Awards Database

Scialog: Collaborative Teams - 2015

Nicholas  Law

Nicholas Law

Physics, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Jennifer  Sokoloski

Jennifer Sokoloski

Astronomy, Columbia University

Enhancing the Scientific and Societal Value of Evryscope

Jennifer Sokoloski, a research scientist in astronomy at Columbia University, and Nicholas Law, an astrophysicist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, are looking to recruit a multitude of well-qualified amateur astronomers, citizen scientists, to assist in the discovery of planets outside our solar system – so-called exoplanets.

Time-domain astronomers generate staggering amounts of data observing a myriad of rapidly changing objects out there in the universe, and they have spectacular new instruments with which to do their research. But they need help. Lots of help.

One of the amazing new instruments is Evryscope (Greek for “wide-seeing”), an array of more than 20 small telescopes pointed simultaneously and continuously at a wide swath of the sky. Evryscope is designed to take “movies” of the night sky, in order to search for transiting exoplanets around bright stars, M-dwarf and white dwarf stars, as well as detecting microlensing events, nearby supernovae, and gamma-ray burst afterglows.

The Evryscope produces sky images composed of 700 million pixels, about 70 times the size of a typical consumer camera. Its many telescopes work in unison to survey an overlapping 8,000-square-degree field of the night sky, making a new exposure every two minutes.

Since it began operating on a mountaintop in Chile in mid-2015, Evryscope has produced hundreds of thousands of night sky images amounting to more than 25 terabytes of data. More images, often with tantalizing glimpses of planets orbiting other stars, keep coming every night. Sokoloski and Law say professional astronomers need help following up on Evryscope’s most promising leads, particularly in the search for exoplanets.

They are seeking the help of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO), an organization with more than 1,000 amateur observers around the globe, the majority of whom, Sokoloski says, are able to observe in roughly the same field of view covered by Evryscope. In the past, AAVSO observers have provided follow-up observations for individual scientists and a handful of modest exoplanet surveys. But many amateurs find that, on a given night, it is hard to know which stars to observe. By informing amateurs of the AAVSO about exciting targets from Evryscope, the scientists hope to both help amateurs and increase the scientific output of Evryscope.

Sokoloski, the past president of AAVSO, plans to focus this army of amateurs.

“This project has the potential to have a lasting impact on the degree to which citizen scientists participate in one of the most exciting scientific endeavors of the coming decade,” she notes, adding they will use the RCSA award to create a web-based communication infrastructure “that could take AAVSO from the era of single-target campaigns to the era of all-sky, time-domain surveys.”

The project, if successful, will also help to guide more amateur astronomers from the process of optical observation into the field of astronomical spectroscopy, the detailed analysis of electromagnetic radiation spread out into its component wavelengths from stars and other celestial objects.

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