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Stargazing, from all longitudes

A crowdsourcing success story: global network of amateur astronomers earns recognition in scientific journals.

NEW YORK — One recent spring morning in the Utah desert, Jerry Foote received an ecstatic e-mail that gravitational forces were causing two stars to orbit each other, with one star swallowing matter from its companion. Rudolf Novak received the same message sitting in Brno, a town in the Czech Republic.

Joe Patterson, the sender of the e-mails and an astronomy professor at Columbia University, wanted to know more about the star system, so he turned to stargazers like Foote and Novak, members of the Center for Backyard Astrophysics (CBA).

There is no "center" though. CBA is a collection of about 50 passionate volunteers spread across four continents. These amateur astronomers — or "CBAers" as they call themselves — observe unpredictable binary stars, something no fixed observatory can do as efficiently. They do it on their own time and without pay.

Night by night, for almost two decades, Patterson's group has been demonstrating the power of crowdsourcing, long before the word became a meme. CBA hints at the ways in which the public is pulling scientific research away from labs. And in an era of tighter research budgets, there's an appeal to offering a free hand in research.

Patterson, 62, says his starry army is uniquely positioned. Using commercially available digital cameras and telescopes, the group measures light from bright binary stars that fluctuate rapidly in light intensity.

In contrast, professional observatories usually use massive telescopes that often probe very small and "darker" patches in the deepest parts of the universe. These telescopes are expensive — observatory time can cost $10,000 per night — and wait times are long. They are also too complex for Patterson's bright stars: Using them is overkill.

CBA works for a fraction of the cost. Volunteers can track the same star system around the clock for months. As Patterson says, "It's always dark somewhere on Earth."

They get recognition for their work too. In 2005, for instance, when Patterson published research results on these unpredictable star systems in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the paper had 20 authors.

Most were CBA members from Europe, Australia, Africa and the United States. Jennie McCormick, 45, lives near Auckland, New Zealand. She left school as a 15-year-old and has no scientific training. But she loved astronomy as a child and is now wedded to it, contributing to research.

Thomas Krajci, a volunteer in New Mexico, carried his "lab" abroad. He recently retired from the Air Force, and had been on active duty in Tashkent in Uzbekistan. Patterson saw Tashkent as an "underutilized longitude" and published Krajci's data.

Krajci was the first CBAer ever in Uzbekistan, and true, Patterson's system isn't perfect — swaths of Asia are empty on CBA's global map, as are South America and northern Africa.