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BAA Journal 2020 February

Rosetta’s comets – amateur & schools’ campaigns

Journal issue: 2020 February
Pages: 6–6

I attended a Royal Astronomical Society specialist discussion meeting on 2019 Dec 13 entitled ‘Cometary science with Rosetta: striking, timely and more to come.’ This was very relevant for me, as I am currently analysing the Rosetta data set contributed by amateur astronomers as part of a PhD at the Open University (supervisor Dr Colin Snodgrass). I am also considering how to maximise the effectiveness of future amateur observing campaigns.

The meeting was an opportune time to present my early findings in the form of a poster, and the library in the RAS building was a fantastic setting for it. I really enjoyed talking about my work and its emerging conclusions with those attending.

‘The bigger picture’

My poster was entitled ‘Rosetta: the bigger picture’ to reflect the wider fields of view which amateur observations can add to professional and in situ observations. Together, these data sets allow a multiscale analysis of the comet’s evolution – and amateur data can be particularly important for constraining the timing of the appearance of features. But there is a bigger science engagement picture too – observing campaigns can be a great vehicle for engaging more amateurs in making scientific observations, while the Faulkes Telescope Project and similar schemes can support effective ‘real-life’ science activities and education in schools.

My early research work has concentrated on three areas. The first is cataloguing and initial assessment of the amateur data set. The second is running a schools’ observing campaign for comet 46P (the original target for the Rosetta mission) around its perihelion in 2018, through the Faulkes Telescope Project and using the Las Cumbres Observatory (LCO) telescopes. Finally, I have been setting up surveys to gather feedback from participants of the 67P and 46P campaigns, and from the wider astronomy community.

For 67P, there is a large data set (~10,265 observations) from 27 observers, with a wide range of pixel scales and good temporal coverage (particularly around perihelion). The data quality does vary though, with some incomplete metadata and calibration uncertainty. Data analysis will be challenging.

As I take the analysis deeper I will be working closely with the observers, learning more about their equipment and methodologies. I am also working on an automated data analysis pipeline, utilising the GAIA calibration server.

For 46P, there is a smaller but more consistent data set (~2,800 observations) gathered by schools in the UK and Europe using LCO’s 2, 1 & 0.4m telescopes across the world. This included live sessions where the pupils controlled the 2m telescope in Australia in real-time from their classrooms (they loved this). The calibration of these observations is generally robust.

Results so far

The initial results from the surveys provide lessons for future campaigns, such as to use a wide range of communication methods (one size does not fit all), be clear on objectives and standards, recognise a range of outputs is useful and cater for a wide range of experience levels and equipment.

There is a need for comprehensive guidance, including video tutorials (particularly for schools using remote equipment) and tools for planning observations and ensuring metadata are submitted, while setting up a real-time, straight-forward method for uploading data and pictures, and providing fast feedback on any issues.

Ongoing communication, including with researchers, on analysis of data is really important to keep participants engaged. Finally, wide dissemination of results should be ensured, with proper accreditation.

Can you help?

These are initial results and I am still gathering views, so please visit the survey and input your views too.

It is clear that both amateur observers and schools gain a huge amount from participation in observing campaigns, and the extra data enhances a campaign’s data set.

Comet 67P is on its way back to us and heading for perihelion in 2021 November; we are going to be ready for it. I hope many BAA members will be part of the campaign to collect comparative data.

If you would like further details (or a PDF of the poster) please contact me.


Helen Usher, Open University