Amateur Astronomy's Future

Jack Kramer

Apologies are in order for indulging in yet another New Years prediction about the future. Forty-five years in amateur astronomy can't qualify me as a soothsayer, but I've learned not to be too conservative in looking into the crystal ball. Once upon a time, a 6-inch reflector on a German equatorial mount was the standard amateur equipment. If you had an 8 or 10-inch, you were getting up there in size, and 121/2-inchers were something we only dreamed about. Since almost everything was mounted on a hefty GEM, that meant you'd just about need a permanent observatory for anything over 10-inches. Unitron 4 and 6-inch refractors were also the objects of amateur lust but were priced out of reach for all but the fortunate few.

To some extent, amateur astronomy is driven not only by technology but also by our expectations. Decades ago there was a belief that certain things were beyond the capabilities of all but the largest amateur instruments. For example, few amateurs even attempted to view the Veil Nebula in Cygnus. I first saw it in a 121/2-inch telescope in 1982 and was amazed at the sight. It was not until I acquired a 10-inch scope a few years later that I found it for myself. Yet just a few months ago I clearly viewed it from my light-polluted backyard using an Oxygen III filter with only a 4-inch refractor. Today, many observers have a healthy optimism. They tackle the faintest of objects with few preconceived notions, trusting that they will be able to see them unless proven otherwise. We are encouraged to push the envelope because we have at our disposal a technology that was only a dream even twenty years ago. Things change!

Such commonplace items as high-transmission lens coatings, narrow-band nebula filters, and large aperture telescopes on Dobsonian mountings have equipped the amateur to see things far beyond the wildest expectations of a couple of generations ago. And all this capability is relatively inexpensive. Then add more high tech things such as computer-controlled drive systems, CCD cameras, and visual image intensifiers. Depending on your level of discretionary income, today you could be equipped as well as many professional observatories.

It seems that there is some new product introduced every month. So let's think about what things might be like in just ten years.

As for capturing images, I think film photography will be considered as obsolete as an old Ramsden eyepiece, even though there will be quite a few amateurs still doing it. CCD cameras and related equipment will become less expensive, even as their imaging capability improves. Of course, you will be able to take images in full color, without the use of filters. Moreover, the process of taking the CCD image will be simplified. A standard piece of hardware may be a small, dedicated viewer with basic software and storage capability that's attached to the telescope base so you won't need to haul out a laptop PC.

Even visual observing will be enhanced. The present day image intensifier will be considered crude by tomorrow's standards. New ones will have much wider fields, with edge-to-edge sharpness. Using electro-optics, there will be intensifiers that allow observers to tune the wavelengths of light they wish to view. This will be an alternative to today's narrow-band nebula filters.

Now here's a prediction with which many may disagree. I think fewer amateurs will be opting for large Dobsonian light buckets, as emphasis is shifted to smaller, but more optically refined telescopes. If image intensifiers become as commonplace as I think they will, then telescopes won't need to be as large. Today's intensifiers increase the light grasp of a telescope by about two magnitudes, or the equivalent of a non-intensified telescope 21/2 times larger. Portability will be even more important, because light pollution will continue to worsen, despite a few notable victories in the battle against skyglow. However, the spread of light pollution will be at a slower rate than would have been the case without the intervention of the International Dark Sky Association

There's widespread concern about the lack of young people involved in the hobby of amateur astronomy, in comparison to what it was a couple of generations ago. I think that will continue. When I was a teenager, astronomy was viewed as something out of the ordinary, otherworldly...sort of "futuristic". We embraced it perhaps because it was exotic, but mostly because it made us think big thoughts. Today's children have the future thrust on them in a dynamic, multimedia world, which wins out over the discipline of learning constellations and sometimes failed attempts to find things in the sky. But I think there'll be more twentysomething adults becoming involved as they discover astronomy for real, up-close and personal. With a greater general interest in astronomy, manufacturers will meet the demand with more good, low-priced starter telescopes that have awesome capabilities.

Forecasting is risky. You could be wrong big time. But it's fun to speculate about the future. What about your own view of the future? How about sharing your thoughts in a newsletter article?

Published in the January 2000 issue of the NightTimes