There're many amateur astronomers out there who build their own telescopes, write their own data-gathering programs, and scan the night sky tirelessly. Sometimes they even happen upon new discoveries simply because they had their telescopes pointed in the right direction at the right time.

However, the telescopes used by professional astronomers get more and more sophisticated all the time. This means that the window for amateur astronomers to contribute gets smaller and smaller all the time. For example, the recently-discovered Comet Borisov was discovered by an amateur, but the number of comets discovered by amateurs has been constantly decreasing. Which is obviously rather depressing. One day someone might write a poignant documentary which goes "I thought I was contributing, but then the professionals built [this telescope] and I've become redundant ..."

These citizen astronomers are obviously great PR for astronomy, but given the above, how can professional astronomers keep them engaged?

  • $\begingroup$ There's a citizen science link by the IAU: iau.org/public/themes/citizen-science-projects $\endgroup$ Dec 27, 2019 at 13:49
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    $\begingroup$ Still not a useful question: either you're into a hobby or you aren't. I rather doubt the majority of amateurs do it primarily in the hopes of making new discoveries in the first place. $\endgroup$ Dec 27, 2019 at 17:24
  • $\begingroup$ Never give up, try to emulate William A Bradfield, who single handedly and visually discovered 18 comets, using an old home made telescope. $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    Mar 18, 2020 at 19:52

4 Answers 4


The role of amateurs in making discoveries will likely change. Telescopes like the LSST will make it even more unlikely that an amateur with a smaller telescope will detect an object first. But the LSST will produce a vast amount of data that will need to be processed, and amateurs may still play a role in this, as citizen scientists do with projects like Folding At Home.

Professional astronomers will continue the same outreach they currently do. Amateur astronomy is still rewarding without the vain hope of making new discoveries. It's enjoyable for the same reason people still visit scenic wilderness instead of just studying maps and photos of it on their computers.


However, the telescopes used by professional astronomers get more and more sophisticated all the time. This means that the window for amateur astronomers to contribute gets smaller and smaller all the time."

I think this A therefore B is an unsupported premise.

You've invoked a zero-sum-gain argument. Usually in science, the more that is discovered, the more that then needs to be observed.

  • $\begingroup$ Are you sure about this? Modern telescopes such as ASAS-SN (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_Sky_Automated_Survey_for_SuperNovae) can search the entire sky once every day, which means it's already observing everything. $\endgroup$
    – Allure
    Dec 28, 2019 at 2:48
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    $\begingroup$ @Allure sometimes once a day isn't good enough astronomy.stackexchange.com/q/25229/7982 and for what I've written, yes I am. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Dec 28, 2019 at 9:08
  • $\begingroup$ I wonder if there are estimates of how many photons per night amateurs vs. professionals are seeing. $\endgroup$ Dec 29, 2019 at 20:56
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    $\begingroup$ A real-world example of where a big telescope created work for amateurs: I met a guy on a weekend camping trip who had brought his scope out into the desert to try to observe a recently discovered asteroid occulting a star. His data would be combined with that of many other observers in other locations to help nail down the asteroid's trajectory. $\endgroup$ Mar 18, 2020 at 23:51
  • $\begingroup$ @user560822 oh how incredibly cool of an example, thanks! If you post a question mentioning the approximate date and possibly the continent and ask for which asteroid it might have been I'll bet someone will be able to find the prediction for you. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Mar 19, 2020 at 0:07

The assumption that amateur astronomy is mostly or in large parts about discovering new things is not valid IMHO.

While there are ambitious and semi-professional amateur astronomers which follow their particular interest with great dedication, most of them don't hunt for new objects and alike. The main ambition often is in creating images, in sharing their knowledge with the interested public, in visually experiencing the sky and its many facets.

Expanding uhoh's argument: many people enjoy a walk in the country side or through the mountains. That does not make them botanists or geologists nor is either of that their desire.

The niche for those who actually hunt new comets, asteroids, supernovae or anything previously undetected might indeed shrink - though space is vast and empty and also while robotic telescopes can cover the whole sky daily (but not continuously) - especially when it means to process and analyse the data, the processing pipeline might only detect what the programme wants to detect - and without analysis no discovery.


If you want to catch an event that occurs rarely with an unknown period, you might be better off using amateur data than using professional telescopes. Such events include transits that haven't yet been confirmed, or outbursts of variable stars.

A recent article details how doing the follow-up on certain transits in unpractical using professional telescopes such as (the upcoming) JWST. They recommend relying instead on citizen science, with amateurs operating telescopes less than 1 meter in diameter. These amateur observations can be used to build ephemerids, and serve as input to plan the schedule of larger platforms.


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