Designed to fail? - the current state of amateur double star astronomy.

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Correcting WDS Designed to Fail? Neglected Double Stars Red Dwarf Binary Pairs Stellar Twins

There are not many branches of science where amateurs regularly contribute significant observations or discoveries. Astronomy is somewhat different, not least because the number of professional astronomers is relatively small and observing time at the major observatories is very limited. This leaves many areas of astronomy where amateurs can contribute and in the past measuring the orientation and separation of binary stars was identified as one example of this.

I am now convinced that binary or double star measurement, with a view to subsequent publication, does not represents a sensible or productive use of time for almost any amateur astronomer!

This is because most of the wider pairs - such as those typically measured by amateurs - only change very, very slowly and so they only need to be measured perhaps once a year. With no reliable, easily accessible and up-to-date catalogue that includes all the recent measurements there is a real chance that amateurs will be wasting their time duplicating the work of others. There is also the problem that many of the systems listed in the Washington Double Star Catalog (WDS) catalogue are known or strongly suspected to be line-of-sight double stars of no astronomical significance and again measuring these cannot be the best use of observers time.

SECTION 1 - Adding data to the catalog

The current system for providing amateur astronomers with feedback and for getting their double star observations into the Washington Double Star Catalogue (WDS) is, frankly, bizarre. Since direct submission to professional colleagues is apparently frowned upon so amateur observations or discoveries have to be submitted via one of the magazines that welcome material of this type.

My personal view is that the submission of results to a magazine as a pre-condition for entry into WDS is an unsustainable position totally at variance to the responsive and user-driven systems created by colleagues at the Minor Planet Center and the American Association of Variable Star Observers. I worked as a teacher for many years and I know from experience that rapid feedback and appropriate recognition are strong motivational forces and the systems employed by colleagues at the Washington Observatory fail on both counts.

SECTION 2 - A lack of clarity from the professionals.

Less than five year ago amateurs were being told that " ... if the two stars are at 10" and closer we call it a double and put it in the WDS, even if it is so faint that the likely physical separation probably rules out it being a real double."

With hindsight this was a curious inclusion criterium to use since it makes no mention of the magnitudes of the stars or their proper motion or radial velocity of the components. What is worse is that in recent years there have been many claims of new discoveries based on using this suggested technique but few, if any, of these discoveries seem to have been included in the WDS.

SECTION 3 - Conclusion.

Everybody appreciates that many constraints exist on the WDS - manpower and money to name just two. That is called living in the real world. However the WDS does say that the catalogue is "updated nightly" so providing any amateur data was in the required format the work involved at the Washington end must be fairly minimal. Many of the measurements that are the life-blood of the WDS are provided by a pool of unpaid helpers and I think keeping such people happy and motivated should be a high priority even if it involves some minor inconvenience to professional colleagues. For some amateurs seeing their double star measurements in print - thanks to the efforts of the unpaid volunteers at JDSO and/or the Webb Society - is enough but I am surprised that such magazine contributors are not thanked or even informed when their material is placed in the WDS.

However there is also a substantial quantity of material that has been published in JDSO in recent years that took over 3 years to appear in WDS. If routine amateur observations have gone through the refereeing and publishing procedures required by the professionals then I think it is incumbent on these self-same people to either publish the results within WDS within a reasonable time frame or to explain in detail (perhaps with a copy to the referee) why publication should not take place.

Martin Nicholson - Daventry, United Kingdom.

This page was last updated on October 20th 2009.