Get Involved!: Getting Started in Citizen Science – AstroGear Today

Get Involved!: Getting Started in Citizen Science

Zooniverse is one of the earliest, and currently the largest, citizen science platform. Beginning with astronomy as GalaxyZoo, it has since branched out to other sciences. Credit: Zooniverse

Volunteer astronomy opportunities abound, but finding the best fit for your skills, equipment and time is a challenge. To help AGT readers figure out where to focus their efforts, we spoke with Unistellar ambassador and citizen astronomer Greg Redfern

Redfern has been showcasing astronomy in public venues for more than 30 years. He is also an adjunct professor of physics and astronomy at George Mason University and a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Solar System Ambassador.

An edited transcript of the interview is below.


AGT: How do you figure out what interests you in astronomy?

The best way to do this is by experiencing various facets of astronomy. And the best way to do that, meaning to gain experience, is by joining a local astronomy club if you are lucky enough to have one available. If not, is there a college or museum nearby with an astronomy or space department that you can contact and visit? 

If the other options aren’t available to you, the Internet can provide access to trusted astronomical resources such as observatories, government agencies, professional and amateur astronomy organizations, or even free college classes on massively open online course (MOOC) platforms like Coursera or edX. By doing this process, you should find your interests and passions develop to guide you.


AGT: What kind of equipment and abilities are useful in amateur astronomy, and how much time do you need to invest to be “worth it”?

Astronomy can be as simple or as complex as you want to make it. You can use just your two eyes for enjoying the nighttime sky. Binoculars can enhance your view greatly, as a step up in observing capability. 

Current generation smartphones are pretty capable. They can photograph the Milky Way and take pretty awesome night sky pics, especially if you are an iPhone user. Unistellar just released a free iPhone app called Nocturne that takes amazing pictures, for example. (Editor’s note: There are also other popular options available for both Android and iPhone.)

Eventually, you may get the “bug” to buy a telescope. That is a big step up in observing AND astrophotography capability. Learning to use, observe and image with a telescope requires a substantial investment in time and patience. The sky – literally – is the limit when it comes to telescope cost, complexity, and capabilities. 

Whatever you decide to do, research carefully and fully. And most importantly, enjoy the total experience from starting your quest, to seeing and possibly imaging the universe.


AGT: What resources would you suggest to get started in citizen astronomy? 

The Internet allows access to an incredible and valuable array of astronomical websites – far too many to cover. Unistellar has its own citizen science program, but besides the company I represent, the following sites are recommended as a good start. Depending on the site, you might be able to use everything right on the Internet, or you might need binoculars or a telescope to get involved.

Unistellar Citizen Science : Asteroid Occultations web page. Credit: Unistellar It’s a treasure trove of information via their monthly magazine and website. They are owned by the American Astronomical Society, which is another must-have website as they are going to use Open Access for their astronomical research publications, making it available publicly for free. Full attribution disclosure – I am a frequent contributor to S&T. This is the website of the American Association of Variable Star Observers, whose mission is to enable anyone, anywhere to participate in scientific discovery through variable star astronomy. (Editor’s note: the AAVSO Tutorial page provides resources to get started in cataloging variable stars to benefit the astronomy community, including professionals, in making luminosity predictions.)

AAVSO Website. Credit: AAVSO It’s people-powered research in a number of astronomical projects. (Editor’s note: View their extensive space projects category to see what whets your interest, but work can vary between assisting professional astronomers with cataloging objects, to transcribing notes, to teaching Mars rovers how to classify terrain.) This is a valuable resource for amateur astronomers regarding clubs, observing and general news. (Editor’s note: You can find local organizations and things to do by looking at the “About Us” page, the “Astronomy Clubs” section or the events calendar.) The Association of Lunar & Planetary Observers is an international organization devoted to studying the Sun, Moon, planets, asteroids, meteors, and comets. (Editor’s note: Check the observing sections and interest sections on the home page to pick your ideal target of interest. Each one contains resources to help you observe safely.) publishes online daily and is a very valuable source of astronomical information, especially as to what is happening in the sky. (Editor’s note: Astronomical charts are also available at Sky&Telescope, or you can make your own from a variety of software and apps that are available.)


About Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is one of the few science journalists in Canada to focus on space exploration, with bylines in dozens of publications in the United States and Canada. She has attended several human spaceflight launches in Florida and Kazakhstan, and simulated a Red Planet mission at the Mars Desert Research Station. She also teaches technical writing and does consulting.

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