Bonner Durchmusterung und Gaia

As our civilization and technology continue to evolve, it seems we take far too much for granted.  We neglect to consider how incredibly hard people used to work years ago to achieve results we today would pass off as almost trivial.  But history has many lessons to teach us, if only we would listen.

As an example, Prussian astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm August Argelander (1799-1875) at the age of 60 began publishing the most comprehensive star catalogue and atlas ever compiled, as of that date.  From 1852 to 1859, Argelander and his assistants carefully and accurately recorded the position and brightness of over 324,000 stars using a 3-inch (!) telescope in Bonn, Germany.  Employing the Earth’s rotation, star positions were measured as each star drifted across the eyepiece reticle in the stationary meridian telescope by carefully recording when each star crossed the line, and where along the line the crossing point was.

Stars Transiting in a Meridian Telescope

One person observed through the telescope and called off the star’s brightness as each star crossed the line, noting the exact position along the reticle on a pad with a cardboard template so that the numbers could be written down without looking away from the telescope.  A second person, the recorder, noted the exact time of reticle crossing and the brightness called out by the observer.  In this way, two people were able to record the position and brightness of every star.

Each star was observed at least twice so that any errors could be detected and corrected.  In some areas of the Milky Way, as many as 30 stars would cross the reticle each minute.  What stamina and dedication it must have taken Argelander and his staff to make over 700,000 observations in just seven years!  Argelander’s catalogue is called the Bonner Durchmusterung and is still used by astronomers even today.  It was the last major star catalogue to be produced without the aid of photography.

Like Argelander’s small meridian telescope, the European Space Agency’s Gaia astrometric space observatory is currently measuring tens of thousands of stars each minute (down to mv = 20) as they transit across a large CCD array—the modern day equivalent of an eyepiece reticle.  But instead of utilizing the Earth’s rotation period relative to the background stars of 23h56m04s, Gaia’s twin telescopes separated by exactly 106.5° sweep across the stars as Gaia rotates once every six hours.  A slight precession in Gaia’s orientation ensures that the field of view is shifted so that there is only a little overlap during the next six-hour rotation.

When Gaia completes its ongoing mission, it will have measured the positions, distances, and 3D space motions of around a billion stars, not just twice but 70 times!

Though electronic computers do most of the work these days, someone still has to program them.  Some 450 scientists and software experts are immersed in the challenging task of converting raw data into scientifically useful information.

I’d like to conclude this entry with a quotation from Albert Einstein (1879-1955), who was born and died exactly 80 years after Argelander.

Many times a day I realize how much of my outer and inner life is built upon the labors of my fellowmen, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give as much as I have received.

I love that quote.  Words to live by.

Separating Observer from Observed

One of the most difficult things to do in observational science is to separate the observer from the observed.  For example, in CCD astronomy, we apply bias, dark, and flat-field corrections as well as utilize median combines of shifted images to yield an image that is, ideally, free of any CCD chip defects including differences in pixel sensitivity and zero-point.

We as observers are constrained by other limitations.  For example, when we look at a particular galaxy, we observe it from a single vantage point in space and time, a vantage point we cannot change due to our great distance from the object and our existence within an exceedingly short interval of time.

Yet another limitation is a phenomenon that astronomers often call “observational selection”.  Put simply, we are most likely to see what is easiest to see.  For example, many of the exoplanets we have discovered thus far are “hot Jupiters”.  Is this because massive planets that orbit very close to a star are common?  Not necessarily.  The radial velocity technique we use to detect many exoplanets is biased towards finding massive planets with short-period orbits because such planets cause the biggest radial velocity fluctuations in their parent star over the shortest period of time.  Planets like the Earth with its relatively small mass and long orbital period (1 year) are much more difficult to detect using the radial velocity technique.  The same holds true for the transit method.  Planets orbiting close to a star will transit more often—and are more likely to transit—than comparable planets further out.  Larger planets will exhibit a larger Δm than smaller planets, regardless of their location.  It may be that Earthlike planets are much more prevalent than hot Jupiters, but we can’t really conclude that looking at the data collected so far (though Kepler has helped recently to make a stronger case for abundant terrestrial planets).

Here’s another important observational selection effect to consider in astronomy: the farther away a celestial object is the brighter that object must be for us to even see it.  In other words, many far-away objects cannot be observed because they are too dim.  This means that when we look at a given volume of space, intrinsically bright objects are over-represented.  The average luminosity of objects seems to increase with increasing distance.  This is called the Malmquist bias, named after the Swedish astronomer Gunnar Malmquist (1893-1982).