The network is being developed and overseen by the American Association of Variable Star Observers, located in Cambridge, Mass. Founded in 1911, the AAVSO is the oldest institution in the U.S. dedicated to helping amateurs make astronomical measurements of scientific importance.
The AAVSO organizes and compiles data on thousands of variable stars. To date, it has logged more than nine million measurements of star brightness. Janet Mattei, the executive director and a dear friend of mine, is a person with boundless energy, political savvy and a passion for advancing amateur astronomy. If anyone can keep this network going, it's Janet. And the observing team is being led by Gerald J. Fishman, the principal investigator on the BATSE project, and Mario Motta, a cardiologist and avid amateur astronomer from Lynnfield, Mass.
To join the team, log on to the AAVSO's Web site and fill out the on-line application, including information about your telescope's size, field of view, and location. In addition, just before embarking on a long night of astronomical adventure, you need to notify the AAVSO by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Then, whenever BATSE detects a gamma-ray burst and obtains data on the center and width of the target region, a computer at the AAVSO will automatically send this information via e-mail to everyone who has logged on for that night.
But what about people who don't happen to be observing when an event is detected but who could fire up their backyard telescopes on a moment's notice? The AAVSO intends to reach them by pager, with the coordinates of the gamma-ray burst contained in a text message. So even sleeping astronomers can be alerted to the opportunity to make scientific history.
Of course, BATSE's determination of the location of an event will always suffer a large uncertainty. But if even 10 observers are on-line and scrutinize the identified area with wide-field imaging CCDs, it seems likely that many of the optical companions of a gamma-ray burst will be captured within minutes of receiving the alert. Participants can then e-mail their results to the AAVSO so that everyone on the network can see the information in real time.
Obviously, there's a better way to do all this. The ideal system would use the information in the AAVSO database to assign a particular spot within the BATSE-identified region to each on-line observer, thus maximizing coverage of the section of the sky that contains the gamma-ray burst and thereby increasing the likelihood that someone will find it. Also, the simplest way to locate the optical companions of a gamma-ray burst on a CCD image is to run a program that identifies all the stars on the image and then compares them against stars in an electronic catalogue, like the one NASA compiled to provide guide stars for the Hubble Space Telescope
But it will take a top-notch programmer to write the computer code that can do all this. Unfortunately, being a nonprofit organization, the AAVSO doesn't have the budget to hire such a person. So if you're a computer expert and would like to volunteer your talents to make a major contribution to science, please contact Janet Mattei at 617-354-0484. It's a fantastic opportunity for you to make a lasting contribution to unraveling one of the greatest mysteries in astronomy.
This article was originally published with the title Gamma-Ray Bursts Come Home.