Last Wednesday, a rather unusual group of people gathered on the White House's south lawn. The crowd included 150 local middle schoolers, the president and first lady, presidential science advisor John Holdren and a handful of rock-star-status astronauts: Sally Ride, Mae Jemison, Buzz Aldrin, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, and the "Hubble repairman," John Grunsfeld. The occasion? Just a bit of stargazing.
At the star party, which was apparently in celebration of World Space Week and the International Year of Astronomy, President Obama delivered something of a science pep talk to the gathered students, encouraging them to think about what discoveries they wanted to make in their lifetimes. Before sending them off to gaze into 20 telescopes provided by NASA, he introduced two guests who made an impact on astronomy at a tender age.
Lucas Bolyard, a high school sophomore from West Virginia, made headlines recently by identifying a rare neutron star while sifting through pulsar data from a local radio telescope. When a star collapses in a supernova, the remaining corpse, a neutron star, spins, sending out radiation in a sweeping beam like a lighthouse. When this beam sweeps across earth, radio telescopes see a pulse of radio waves—hence the name. Bolyard's discovery, by contrast, was what is known as a rotating radio transient, a neutron star that sends out intermittent bursts instead of a steady, sweeping beam.
Fourteen-year-old Caroline Moore gained the attention of the astronomical community earlier this year by discovering a supernova that eludes classification, throwing models of star death into question. Here she is on the Rachel Maddow show:
If you're interested in doing a bit of stargazing on your own, why not find a local star party? After all, amateur discoveries in astronomy, unlike in other sciences, aren't uncommon—when something big crashed into Jupiter this summer, the first to spot the earth-sized crater was an amateur astronomer in Australia. Stargazing clubs exist all over the United States, regularly host star parties, and often have websites: here's a list of star parties in October.
My first run-in with a star party happened when I was camping in Joshua Tree National Park in the southern California desert, a place where the air is so clear and free from light-pollution that the night sky is positively brilliant. A couple of friends and I, stuffed with campfire-made chili and anticipating a dessert of smores, were in the process of building a veritable marshmallow furnace when two very annoyed-looking old men, of the bow-legged, bandana-wearing variety, sauntered up to our roaring blaze and cleared their throats.
"Could you put that out?" growled one, flexing his shoulders under his denim vest. My friend paused, looking guilty&mdashhis arms were full of old fence posts that he had been about to toss into the fire.
"We're trying to have a star party here and you're ruining it!" barked the other old man.
We weren't exactly sure what a star party was, but the guys looked like they meant business. Water followed by sand snuffed out our fire. The two mean sauntered off again and joined a group of people huddled around expensive-looking telescopes. Everyone turned around and glared at us.
So if you think you might have an amateur discovery up your sleeve, get in contact with a local stargazing club, find an astronomy "Meetup", or arrange to attend a star party in your area. You'll likely find a host of knowledgeable people happy to share their passion—just try not to interfere with their stargazing.