The (Near) Future of Amateur Astronomy


By Bill Pellerin

Houston Astronomical Society

GuideStar Editor


Amateur astronomy is changing, again. This change is being driven by technology, the Internet, and the overwhelming amount of astronomical data now available. In the over 20 years that I've been in amateur astronomy I've seen large (often Dobsonian) telescopes come into our hands, we've seen the incorporation of computers and technology into telescope designs, and we've seen amazing advances in astrophotography.


By Bill Pellerin

Houston Astronomical Society

GuideStar Editor


Amateur astronomy is changing, again. This change is being driven by technology, the Internet, and the overwhelming amount of astronomical data now available. In the over 20 years that I've been in amateur astronomy I've seen large (often Dobsonian) telescopes come into our hands, we've seen the incorporation of computers and technology into telescope designs, and we've seen amazing advances in astrophotography.

Time marches on, and the toolkit that we have now, won't be the toolkit for the future, for us or for the next generation of amateur astronomers. The first time I heard the term 'citizen scientist' was at a CitizenSky conference focused on the eclipse of Epsilon Aurigae. A 'citizen scientist' is someone who may have little to no formal scientific training, but who can be a team member with professional scientists in an effort to produce real scientific discoveries. We're getting a lot of new tools now that not only allow us more pleasurable observing experiences but that allow us to fully realize our potential as contributors to science.

Those of us who have been doing amateur astronomy for a while have spent a lot of time and effort on traveling to remote observing sites, setting up equipment, and observing objects in the sky, often with the goal of providing scientifically useful data. For several reasons, this may not be the future for citizen astronomers.

Time constraints – the time required to travel, set up equipment, observe and return home simply may not be available to many people.

Cost – While there are many inexpensive and quite good telescopes on the market, a dedicated astronomy enthusiast will likely end up investing, or wanting to invest, several thousand dollars in equipment. (I won't even mention gasoline prices.)

Light pollution – Light pollution is robbing us all of good observing sites. While there is a lot of work going on to stem the tide of light pollution, our situation now is that many places that were once good observing sites are no longer good observing sites.


What does the near future hold for amateur astronomers? Generally, many of these ideas have to do with saving the near future astronomer time – setup time, data analysis time, travel time, image acquisition and processing time and improving productivity.

More automation of telescopes – right now, we can buy telescopes that align themselves with the sky and then let you take control of the telescope. This capability reduces the setup time and begins the observing session sooner. Some will argue that this automated startup robs the user of an opportunity to learn the sky. Maybe, but there is more than one way to learn the sky and whatever makes the observer's task easier helps.

One feature that has not yet appeared in telescopes is what I've called a 'heads-up' display. What if there was a star map overlaying the view through the eyepiece? This overlay could show the names and positions of Jupiter's moons, for example. It could show the names of stars or other objects in the view. The operator could turn off this display for an unobstructed view. The technology exists to do this, but no telescope or eyepiece manufacturer has yet incorporated this functionality.

Easier and better image taking – while the process of taking astronomical images gets easier all the time, it's still not easy. Good imaging requires high quality telescope mounts, tracking systems, guiding systems, manipulation of photos on computers, etc. A great astronomical image requires a lot if 'fiddling' to get it right, and the learning curve for imaging hardware and software can be daunting.

We can be sure that there will soon be less expensive imagers with more capability (more sensitive, less noise), improved guiding systems (guiding built into the imager, not just 'tacked-on' to the imager), and automated image gathering and processing. New systems and techniques will be developed that reduce the cost of entry into the field of astro-imaging, and which provide outstanding results.

Astronomical online research opportunities. If you want to be impressed by what you can do online, go to This is an outgrowth of the original Galaxy Zoo program that relied on citizen astronomers to categorize galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Now, there are many more activities to choose from, including supernova searches, planet hunting (using the Kepler data), the Milky Way project (using Spitzer Space Telescope data), moon zoo (using the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter). There will be more. The idea is this – distribute the data-crunching tasks to computers on the Internet and reduce the systems costs for the researcher.

