The first, and biggest thing on my plate is writing a proposal for a project which will be the first of its kind ever, and is such a cool idea I wish I'd thought of it- a decadal survey of amateur astronomy and astrophysics. So, what is a decadal survey you ask?
Every ten years, professional astronomers and scientists engage in a two year process to determine what the current state of our knowledge of the universe is, the pressing science questions for the coming decade, and how we should invest billions of tax-payer dollars on satellites, telescopes and other experiments in order to learn the answers to these questions. At the end of the process a summary report, published by the National Academy of Sciences is issued, prioritizing what programs and major initiatives the astronomical community believes show the most promise for advancing the frontiers of human knowledge and offer the maximum scientific return on investment.
This report, the Decadal Survey of Astronomy and Astrophysics, forms the basis for funding decisions made in the following years by NASA, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense. The recommendations of this report have resulted in the Hubble, Chandra and Spitzer Space Telescopes, the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) and its follow on experiment the Planck Surveyor, the Kepler Mission to find earthlike extra-solar planets, the Expanded Very Large Array (EVLA) and the recently launched Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO).
We believe it is time to examine the role amateur astronomers, in collaboration with the professional community, can play in the advancement of human knowledge in the coming decade, and propose to undertake a similar initiative, the first of its kind- The International Decadal Survey of Amateur Astronomy and Astrophysics. The goal of this decadal survey will be to carry out an assessment of professional-amateur collaborations in astronomy and astrophysics, and to prepare a concise report, recommending specific projects and areas of scientifically fruitful pro-am collaborations and studies, addressed to professional and amateur astronomical organizations, agencies supporting the field, the governmental committees with jurisdiction over those agencies, the general scientific community, and the public at large.
As project manager, this will probably take up about 20-25% of my time for the next two years, but I think it is so exciting I'm actually looking forward to it. Besides writing a proposal to fund this project, I've been busy writing and talking to people to get letters of support and to gauge their interest and potential to participate in the survey. I've built a website to explain how it will be organized and the time table it will proceed on. You can see it here. Things are progressing nicely, but it is a lot of work.
The Society for Astronomical Sciences (SAS) will be holding their annual symposium in May and I am giving a talk on my Z Cam research, co-authoring on a paper about the decadal survey, and I'm presenting a poster on Photometrica and AAVSOnet.
So, first the research. Z Camelopardalis-type stars (Z Cams or UGZ) are dwarf novae that show cyclic outbursts, but sometimes after an outburst they do not return to their quiescent magnitude. Instead they appear to get stuck, for months or even years, at a brightness of about one magnitude fainter than outburst maximum. These episodes are known as standstills. Z Cam cycle times characteristically range from 10 to 40 days, and their outburst amplitudes are from 2 to 5 magnitudes in V, but standstills are the defining characteristic of the Z Cam stars. Only Z Cams show standstills, so if it doesn't have standstills it isn't a Z Cam.
Above is the light curve for AH Herculis. You can see the up and down light curve where it goes into outburst (gets bright) and then fades back down to 14th magnitude, only to start up again several days later. You can also see the standstill it has been in since last summer on the right. It is stuck around 12.5 mag. It doesn't get bright and it doesn't fade. Standstill.
There are about 50 or so stars that have at one time or another been classified as Z Cam dwarf novae. I argue that the actual number of Z Cams is far less; maybe a dozen or twenty. If I'm right, Z Cams are a rare and interesting type of variable star that has been largely ignored by astronomers up to now. I am coordinating a campaign through the AAVSO CV Section called the Z CamPaign. We've been collecting data on these stars for about 200 days, and I've been examining the light curves of all the known or suspected Z Cams in the AAVSO database, and we've already concluded that several stars long thought to be Z Cams are not, discovered a new phenomena that no one has seen before in two Z Cam stars, and discovered a completely new member of the class. The first paper is written and we're off and running.
Getting Photometrica launched as an online tool for AAVSO members to perform photometry on their CCD images was another project that has recently come to pass. Photometrica is software that exists in a cloud environment. AAVSO doesn't need to buy servers, the software and data storage are hosted by Amazon in their computing cloud. If we need more server capacity, we just pay for more. No maintenance, no hardware, nothing- it just is. So now a member of the AAVSO doesn't need a telescope, CCD, expensive software, or gobs of hard disk storage for images. You can collect data with first class telescopes, the images are automatically uploaded to Photometrica, you log into your account through AAVSO, perform your photometry on the images, generate a report, upload it to the AAVSO database and all you need is internet access. You could literally do this from your IPhone. It's a new world people. One of the dreams is to make this so cheap we can literally give away time and access to developing countries to tech their kids math, science and astronomy.
Speaking of outreach, that leads to my other 'next big thing' on the agenda. I am giving a workshop on variable stars and observing at the North East Astronomy Forum (NEAF) Sunday, April 18, 2010. I am still developing the workshop and working on the presentation. As part of this trip I also had to develop a self-cycling PowerPoint that we can display at our table at NEAF, running from a netbook, projected onto a screen about four feet away in bright lighting. That was a bit of a challenge, but its done. Irene and I leave Friday.
So along with all the regular stuff I have to do every week, there has been a whole new pile of exciting and interesting projects to keep me away from the blog temporarily. But I promise to be back soon. There is no shortage of ideas for articles here either! At last count there were about twenty articles in the drafts folder; mostly pieces I haven't had time to finish because other things took priority. There just aren't enough hours in the week to do it all. But like I said, I could have worse problems.