Thursday, September 25, 2008

Major planet science congress featuring amateur astronomers

Double progress for Europe's planetary science community: not only has the - still ongoing - 3rd European Planetary Science Congress exceeded both predecessors in global 'impact' and become, with 400 participants, a formidable addition to the annual planet conferences of the world. It is also unique in acknowledging the valuable role of amateur astronomers in this field of space science too (which, until just a few years ago, even most amateur planet observers hadn't realized): In 2007 there was a single poster (but it was well received and even came with a press release), this year the amateurs got a full oral session - and in 2009 there may even be a little extra conference tacked to the EPSC. Two of the contributions by German observers had already been presented in Violau earlier this year (though Gährken has now found out that already Pellier in 2004 clearly did detect Venus' surface); here's the new stuff from around Europe and the U.S.:
  • Pro planetologist R. Lorenz called for photometry and spectroscopy of Titan to nail down the reason for its brightness changes. Hubble and Keck give some clues at high angular resolution, but frequent photometry with small telescopes would provide important links, continuing Lockwood's longterm lightcurve.

  • S. Kowollik has found some correlation between amateur images storm activity on Saturn in 2008 and (so far unpublished) radio bursts detected by Cassini if the spacecraft was close to the planet. A quantitative analysis was hampered by the unwillingness of most photographers to supply unprocessed raw images if they had kept the data at all.

  • Observers from France and the U.K. outlined the quality of atmospheric feature drift measurements on Jupiter that modern imaging and semi-automatic analysis techniques have enabled; about 5 years ago electronic imaging at high frame rate with proper postprocessing finally began to exceed what the eye could discern in the best moments of seeing. Predictions based on amateur data of where a specific storm would be on Jupiter when New Horizons came by were even used by the project to accurately point the LORRI camera.

  • There was also a call to observe mutual phenomena of the Jupiter and Saturn satellites as both planets go through their rare equinoxes in 2009 - since esp. the Galilean satellites are very bright, even amateur equipment requires special techniques (read: defocus!) to deal with their blazing disks. Good lightcurves enable the measurement of extremely subtle orbital effects that cannot be seen in usual astrometry.

  • And space scientist/amateur astronomer D. Koschny reminded everyone of six basic rules every amateur must follow to produce valuable data: understand your equipment (e.g. timing issues), calibrate measurements, have a goal in mind (field, depth & resolution can't be had all at the same time), use standard reduction procedures, document all steps and publish and archive properly.
In contrast to occultation observers (who have IOTA), asteroid people (MPC), meteor fans (IMO) and variable star observers (AAVSO), planetary imagers have a problem, though: There is no science-grade archive site for their results. Only for Venus such a depository exists but not for the other planets - which tend to end up on picture-rich but scientifically less useful websites. Might the Integrated and Distributed Information Service (IDIS) - under development at node 7 of the same EuroPlaNet organization which also runs the EPSCs - be the answer (which will evolve into a "European Virtual Planetary Observatory")? Spacecraft, professional and amateur groundbased images and other data could find a common home here, just as pros and ams shared a lecture room yesterday: According to a poll, 13 in the audience regarded themselves as professionals, 10 as amateurs and 8 (including, interestingly, the chief scientist of the Huygens Titan capsule) as somewhere inbetween ...

2 comments:

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