Many people signed up to do SETI data analysis through the SETI@home project ( This project continues. The data analysis happened while your computer wasn't busy doing interactive work for you. That is, the SETI@home software ran as a screen saver. (As I write this, I've read that the SETI Allen Array is being put into 'hibernation' for lack of funding. Here's hoping that this gets resolved quickly.)

I counted 36 different @home screen savers, not all of them astronomy related, that you can run on your computer (generally Mac, Windows, Linux) at

There will be more of this work as time goes on. The amount of data that is being gathered exceeds the ability of professional scientists to analyze it.

More on-line telescopes. There are several on-line telescopes now, including,, and There will be more of these as time goes on, the use of these will get easier, and the cost to use the telescopes will go down as competition increases. Last night I scheduled a variable star observation for 3:00 this morning and the data was available to me when I logged into the telescope after breakfast. In a few minutes the data was analyzed, using an online analysis capability, and the results reported to the AAVSO (American Association of Variable Star Observers). Very cool.

I used a telescope system that I would not be able to purchase for myself, but one that I can afford a few minutes of observing time every week or so to get the data I want.

The future – more on-line telescopes, easier to use, less expensive, more analytical capabilities, and more automation of the processes. We should expect that a flood of data from citizen scientists will appear soon. Consider the opportunities that this capability gives you – supernova searches, asteroid searches (for orbit determination), and astrometry (determining the position of objects in the sky.. high proper-motion stars, for example).

Better computers and software – I have a lot of astronomy software on my computer including sky mapping software, observation planning software, and image processing software. Computers will, no surprise, get faster and cheaper and their improved performance will enable more feature-rich software. The cost of disk space keeps dropping – this will allow us to store more detailed astronomical information (more stars, more object images). All this will make our sky mapping software better. At one time, having the Palomar all-sky images on your computer was state-of-the-art. Soon, new images from new observatories will replace the Palomar images. There will be new object databases as new data is processed from various land-based and on-orbit observatories.

Allocating several GB (giga-bytes) of disk space to astronomy software will not have a major impact on a 1 Terabyte (1000 GB) drive, one you can easily buy today. I expect to see more consolidation of astronomy software, more functions within a single package rather than multiple packages providing different capabilities.

Please, please, forget the serial port. Telescopes are, or should be, doing away with the serial port connection from the computer to the telescope control hardware. It's about time. The serial port went out of fashion with the buggy whip. My telescope mount requires that I install a USB to serial port adapter, then a cable from the serial port adapter to the mount. It's messy.

We're starting to see more Ethernet connected devices. Near term, what I'd like to see is everything with an Ethernet connection – the computer (of course), the telescope and focuser, the camera, and the guide camera.

The USB port can go away, too, to be replaced by Ethernet connected devices. So, here's how the wiring would look – one Ethernet cable from the computer to the telescope area, one hub/switch at the telescope, and several short Ethernet wires to each of the devices that need to talk with each other.

The result – more communication among devices – the computer can tell the mount where to point and it can tell the camera the RA and DEC values to stuff into the FITS image header. So, every device can talk to every other device, and they can talk fast. Of course the software will have to accommodate all this, but doing so should be relatively easy. Today, it's possible to integrate all the devices that comprise a serious telescope imaging system, but it takes some effort. In the future this integration will be a lot easier (this will make the professional observatories happier, too.)

Better yet – wireless communication! Nothing is more of a mess than having wires running from the computer to the telescope. Those wires represent a trip hazard, too, with possibly disastrous results for the astronomer and for the equipment. Also, the telescope has to move around the sky, so cables have to be installed to allow movement to any possible telescope position. Who would have thought that cable management would be a big deal.


We're at a very exciting time for amateur astronomy. The tools available to us as amateurs today would be the envy of professional astronomers only a few years ago. The pace of the introduction of new products to the marketplace and capabilities online is remarkable. The NEAF (Northeast Astronomy Forum) Show attracts a large crowd of amateur, and professional, astronomers eager to see what's new and there's plenty of new observations to be made and a torrent of new data to be analyzed.


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