Hubble Space Telescope Mission Gets the Green Light Based on Data Submitted by Members of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO)

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The Go/No-Go Decision for a recent mission was based on data provided by several AAVSO observers including past president, Bill Dillon. Mr. Dillon was kind enough to provide details of the preceding 48 hours that led up to the critical Go/No-Go decision. Mr. Dillon's contribution resulted in establishing a new world's first for amateur astronomers. Details of his first-hand account are listed below.

Bill Dillon, an avid amateur astronomer and past president of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) (http://www.aavso.org/) with many years of extensive hands-on experience, created a new first for amateur astronomy.

The American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO), at the request of the Hubble Space Telescope team headed by Dr. Paula Szkody at the University of Washington, launched a campaign (alert notice 361) (http://www.aavso.org/publications/alerts/alert361.shtml) to coordinate amateur astronomer's observations of the pending cataclysmic variable known as SDSS091908. Hubble controllers were concerned about the potential danger of this type of object to erupt and inflict serious damage to the delicate and sensitive Hubble sensors during the observing session. Bill jumped right in and immediately launched his personal campaign.

When asked to describe his part in this historic event, Bill responded, "Sometimes small telescopes help big telescopes. In this case, the small telescopes were those of the Global Rent-A-Scope (GRAS) network (http://www.global-rent-a-scope.com), which uses imaging mirrors that range in size from 10 to 15 inches in diameter. The large telescope was the well-know Hubble Space Telescope (the primary mirror is 90 inches in diameter)."

Dillon went on to explain, "The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) was being used by Dr. Paula Szkody (http://www.astro.washington.edu/szkody/) at the University of Washington and her collaborators to study pulsating white dwarf stars in cataclysmic binary star systems. White dwarfs are the incredibly dense, burned-out cinders of stars about the size of the Earth. In the star system being studied, which goes by the poetic name of SDSS091908, the white dwarf closely orbits a normal-sized star. The stars are so close that the immense gravity of the white dwarf strips gas off the normal star. This gas swirls around the white dwarf forming a disk."

Bill went on to say, "Dr. Szkody had time reserved on the Hubble to see if she could measure the white dwarf's temperature and pulsation periods. This information would be valuable to theorists in modeling the structure of the white dwarf. Because the disk around the white dwarf can become unstable and blaze brighter than both stars combined, HST controllers wanted to be sure the system was in a stable, low-brightness state before allowing data to be taken on SDSS091908. If the disk were to become unstable and very bright, some of the HST's instruments could be damaged. This is where the small telescopes come in to provide pilot data on which the critical decision could be made to risk the observation."

With a big smile and an accompanying glint in his eyes Bill's enthusiasm was beginning to spill-over; he continued, "This campaign was a bit different, as this was the first time I had access to multiple telescope systems around the world to image SDSS091908 about every eight hours on average. The initial session included imaging the star in the pre-dawn hours two days before the HST run using a GRAS telescope in New Mexico. As the new day advanced across the Pacific, the GRAS telescope systems in the pre-dawn skies of Australia were used. As the line of day advance across Asia, finally the star was again imaged in the pre-dawn skies of Israel."

Bill added, "The new day advanced across the Atlantic, and touched the eastern shores of US continuing on to New Mexico where once again the object of interest was imaged in the pre-dawn skies of New Mexico; the first 24 hour period had been completed of an imaging circuit of the Earth. Then another round-the-globe observing run commenced: Australia, Israel, and back to New Mexico, with five minutes to spare before the go/no-go decision had to be made. Because the star system remained in its stable, low-brightness state, Dr. Szkody's HST observing run was approved to proceed on schedule."

Professional astronomers have used global networks of telescope for the past 15 years to accomplish round-the-clock observing, however, this is the first time that amateurs have had the same capabilities, and used them to support a space telescope mission.

A spokesperson for GRAS noted that on top of the fantastic results achieved by Bill Dillon in this scientific breakthrough for amateurs, the total cost to Bill was under $50.00 USD. This of course is due to the incredibly efficient design of the GRAS network system.

GRAS is best described as a global telescope network that provides access to a series of astronomical installations in strategic time zones. The location of these participating installations offer users and observers access to highly sophisticated remote astronomical imaging platforms that possess amazing pointing and tracking accuracy.

Outfitted with chilled CCD cameras and special imaging and scientific filters, subscribers to this membership facility routinely conduct research and capture unbelievably detailed images of a variety of deep space objects. No previous technical experience is required to operate these systems and real live support is available 24/7.

GRAS provides only some of the highest quality astronomical equipment in the world. Takahashi Telelscopes and Paramount remote telescope mounts are just a few high-end components in place at GRAS facilities.

Hundreds of extremely satisfied subscribers (GRAS offers a 100% satisfaction guarantee to its subscribers) to the GRAS system have collected a massive amount of data (over 16,000 hours so far and still counting). Some of this data was used to report close to 2000 observations to the MPC. Hundreds of other observations have been reported to peer review journals.

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