an overpowering emotion, to have that vindication at last,” O’Meara said.

I asked Steve about his determination of the rotation period of Uranus. This had long been unknown, since Uranus is remote—it never gets closer than 1.6 billion miles from Earth—and shrouded in almost featureless clouds. He told me that Brad Smith, the astronomer who headed the Voyager imaging team, “called me one day and said, ‘OK, Mr. Visual Guy, Voyager is going to be at Uranus in a few years, and I’m trying to first obtain the rotation period for Uranus. Do you think you can do it visually?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll try.’” O’Meara first read up on the history of Uranus observations and then inspected the planet repeatedly, starting in June 1980. He saw nothing useful until one night in 1981, when two fantastically bright clouds appeared. “I followed them as they did a sort of dance over time, and from these observations, with some help, I determined where the pole was, modeled the planet, and got a rotation period for each cloud, averaging around 16.4 hours.” This number was disturbingly discordant. Brad Smith, observing with a large telescope at Cerro Tololo Observatory in Chile, was getting a rotation period of 24 hours, and a group of professional astronomers at the University of Texas, using CCD imaging, were also getting 24 hours.

To test O’Meara’s vision, Harvard astronomers mounted drawings on a building across campus and asked him to study them through the nine-inch telescope he had used as a teenager. Although others could see little, O’Meara accurately reproduced the drawings. Impressed, the astronomers vouched for his Uranus work, and his results were published by the International Astronomical Union, a professional group. When Voyager reached Uranus, it confirmed that the planet’s rotation period, at the latitude of the clouds O’Meara had seen, was within one-tenth of an hour of his value.

We finished our coffee and made ready to go back out into the darkness. “I’ve always been strictly a visual observer, researching the sky with an eye to finding something new there,” O’Meara said.

“We’re all star people, in the sense that we’re all created from star stuff, so it’s in our genes, so to speak, that we’re curious about the stars. They represent an ultimate power, something we cannot physically grasp. When people ask, ‘Why, God?’ they don’t look down at the ground. They look up at the sky.”

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.