With the number of observations from volunteer observers rapidly passing the 20,000 mark in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) database we thought it was time to meet some more of our dedicated observers. Here we interview Barbara Harris, Cliff Kotnik and Robert Jenkins and find out what motivates them and how they do their observing
Barbara Harris carries out her observing at her home in Florida. After coming back from her holidays where she observed the recent eclipse she kindly answered some of our questions about her involvement in astronomy.
Can you tell me how you got hooked on astronomy?
I became interested in astronomy in high school when I was taking high school physics and Greek Mythology course. Every time I learned about a myth I wanted to go and find the constellation it was named after. My high school physics instructor was an amateur astronomer and showed me my first view of Saturn through the telescope. That really hooked me.
And where do you currently observe?
My husband and I have a 200 acre cattle ranch in Florida between Orlando and Daytona Beach. Being in a relatively dark area allowed me to build an observatory. It is a domed observatory that houses a 0.4 meter Schmidt-Cassegrain Telescope on a 1200 Astrophysics German Equatorial mount. I have aFinger Lakes Imaging Proline camera with a 1kx1k back-illuminated CCD.
What sort of observing do you like doing?
When I became interested in astrophotography I didn’t want to do “pretty pictures”. I wanted to put my equipment to good scientific use. This led me to the AAVSO. Although I enjoy doing photometry on all variable stars, my priority is to devote my time to campaigns. My “real” profession is a physician. I had to retire early because of medical reasons. Although I miss being a physician, my retirement has given me more time to devote to astronomy. I try to take advantage of the many courses that AAVSO has offered to make sure that the quality of the data I am submitting is as good as possible.
Cliff Kotnik does his observing 3000 metres up in the Colorado rockies which provides excellent conditions for his photometric work.
How did you become interested in astronomy?
I became interested in astronomy in the 1970s when I took an intro to astronomy course. I recall being amazed at all the things happening in the sky that I was unaware of. For 10 years I very actively observed with a purchased and then with a home built scope. Later, I became busy with my job and family and spent little time at the eyepiece until the 2010’s when I was able to retire and spend more time on my astronomy. As I looked at what amateur astronomers were doing, I was just amazed at the progress they had been made. I saw an article on the AAVSO 100-year anniversary and joined shortly thereafter. The education and mentoring I have received from this group has been a great help in catching up with my missed decades.
Can you tell me about your observatory?
I have a roll-off roof observatory at an elevation of 2700 m in the Colorado Rockies. The structure consists of two rooms. The sky room houses the telescope and related equipment. The office is a passive solar heated (or perhaps warmed) room where I run the control computer for the mount, camera, etc. The office also has a cot and hot plate for a bit of comfort during automated imaging sequences.
The price to pay for the somewhat remote location is the poor access to the power grid and communications. It turned out to be far less expensive to provide power to the observatory with a Photo Voltaic system rather than paying to connect to the power company. Internet access is provided by a HughsNet satellite connection.
My equipment is mounted on a Paramount II German Equatorial Mount. The main instrument is a Celestron Edge HD1400 (FL:2737mm, DIA:356mm). I use a Finger Lakes Precision Digital Focuser with a SBIG STXL6303E camera. My filter set consists of Astrodon B***_50R, V*_50R, Rc*_50R, Ic*_50R, L2_50R and HA5_50R.
What got you interested in observing exoplanets?
A few years ago, I had the good fortune of meeting Dennis Conti who was recruiting amateurs to participate in a pro-am project supporting a Hubble survey of 15 exoplanets. The idea that I could use my equipment to detect the signal of a planet around another star was so exciting that I jumped on the project without knowing what I was doing. This first exoplanet project showed me how much I had to learn more than anything else. Still, with what I learned from it, and after taking a recent AAVSO CHOICE course which Dennis taught and also with help from other sources I have refined my technique and feel much better about the data I collect. When the Red Dots campaign was announced on the AAVSO forums, I joined. My only disappointment is that this campaign catches me during an unfavorable weather pattern that hits us each year.
What motivates you to work on professional scientific campaigns?
The ability to contribute to professional science projects is certainly the main reason I enjoy the pro-am projects. However, I find the added benefit is how much I learn about the subject matter. I find the project websites link me to all sorts of information that let me continue my education. It seems the combination of hands-on observing with technical reading material is the best way for me to learn.
Now we move to Southern Australia where Robert Jenkins tells us about his involvement in astronomy under the Southern skies there.
Robert, how did you got interested in astronomy?
I grew up in country South Australia and my first jobs were in agriculture and wildlife research. I spent many nights sitting around a camp fire looking up at the stars, enjoying the spectacle but not understanding what I was seeing. Later I got a job trying to find a possible location for the Square Kilometre Array Radio Telescope in country South Australia. I quickly realised in my meetings with the Australian Telescope National Facility people that my astronomical knowledge was abysmal so I joined the Astronomical Society of South Australia, bought a telescope, started studying astronomy and was hooked. I bought a good CCD to do astro imaging but while I was technically competent, I had the artistic ability of a blind wombat and could not turn the images into decent pictures. After discussions with people from Variable Stars South, in particular the Eclipsing Southern Binaries programme, I moved to variable star research, concentrating on eclipsing binaries, getting excited as I saw eclipses on distant stars appearing in the data. It has been an easy step to combine the eclipsing binaries work with eclipsing exo-planets and do real research with modest equipment in my back yard. I have been the President of the Astronomical Society of South Australia and continue to work on encouraging young people to develop an interest in astronomy.
Where do you do your observing?
My roll off roof observatory is in suburban Salisbury; near Adelaide. I have a 10″ GSO RCA scope on a EQ8 mount permanently bolted to a pier. I have resisted getting a bigger telescope for my location as I doubt that it will improve the results plus many of the stars like TU Musca that I am working on are relatively bright and a larger scope may cause more issues with shutter effects from short exposures.
Why did you join the campaign?
I joined the campaign initially to check I actually had the skills and equipment to produce usable data – and I did. From there, I got a buzz getting involved in real research that is producing peer reviewed papers.
What are your experiences so far in terms of participation in the campaign ?
It has been great collaborating with people from around the world on this project, helping them and getting help from them.
What are your thoughts on working with the AAVSO and with pro-am collaborations?
Citizen science allows us amateurs who have the time and equipment to work with professionals who have the expertise to do research that alone would never be done. The worldwide collaboration also ensures amateurs scattered all over the planet, remote from co-workers, get assistance and advice that can only lead to better science. A good example is an observer from New Zealand contacted me after he saw I was involved in the Proxima Centauri project. This was his first attempt at this work and he wanted us to overlap on some nights so we could compare our results. When he added his data to the AAVSO database, I could see the data (and our data was comparable) but neither Light Curve Generator nor VStar could see the data to analyse it. I contacted David Benn, the designer of VStar and a friend from SA, to sort out the issue and he worked with Sara Beck from AAVSO and others to get the data into the appropriate form, all in a couple of days. The willingness of people around the world to work on sorting out an issue being experienced by an amateur in New Zealand was heart-warming and makes these pro-am collaborations worthwhile.