Open Source Astronomy

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Open Source Astronomy and the Pro-Am Revolution

Charles Leadbeater and Paul Miller:

"On the night of 23 February 1987, light reached Earth from a star that had exploded on the edge of the Tarantula nebula 168,000 years earlier. The supernova was enormous and was the first to be witnessed by the naked eye since 1604. In the Chilean Andes, Ian Shelton, an avid amateur astronomer who was on the verge of turning professional, took a photograph with a 10” telescope. Shelton went down in history as the man who discovered supernova 1987A.9 That night two other dedicated amateur astronomers were at work. Albert Jones, a veteran with more than half a million observations to his credit, had taken a good look at the Tarantula nebula earlier but had seen nothing unusual. Robert McNaught, another Pro-Am, photographed the explosion at 10.30 UT in Australia.

Together these amateurs played a vital role in confirming a theory that explains what happens when a star explodes. Astrophysicists theorised that when a star explodes most of its energy is released as neutrinos, low-mass, subatomic particles which fly through planets as if they are not there. When a star explodes the neutrinos should exit at high speed and arrive on earth two hours before the light.

On the night of 23 February a large storm of neutrinos from Shelton’s supernova was detected by labs in the US and Japan at 7.35 UT. According to the theory the first light should have arrived at 9.35 UT. Jones checked his meticulous records and confirmed that when he was looking at Tarantula at 9.30 UT he had not seen any sign of an explosion. That meant the neutrinos had already arrived yet the light had not, just as the theory predicted. When McNaught’s photograph from Australia was taken at 10.30 UT, the light of the explosion was visible. A key theory explaining how the universe works had been confirmed thanks to amateurs in New Zealand and Australia, a former amateur turning professional in Chile and professional physicists in the US and Japan. These were the joint authors of the discovery made by a loosely connected Pro-Am team.

As Timothy Ferris points out in Seeing in the Dark, his history of modern amateur astronomy: ‘If one were to choose a date at which astronomy shifted from the old days of solitary professionals at their telescopes to a worldwide web linking professionals and amateurs . . . a good candidate would be the night of February 23rd 1987.’

Astronomy is fast becoming a science driven by a vast open source Pro-Am movement working alongside a much smaller body of professional astronomers and astrophysicists.

Amateurs laid the foundations for modern astronomy. Copernicus, who moved the sun to the centre of the universe, was only a sometime astronomer. Johannes Kepler, who discovered that the planets orbit in ellipses made most of his money from horoscopes. But by the twentieth century the pendulum had swung decisively in favour of the professionals, for one simple reason: scale. Professional astrono- mers had access to huge telescopes, like Jodrell Bank in the UK or the Mt Wilson Observatory near Pasedena where Howard Shapley established that the Sun is located to one edge of our galaxy and Edwin Hubble determined that the galaxies are being carried away from one another into cosmic space. Professionals probed the outer depths of space, home to the most troubling scientific mysteries. Amateurs, with their puny telescopes, concentrated on closer, well known and brighter objects.

But in the last two decades three linked innovations have turned astronomy into an open source, Pro-Am activity. A disruptive innovation made powerful telescopes cheap enough for the average astronomer. John Dobson, a one-time monk and lifelong star gazer designed a crude but powerful telescope using discarded and secondhand materials. Dobson’s philosophy was pure open source: ‘To me it’s not so much how big your telescope is, or how accurately your optics are, or how beautiful the pictures you can take with it; it’s how many people in this vast world less privileged than you have had a chance to see through your telescope and understand this universe.’12 Dobson refused to profit from his invention, which he never patented. Soon many companies were making Dobsonian telescopes. Observers armed with a mighty Dobsonian could invade the deep space that had previously been the preserve of the professionals. Then the CCD (charged coupled device) came along, a highly light-sensitive chip, which could record very faint starlight much faster than a photograph. Amateurs who attached a CCD to a large Dobsonian found themselves with light-gathering capacity to match the giant 200” telescopes professionals had used 20 years earlier.

An open source catchphrase is that ‘many eyes make bugs shallow’: the more programmers looking at a problem, the easier it is to solve.

The same is true of some aspects of astronomy. Thanks to Dobsonian telescopes with CCD sensors the Earth acquired hundreds of thousands of new eyes, probing deep space, recording events that would have gone unnoticed by the much smaller body of pro- fessionals. This distributed capacity for exploration and observation was vastly enhanced by the internet. Before the internet, an amateur who had discovered something new would send a telegram to the Harvard College Observatory. Once the professionals had checked out the claim, they would mail a postcard to observatories around the world. These days if amateurs finds something interesting they can email the image to friends, colleagues and professionals within minutes. Crude Dobsonian telescopes armed with CCDs have given the Earth thousands of new eyes, says Ferris; the net provided it with new optic nerves.

In the 1990s, thanks to these three innovations, new forms of organisation started to emerge. Astronomy used to be done in ‘big science’ research institutes. Now it is also done in Pro-Am Collaboratives. Many amateurs continued to work on their own and many professionals were still ensconced in their academic institutions. But global research networks sprang up, linking professionals and amateurs with shared interests in flare stars, comets and asteroids.

Pro-Am astronomers tracked the weather on Jupiter and craters on Mars as accurately as professionals. They detected echoes from colliding galaxies and more than one million Pro-Am astronomers in more than 200 countries are contributing their computers’ idle time to analyse data that might be evidence of extraterrestrial life." (

More Information

Report: The Pro-Am Revolution.