Amateur astronomers: how and where to report discoveries

Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

On March 15, an amateur astronomer from Australia by the name of John Seach reported the discovery of a quickly brightening nova in the southern constellation Sagittarius.

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The nova, which has been (affectionately) named PNV J18365700-2855420, had not previously been visible but soared to magnitude 6.3 at the time of its discovery, according to National Geographic. It joins a long and growing list of objects discovered by weekend astronomers.

Which begs the question: how does someone report a newly located star, nova, comet, asteroid, or planet? What information do you need to collect if you think you’ve spotted something no one has ever seen before, and who do you even contact in such a situation?

Step #1: Confirm the discovery is both real and new

The first thing you should do, according to the International Astronomical Union (IAU), is verify that what you’re looking at is actually a new object. They advise confirming the observation on multiple nights to ensure that it isn’t an instrumental artifact or “ghost image” caused by nearby bright objects, and obtaining multiple images of the objects to verify that it is real.

Monitor the object of the movement and its brightness. If there is definitely detectable movement the object may be a minor planet or comet, while if there is no movement, it could be a nova or a supernova. If the object has fluctuating brightness, it is neither a nova nor a supernova. It could be a normal variable star, a new variable star or the outburst of an unusual variable star.

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You should check the location of the object to see if there is already a verified object in that area. The IAU recommends placing the coordinates into a quality sky atlas, such as WIKISKY or The Digitized Sky Survey, consulting a list of confirmed objects like the CBAT supernova catalogue, the annual Comet Handbook, or the General Catalogue of Variable Stars, and contacting a local observatory for help confirming the discovery before filing an official report.

Step #2: Prepare a report

The exact information required on a report will vary somewhat based on the what type of object is being reported, but in general, every report should include: your name, address, phone number, email address, date and time of the observation, the method used (naked eye, telescope, photographic, etc., including specific details about instrumentation and type of exposures) and observation site (location name, latitude and longitude, elevation, etc.)

The IAU Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, which handles comet discovery reports, asks that astronomers not send in any type of images, because they do not have the staff to look at the amount of photographic evidence they tend to receive. Those who wish to submit CCD images are asked to contact the bureau before doing so, and that they prefer that you first post the pictures to your own website and send to URL to the agency for review upon approval.

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On the other hand, the SOHO and Stereo Sungrazer Project does request images of the comets being reported, and note that it should appear in at least four different frames to be considered real. In addition to the photographic evidence, they ask you to send in the date, time, and position of the object for at least one image, as well as which telescope it was observed in and the origin of the coordinate system. A good general rule is to collect as much information as possible.

Step #3: Find the correct agency and file your report

Once you have conducted enough observations and compiled all of your data, it’s time to figure out exactly where you’re supposed to report your new discovery. For comets, supernovae, novae, and outbursts of unusual variable stars, the IAU recommends that you contact the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams (CBAT) which operates out of Harvard University.

For more routine or new variable stars, amateur astronomers can get in touch with the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) or the IAU’s Commission on Variable Stars at Konkoly Observatory in Budapest. For objects such as minor planets and asteroids, reports may be filed to the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Minor Planet Center (MPC), while the Fireball Data Center of the International Meteor Organization handles fireballs and meteorites.

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Galaxies or nebulae will only be reclassified if an astronomer’s research is published in a peer-review scientific journal, the IAU added, and even then, the greater astronomy community must approve any updates to those databases. The agency itself does not accept scientific papers and instead recommends sending them to a publisher such as the American Astronomical Society or Astronomy & Astrophysics.

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