Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Amateur and professional astronomy are pulling back together

Michael A. Covington

Andromeda Galaxy M31 171017
Andromeda Galaxy M31 171017

Andromeda Galaxy M31 Credit Michael Covington

This picture of the Andromeda Galaxy is not from a major observatory. It is not even an exceptional example of amateur work. It is a routine picture taken in my driveway in a medium-sized town with a telescope 6.5 cm (2.6 inches) in diameter.
For a long time (about 1970-2000), amateur and professional astronomy were especially far apart because of technical advances that only professionals could afford. Professionals had autoguiders, special photographic plates, and CCDs, while amateurs used 35-mm film SLRs, hand-guiding, and consumer-grade film, or just observed with their eyes. Amateur astronomy writers, including me, talked about taking the “aesthetic path” and just enjoying the view rather than trying to contribute anything to science.
Today, first-rate digital image sensors are available in off-the-shelf DSLR cameras; telescopes and mounts have improved; and the Internet has brought professional information sources to everyone. Today, as in Victorian times but not most of the twentieth century, amateurs again have access to objects not well known to science, and the means to study them.




Nebula Credit Michael Covington

Nebula Credit Michael Covington

Here is an example. The nebula in the center of this picture turned up on my photographs of a dusty region of space in the constellation Monoceros. Not finding it in a star atlas, I turned to SIMBAD, the professional astronomers’ database at the University of Strasbourg, and in short order found out that the nebula is indeed uncatalogued, but is the optical counterpart of a radio source designated GAL 201.6+01.6. The positions of the visible nebula and the radio source are slightly different, indicating that the hottest part of the nebula is hidden from our view by dust. And no one knew this, as far as I can determine, until I started analyzing one of my amateur photographs, taken with a DSLR camera and telephoto lens at a campground in rural Georgia.

About The Author

Michael A. Covington

Michael A. Covington, author of Digital SLR Astrophotography, 2nd Edition 2018, is one of America's leading amateur astronomers and the author of the highly acclaimed Astrophotogra...

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!