If you've never heard of Stephen James O'Meara or Don Parker, then you've missed some of the most fascinating adventures in 20th-century astronomy. O'Meara was the first person to measure the length of a day on Uranus and to see radial "spokes" in Saturn's rings. (Most astronomers dismissed that discovery as illusionary, until Voyager got close enough to photograph them.) What's more remarkable, in an age of computer-enhanced CCD images, O'Meara made these observations visually, using only a small telescope and his own eyes. Parker went in a different direction. After improving the technique of CCD-based astrophotography, he amassed what might be the world's most extensive and scientifically valuable digital archive of planetary portraits. Despite their passion for astronomy, both hold more down-to-earth day jobs.
They are not alone. Today, equipped with low-cost telescopes and high-tech imaging systems, a small army of dedicated amateur sky watchers struggles every night to advance our understanding of the cosmos. While that's no secret, tales from the trenches are seldom told, so these passionate citizen scientists and their extraordinary achievements have remained undeservedly obscure.
This article was originally published with the title Amateurs Take On the Universe.