A Role for Amateur Astronomers

by Ed Faits
Reproduced from The StarGazer - Volume 4 - Winter, 1989

I woke up a couple hours before the sun one morning recently and carried my little Astroscan out to the back porch. Soon I was watching as the moon slowly "backed up" over the mighty star Regulus. The evening before I had done a quick "sky check" after the late news, and noted that the moon still had some distance to cover before its scheduled rendezvous. Now, in my stocking feet and sweat pants, wrapped in a blanket, I'm sure I was a revolting sight for the neighborhood stray cat, the only other creature in town without the sense to be in a warm bed on this frosty morning. At precisely the predicted time, Regulus winked out, its pinpoint of light blocked by our nearest celestial companion.

That evening, the skies remained clear and I noticed that the demon star, Algol, did not shine with its normal brilliance. Both events were subtle and of absolutely no interest to the uninitiated, yet each occurrence was exciting and fascinating to me. The fact that "Sky & Telescope" predicts these phenomena with precision is a visible affirmation of Newton's Law of Gravitation extending beyond our earthbound domain. To give witness to these events gives me a special feeling of participation, of communion with nature.

We live in a marvelous time, an age when technology has provided creature comforts and labor-saving devices that would have boggled the imaginations of our forefathers just a few generations ago. Yet we still face serious risks, such as threats to our environment (ozone depletion and hydrocarbon buildup) and thermonuclear weapons.

Perhaps there is a role for amateur astronomers here. Sharing our knowledge of the workings of the heavens and showing off the wonders of space might help non-astronomers realize what a fragile place we occupy in the Universe. If astronomers can get the general public to turn off their TVs occasionally and take a peek at the sky, they may be able to convey the feeling of being part of the grander scheme of nature and help to assure the survival of humanity.

If you take the time to show your friends and neighbors an occultation of the moons of Jupiter, you never know who it may inspire. The stakes may be higher than we know.

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