Stargazing, from all longitudes

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.

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."

More GlobalPost dispatches on space:

South Africa reaches for the stars

Who controls space?