How to discover asteroids in your spare time

Roy Tucker has the answer.

Roy Tucker prepares for nightfall with one of several backyard telescopes, a 14-inch Celestron. (Courtesy Roy Tucker)
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A&S: That’s a question I wanted to ask you—how your work as an astronomer compliments your professional work.

Tucker: They absolutely do. I work as a support engineer professionally, supporting astronomy, and then in my spare time, I observe as a means of creative expression. I get to use some of the instruments—not the ones I help build, but ones that are similar, smaller, intended for the amateur-size or scale of operations, but it permits me to actually do some observing and become acquainted with the problems involved in trying to get the starlight onto the CCD detector. One of the things I’m doing right now is spectroscopy; taking starlight and dividing it to its colors (dispersing it into its component wavelengths), and determining the physical nature of some the objects I’m looking at. It’s quite fascinating, being able to do some of the things that I’ve only seen previously described in textbooks. It used to be that spectroscopy was the realm of big-time professional observatories. But with the CCD detectors, they’re so sensitive to light that you can now do in a backyard with a relatively small telescope what previously was only possible photographically with a very large telescope. I can go back to astronomy magazines that came out in the 1950s, and they may have articles describing what is being done at some observatories with a spectrograph, and I can now do that with a relatively small telescope in my backyard.

A&S: That’s wonderful.

Tucker: It is. It’s amazing. The old photographic films would only detect about one percent of the light that struck them, but the modern CCD detectors will detect to 80 or 90 percent of the light that strikes them. It’s that difference in sensitivity to light that makes all the difference in the world as far as amateur participation in astronomical research.

Astronomy touches upon more other sciences and technologies than just about anything I can think of. In the pursuit of my interest in astronomy, I have learned electronics, mathematics, physics, chemistry, optics and optical fabrication, geology, metal-working, welding, pouring concrete, and a host of other things. I've also enjoyed some wonderful friendships and shared great experiences. I think all children should be exposed to astronomy, given a chance to look through a telescope at the moon or the rings of Saturn, and perhaps let the interest grow and lead where it may.

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