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Amateur Astronomers Playing Critical Role In Shuttle Stargazing

March 8, 1995

SPACE CENTER, Houston (AP) _ Despite $200 million worth of telescopes aboard shuttle Endeavour, it might be up to a Catholic priest to tip off astronomers to a massive star explosion they hope to glimpse.

Monsignor Ronald Royer of Lakewood, Calif., is among hundreds of amateur astronomers around the world assisting the shuttle stargazing mission by monitoring star systems known as cataclysmic variables.

These dual-star systems contain a white dwarf star and a companion red giant. Periodically, the massive white dwarf sucks material from its companion and fuels a huge thermonuclear blast.

Astronomers in charge of Endeavour’s three ultraviolet telescopes are relying on the amateurs to alert them when a handful of these binary stars increase in brightness, indicating the onset of the two- to three-day outbursts.

``That’s crucial information for us,″ William P. Blair, a mission scientist, said Wednesday. ``It’s driving the way we’re planning observations, what we want to do with these targets.″

During the 15 1/2-day flight, astronomers are keeping an especially close eye on two cataclysmic variables _ one in the constellation Hydrus and the other in Gemini. VW-Hydri, which erupts about once a month, and U-Geminorum, which explodes every four months, are both due over the next several days.

Endeavour’s crew pointed the instruments toward U-Geminorum early Wednesday to catch it at a calm period and wait for the anticipated blast.

The shuttle telescopes also zoomed in Wednesday on several spiral galaxies to help astronomers learn about the forces that cause stars in those systems to align in tight, pinwheel shapes.

At least 500 amateur astronomers are being coordinated in the stargazing effort by the American Association of Variable Star Observers, based in Cambridge, Mass.

The amateurs check about a dozen targets each night and send in their brightness estimates via fax or computer mail. The association delivers daily reports to Blair and other NASA astronomers in Huntsville, Ala.

Among the volunteers are a dentist, a fireman, a music teacher, a welder, a farmer and a New Mexico man who crafts wooden kaleidoscopes for a living, said association director Janet Mattei. They live on every continent except Antarctica.

``This list shows that you don’t need to be a scientist to make scientific contributions,″ Mattei said.

Royer, who said he is a lifelong astronomy lover, makes his observations with a homemade 12 1/2-inch telescope on a football field behind St. Pancratius Catholic Church.

``I think this is important for the space program, to involve the ordinary citizen ... and this is a way we can do that,″ he said.

One of the amateurs spotted an exploding star in 1990 during the telescopes’ only other shuttle flight. Data from that sighting led astronomers to change some of their theories about the violent events.

Endeavour is scheduled to land March 17.

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