Friday, February 23, 2018

Amateur Astronomers

From Atlas Obscura:
Last week, an amateur astronomer named Scott Tilley made headlines after finding a NASA satellite that had been lost for over a decade. The IMAGE satellite, which was meant to study the magnetosphere, was launched in 2000, and lost contact with Earth back in 2005. Tilley, who uses radio equipment to track objects whose orbits are undisclosed, rediscovered it on January 20, while looking for something completely different.

By finding IMAGE, Tilley has returned an important instrument to NASA’s interstellar toolbox. But he’s also added himself to a long-standing pantheon. Ever since the first satellites were launched, amateur astronomers have played a vital role in keeping tabs on them. In fact, when the Soviet satellite Sputnik I took the United States by surprise in October of 1957, legions of practiced volunteers were ready to track it, armed only with enthusiasm, low-power telescopes, and a good sense of timing.

These volunteers were part of Operation Moonwatch, a massive citizen science project started by Fred Whipple, then the director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Whipple dreamed up the project to coincide with the 1957-1958 International Geophysical Year (IGY), during which scientists around the globe worked with and against each other to learn more about how our planet is composed. As part of the IGY, the United States and the Soviet Union both planned to launch the world’s first artificial satellites. (Read more.)

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