Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Help astronomers understand the weird star epsilon Aurigae

An artistic envisioning of what epsilon Aurigae may look like up close
By Nico Comargo and courtesy
The star epsilon Aurigae is one of the most mysterious objects that you can see without the need for a telescope. With your eye, it looks like a pretty normal star in the constellation Auriga. But every 27 years, it gets noticeably fainter for almost two years, then it returns to its normal brightness for another 25 years. And the cool thing is, nobody is really sure why (read an older post of mine for a little more info, or read articles on this star in the May 2009 issue of Sky and Telescope (click here for the PDF version of the article) and in the October 2009 issue of Astronomy magazine.

Epsilon Aurigae is just beginning its first eclipse since the early 1980s. In order to better understand this system, a large team has been assembled by the American Association of Variable Star Observers, Denver University, Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum, Johns Hopkins University, and the California Academy of Sciences.

Best of all, this team wants and needs your help to study this weird star! As part of the International Year of Astronomy, the CitizenSky project has been created to recruit, train, and coordinate public participation in the study of epsilon Aurigae. It doesn't matter whether you have a PhD in astronomy or whether you wouldn't know which end of a telescope to look through, you are heartily welcome to help. (If you have a PhD in astronomy and still don't know which end of the telescope to look through, that's okay, too! It means you're a theorist, and you can probably come up with 30 new explanations for epsilon Aurigae for observers to test in the coming year.)

CitizenSky got a big boost earlier this week when it received three years of funding from the National Science Foundation for the project. So, instead of worrying how to pay for everything, the organizers can focus on getting the best science, instead.

Some professional astronomers will be studying epsilon Aurigae with big telescopes, too, but we can't look at the star 100% of the time for the next two years. In fact, the biggest telescopes can't even look at the star, because it is too bright. And, besides, there're other neat things going on in astronomy, too! So if epsilon Aurigae does anything unexpected, especially on day-by-day or even hour-by-hour basis, there's a good chance professional telescopes won't be looking. This gives you the chance to be the one making observations of epsilon Aurigae when something cool happens.

In order to succeed, CitizenSky needs your participation and help. If you have a nice telescope with some digital imaging equipment, great! If all you have is two eyeballs and a scrap of paper, that will work too! Just click on over to to read more about the project and how you can contribute valuable data to help solve the mystery of epsilon Aurigae.

And, if you know anyone else who might be interested, spread the word!

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