LETTERS TO THE EDITORS
Bursting with Imagery
To the Editors:
In the excellent article "Improve Your Image" by Roger
Harris (Science Observer, May-June), there was considerable
discussion on the contributions of amateur astronomers and the
relationship between professionals and amateurs in astronomy.
Several examples were given, such as the discovery of comets and
supernovae by amateur astronomers.
There is another important, and relatively new, area of astronomical
research that amateurs have contributed to substantially, which was
not mentioned in the article. It is the rapid observation of the
fading optical afterglows from gamma-ray bursts (GRBs).
GRBs are among the most intense areas of research in high-energy
astrophysics, and they represent the largest known explosions in the
universe. Last year, NASA launched the Swift satellite to rapidly
locate and observe GRBs and their afterglows at x-ray, ultraviolet
and optical wavelengths. These afterglow observations are
particularly important for the understanding of these enormous
explosions that occur at cosmological distances (near the edge of
the observable universe).
Amateur astronomers, due to their large numbers, their ability to
respond quickly to the randomly located GRBs and the availability of
highly sensitive CCD cameras, have been able to provide important,
early data on the optical afterglows of GRBs in the past few years.
At least one optical afterglow from a GRB was discovered by an
amateur astronomer. Observations can be done with even a modest-size
telescope, provided the observations are made quickly enough.
The optical counterparts of GRBs are the most distant objects that
can be observed by an amateur, and they are, in fact, among the most
distant objects that can be observed by even the largest telescopes
in the world.
The organization that is helping amateur astronomers with their
attempts to observe GRB afterglows is the American Association of
Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) in Cambridge, Massachusetts (www.aavso.org).
NASA Marshall Space Flight