Comet McNaught at sunset in 2007.ESO
Are you bored with astronomy? Have you seen the planets a million times over or had enough of looking at the same old stars? Well sit up, pay attention and I will tell you why there's no need to be bored any longer. Whether it is spotting planets, hunting down glittering stars or finding elusive galaxies that floats your boat, there is an celestial project for everyone.
There are a handful of automated asteroid and comet sky survey projects such as LINEAR or NEAT that regularly spy new objects, but the field is wide open for amateur astronomers around the globe to pick out new visitors to the inner solar system. The sky is a big place and the automated systems are not capable of monitoring it all -- amateur astronomers play a key role in seeking out new asteroids and comets. The trick is to become familiar with a patch of sky and monitor it as much as possible. This can be visually or with imaging equipment.
Variable star V838 Monocerotis as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope.NASA/ESA
The stars in the sky give the illusion of being stable and unchanging. In reality, a high proportion of them are classed as variable stars and the monitoring of them is a very important and popular amateur astronomy project. Signing up with the American Association of Variable Star Observers will mean you will be observing a specific selection of stars and providing regular information on how bright they are. This information is reviewed by professional astronomers trying to fine-tune our understanding of stellar dynamics.
Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) observations of Mars' global dust storm of 2001.NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems
While spacecraft have visited most of the planets in our solar system they do not provide a constant watch on changes in planetary detail. The Hubble Space Telescope is also great at homing in on planetary atmospheres but constant monitoring often isn't possible or financially desirable. Amateur astronomers are often the first to alert the world to storms on other planets or other unexpected changes in a planets appearance -- meteor impacts on Jupiter, odd changes in Mars' atmosphere and Saturnian storms have all been picked out, not by government-funded projects, but amateurs using increasingly sophisticated "off the shelf" equipment.
Hubble Space Telescope image of supernova 1994D in galaxy NGC 4526.NASA/ESA
The hunt for exploding stars, or supernovae, is an engaging activity that gets you peering into deep space. By monitoring a specified number of distant galaxies and the sky around them, amateurs routinely pick out a star that has exploded at the end of its life. By alerting professional astronomers at the earliest opportunity, more can be learned about the life cycle of stars.
Merging X-ray data (blue) from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory with microwave (orange) and visible images reveals the jets and radio-emitting lobes emanating from Centaurus A's central black hole.ESO/WFI (visible); MPIfR/ESO/APEX/A.Weiss et al. (microwave); NASA/CXC/CfA/R.Kraft et al. (X-ray)
Just like monitoring the brightness of variable stars, monitoring active galaxies means observing a fixed number of galaxies on a regular basis and measuring their brightness. The brightness variation comes from activity surrounding a central black hole and working with other amateur and professional astronomers can allow accurate light curves to be built and more learned about their nature.