For centuries, astronomers have looked to the stars in an effort to better understand the nature of the universe and our place in it. There's also a long history of amateurs contributing to astronomical discoveries.
By one estimate, there may be as many as 300 sextillion stars in the universe. Want to see that written out?
Even with some 7 billion people on Earth, that leaves more than 40 trillion stars per person. In other words, there are far more stars in the universe than professional astronomers could possibly study. Then there are planets, and nebulae, and quasars, and ... you get the idea. There's plenty of work to go around.
And you don't need a big radio telescope to make meaningful contributions. In fact, since the size and type of the telescope determine what and where it is capable of seeing, there are important observations that must be made by smaller telescopes. For example, the Werner Schmidt Observatory, run by the Cape Cod Astronomical Society, monitors near-Earth asteroids.
Interested in getting involved in astronomy? Here are a few tips from Dr. Michael West, director of astronomy for the Maria Mitchell Association, and Ed Swiniarsky, secretary of the Cape Cod Astronomical Foundation.
- Just look up. There's plenty to be seen with the naked eye, from stars and planets, to meteors and comets. Just find a dark, open spot - beaches are a good option - and look up.
- Grab your binoculars. So you like what you see, and you'd like to see more? Try a pair of binoculars. They're a lot less expensive than a telescope, and still a great way to enhance your view of the night sky and gauge your interest in pursuing astronomy.
- Invest in quality. If you're getting serious and simply must have your own telescope, buy the best one you can afford. Remember, that doesn't necessarily mean biggest. What's important is a reputable manufacturer. The telescopes you find at discount or department stores are likely to bring more anger and frustration than awe and inspiration.
- Join the club. Of course, if you really want to get into the world of research, the best way is to work with an observatory. Maria Mitchell Association, on Nantucket, has programs for undergraduates and teachers, as well as public viewing nights. The Cape Cod Astronomical Society meets each month on the Saturday closest to the quarter moon.