Pro-am collaboration: an important ingredient to good science

Collaboration among professional and amateur scientists can contribute a lot to findings that could go unnoticed and doing better science in many regions of the globe apart of its northern portion.

Take Astronomy in Brazil, for example. Not long ago, Brazilian astronomer Felipe Braga-Ribas, from the National Observatory in Rio de Janeiro, led a team of researchers who found that Chariklo, a small asteroid that roams through the borders of our solar system, has rings on its own. The finding shook the astronomical community and the widely accepted notion that only massive planets like Saturn possess such structures. The study was published in Nature and accounts that not only Chariklo has rings, but got two of them: Oiapoque and Chuí, christened after the two Brazilian rivers that name the south to north limits of the country.

Braga-Ribas says that in the occasion of the findings, amateur astronomers and telescopes of small institutes were responsible for some detections, “which were fundamental in the determination of the orbital radius of the rings”. The researcher, who is used to operating monumental cutting-edge telescopes such as the ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array), in the Chilean desert of Atacama, reckons that amateur collaboration is fundamental to research. He points out that phenomena like stellar occultations “demand that many observers in different spots pay attention to the same occurrence at the same time” — and that many of such observations allow for the use of smaller instruments.

Not only such instruments can be important in joint observations of objects already being tracked but they can be also crucial in the discovery of entirely new events. A good example is the work done by the SONEAR Observatory (Southern Observatory for Near Earth Asteroids Research) in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, considered to be one of the best in the world for asteroid observation according to the Minor Planet Center, an arm of the International Astronomical Union (IAU).

Led by engineer Cristóvão Jacques, journalist João Ribeiro and lawyer Eduardo Pimentel, the observatory started operating in December 2013. Since then, the team of amateur astronomers has found three comets and 22 asteroids. The first comet, C/2014 A4 Sonear, was found in January 2014. The second, C/2014 E2 Jacques, came two months later and the third, C/2015 F4 Jacques, was discovered in March last year. The comets are officially recognized by the IAU and are the only ones ever found in Brazilian soil. The observatory is placed at Ribeiro’s countryhouse backyard in Oliveira, Minas Gerais, a little more than 150km west from the state capital, Belo Horizonte.

According to Cristóvão Jacques, SONEAR is the only observatory in the Southern hemisphere completely dedicated to doing asteroid search with their consistency and frequency: observations are made daily. “In the northern hemisphere there are six professional and five amateur programs, while we’re the only ones in the South doing a daily search for near-Earth objects”, he says. Jacques recalls that the Braga-Ribas discovery was aided by amateurs and highlights the advantage and importance of such cooperation. “Professional astronomers have a very limited observation time in big telescopes, which are very expensive in time and maintenance. Amateur astronomers don’t have the same equipment but have all time they want to make observations”, which allows them, not rarely, to make interesting discoveries of high scientific value, he asserts.

To be more consistent, professional-amateur cooperation would need more instruments and more manpower, especially in developing countries like Brazil. According to Felipe Braga-Ribas, an important aspect that weakens such contribution is the access to equipment such as telescopes and cameras — which can be difficult and give a hard time for people who want to import them in the Brazilian case. “Importation taxes are pretty high and not many amateurs can invest in getting suitable equipment for observation. If there were easier conditions for associations to import instruments, I think we’d have a higher number of amateurs contributing to scientific observations”, he asserts. This current situation just adds to the striking difference in proportion of instruments Jacques points out: “in the Southern hemisphere, there is roughly one telescope to every ten in the Northern hemisphere”, he calculates.

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