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Stargazing, from all longitudes

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

Patterson sits at the center of this global crowd of telescopes and astronomers. That spring morning, he briefed his team like a leader summoning his troops. In the e-mail, he described the unique star system, saying that it "continues to evolve, and superhump and eclipse." It was going through cycles of brightness and darkness as the stars circled each other. "Follow till the last photon disappears from your telescope," Patterson told his team.

Foote, in Utah, then spent the night tracking “SDSS J152419.33+220920,” the star system. Recording with a 24-inch telescope and CCD camera, he sent one of the first images and numbers to Patterson.

Then Bill Stein, another astronomer, reported from his outpost in New Mexico. Novak picked up the star from Brno and e-mailed Patterson with data. Foote and Stein followed up with more. As did William Julian, an Intel technician by day, from his Sandia View Observatory about 440 miles south of Foote's residence.

There was no stopping the information stream: Like global outsourcing firms, members capitalized on the entire day.

Patterson coordinates his cadre from his cramped office at Columbia University, where a Skygazer's Almanac 2009 map of the night sky is pasted on his door. A small blue chair painted with images of the moon and stars lies strewn with papers in one corner.

He selects his stars based on information from survey telescopes that do rapid sky scans. Patterson then directs his crew toward a particular patch in the sky. After receiving his star facts and doing quality checks to ensure the data is scientifically rigorous, Patterson sends academic papers for publication with CBA members as co-authors.

Patterson, like his volunteers, was an amateur when he began. Stunned by a 1970 solar eclipse, he bought a telescope the next day. He devoted the rest of his career to astronomical research.

Then in 1991, he and a friend, David Skillman, decided they wanted a network of amateur telescopes fitted with cameras. Patterson was focusing at the time on the unpredictable star systems, also called “cataclysmic binary systems,” and needed constant and quick tracking.

Fortunately for them, two factors helped their network to take shape. One was the rise of the Web. Second, telescopes and CCD cameras became widely available by the early 1990s, allowing amateurs to record high-quality images. (Volunteers have their own telescopes, but Patterson funds CCD cameras, which can cost as much as $7,000. Members also maintain their own instruments and are often the only users of their telescopes.)

Astronomy, unlike many other scientific disciplines, often starts as a hobby. Crowdsourcing works partly because astronomy is more democratic than other research areas. The sky is the lab and who, after all, has not once looked at the sky and wondered about the stars?

But the volunteers can simply walk away from the research if they find another passion (one of the group's founders now devotes his time to growing miniature trees). To keep things congenial, Foote and Krajci say that Patterson treats them like colleagues, explaining the science to everyone.

And the volunteers are just as hooked by curiosity as Patterson. "I can't travel to the stars," Krajci said. "But their light comes here, to my backyard."

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South Africa reaches for the stars

Who controls space?