VOA TV – Amateur Astronomers Aim Thousands of Eyes at the Universe
Astronomer Gus Johnson likes the quiet and the dark. But weather conditions are working against him this night near his home in Maryland.
GUS JOHNSON: “Well, Jupiter went behind a cloud so we have the moon … ”
Johnson has been watching stars for 50 years. He remembers hundreds of star positions and he loves to share what he knows.
GUS JOHNSON: “That planet has a diameter 11 times that of the Earth.”
In 1979, Johnson discovered a supernova, or exploding star. Scientists now believe his supernova is the newest and nearest black hole.
GUS JOHNSON: “That’s the supernova right there. When I came to M100 [galaxy], there was this other little star that for some reason caught my attention. I don’t know why. And later on, I checked the photograph, and it wasn’t on the photograph. And that proved to be the Supernova SN 1979c.”
Was he happy with the discovery?
GUS JOHNSON: “Yes, I was. And I am, and thankful too because so few people actually get to discover things.”
Scientists believe that black holes are often created. But to see it happen is extremely rare. Kim Weaver is an astrophysicist. Last year, she and other scientists announced that Johnson’s supernova was probably the birth of a black hole.
KIM WEAVER: “We want to watch how this system evolves and changes in its youthful stages from when it’s first born to when it grows into a child and a teenager.”
Some astronomers dismiss the work of what they call citizen scientists. But Weaver says these amateur astronomers do put thousands more eyes on the universe.
KIM WEAVER: “They don’t have access to the large telescopes that professionals have access to. But what they can do is they have [the] freedom to be able to use smaller telescopes any time they want to look all over the sky.”
Caroline Moore and her father are amateur astronomers.
CAROLINE MOORE: “This was the first telescope that I had ever got.” The Moores made an observatory behind their home in New York State. Caroline made a major discovery two years ago, when she was only 14. She studied hundreds of images with a computer as part of a search team.
CAROLINE MOORE: “I discovered the least luminous supernova ever to be observed, which is a … and I am the youngest person to discover a supernova so it kind of makes it a double interesting thing.”
Back in Maryland, Gus Johnson observes fresh-fallen snow and an ice-covered lake. There is something almost sad about his intense love of the environment. Was he looking for a supernova that night long ago?
GUS JOHNSON: “Nope. It was entirely accidental. It’s kind of the grand realities of existence. The earth and everything we know is such a minute part of the whole universe. Watching the creation of God … that’s pretty spectacular.” I’m Christopher Cruise.