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Guy Hurst

posted Mar 27, 2009, 9:46 AM by Mike Simonsen   [ updated Mar 27, 2009, 9:54 AM ]

Guy Hurst has been an active observer of Variable Stars for over 35 years. He is past President of the British Astronomical Association and has been Editor of the UK based magazine 'The Astronomer' since 1975.

Guy has become the 'central hub' for UK and on some occasions worldwide discoveries. He has been instrumental in providing Professional Astronomers with data on Variable Stars and indeed many other objects too. Here CVnet discusses his role in Pro-Am collaboration.

CVnet: How did you get involved with Pro-Am collaboration?

Guy: I have always supported the cause of Pro-Am. However upon taking the role as editor of the monthly UK magazine 'The Astronomer' in 1975, I found that because observations were published so rapidly we began receiving enquiries for the latest news on a wide variety of objects in the sky. Variable stars were of particular interest to professional astronomers even in those days!

At the about the same time as I took on the role of editor, I also began to exchange notes with Dr. Brian Marsden at the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams. He told me that there were so many discovery claims sent direct to him without always being independently checked, that subscribers to 'The Astronomer', who number some of the most active observers in the world, could assist the Central Bureau in checking these reports.

From 1975 Brian referred many such reports to me which I relayed to a 'checking team' who were willing to be on 24 hour call. Gradually many observers routed their claims through us for checking before relay to the Bureau and in a typical year such discovery reports might number over 100. Inevitably many such reports did not result in a confirmed discovery. Ironically many of the nova claims turned out to be genuine objects in the field of view but later were found to be existing variable stars, many of which had not reached a listing in the main catalogues such as the GCVS.

CVnet: From personal experience, how do Professionals generally regard amateur data?

Guy: Most professionals regard data from amateur astronomers of considerable value. Again results on variable stars seem to be in frequent demand. There are so many variables in the sky and with the difficulties of professionals obtaining telescope time, amateurs are well placed to assist with the monitoring of such objects.

However a second important aspect is the databases maintained by groups all around the world. Often variables which have been regarded as obscure objects suddenly gain prominence due to research by professionals who then need to know of the activity of the star in the past. Organisations such as the AAVSO and BAAVSS have lengthy series of results on many variables which enables an 'instant history' to be supplied on a star which has suddenly gained prominence.

CVnet: What is the current status of Pro-Am collaboration in the UK?

Guy: I recently served a two year term as President of the British Astronomical Association and one of the important tasks each year is the presidential address. In my second year I gave my lecture in London on the theme of Pro-Am. Of course this covered many objects other than variables but it was clear that collaborations remain healthy. However I have always looked at this from an international point of view and requests, whether from the UK or further afield, should be treated in the same way.

One of the reasons we should continue this policy is the friendship we have built up with professionals and their amazing help given in answer to many enquiries we send to them. It is still quite rare that I do not receive a reply, almost instantly, to requests for help.

One of the cases which will remain in my mind forever was on the morning of 1996 October 23 when Mark Armstrong of Rolvenden, England telephoned at 04.05UT (the 'dead of night' here!) to report a possible supernova found in NGC 673. After gradually waking up (!) I realised that if this was true it was the first ever supernova to be found from England in living memory!

As the sky became light here, messages to Robert McNaught and Gordon Garradd in Australia brought forth optical confirmation the same day. However the spectrum was crucial for confirmation of the object. One of my appeals was sent to the ESO in Paranal and they used one of the telescopes almost immediately to confirm it was a type Ia event. Quite remarkably, IAUC 6497 was issued by Dan Green carrying details of the discovery, less than 24 hours after the object was first reported by Mark to me! Pro-Am Co-operation at its very best!

On an International basis I was also much encouraged during my trip to Huntsville, Alabama in 2000 at the kind invitation of the late Janet Mattei. Through my membership of the AAVSO since the 1970's, we had known each other for a great many years and met on several occasions at various international conferences. She assured me attendance at the HEA Workshop to meet NASA officials and other amateurs and professionals from around the world was vital. One of the main tasks was to monitor optical counterparts to Gamma Ray Bursters. But meeting so many professionals for informal chats during the three days was not only memorable but an assurance that there remained much scope for joint projects involving the two groups.

CVnet: Which area's of Pro-Am collaboration provide the most useful results, and which area's could amateurs get more involved with?

Guy: Within the collective umbrella of variable stars, past records suggest that 'eruptive' objects are ideal candidates. Alerting professionals to the start of a climb to maximum avoids valuable professional telescope/satellite time being wasted in monitoring. Simultaneous monitoring by professionals and amateurs over an agreed time schedule and in various wavelengths still remains useful in understanding the physics of these stars.

I still regard visual observations as important even though I fully acknowledge that the development of imaging and associated CCD equipment has allowed amateurs to move on to more precise measurement and monitoring of some variables. We must not underrate the visual observer and their ability to detect sudden change in stars which may have been at minimum for a year or longer. I initiated a 'Recurrent Objects programme' many years ago for just this reason. This is still run by Gary Poyner and is, I believe, a worthwhile project to continue.

My main interest though remains in the discovery and monitoring of novae and supernova. The UK Nova/Supernova Patrol was formed by John Hosty and myself in 1976 for just this purpose. More than 100 supernovae and many novae have been found by its members. This is vital work which should continue but we need more help in monitoring old novae which have already been mentioned from time to time on CVnet. Many such objects are totally neglected after the fade from the bright phase and older objects, long forgotten, may still be active near quiescence.

CVnet: Generally Professionals tend to approach the AAVSO first for amateur data on Variable Stars. How can groups outside of the AAVSO (such as the BAAVSS) compete with this, if indeed they should try, and might CVnet have a role to play here with regard to raising the profile of your work in CV related subjects?

Guy: I would like to see BOTH professionals and amateurs describe their special interests through the medium of CVnet. Do members of each group really know how they can help each other or the ideal target variables?

There is no real need for organisations such as the AAVSO and BAAVSS to compete and I would like to see systems where the databases of such worldwide organisations could be linked even if each observation was tagged so information on the observers' organisational membership was retained.

There is also more scope for co-authorship of papers by amateur and professional astronomers. Such publication is a clear declaration of intent that the two sides will continue to work together.

Pro-Am is alive and well and we can continue to help it flourish through many areas including the valuable addition of CVnet.

Related links:

The Astronomer Online

The British Astronomical Association

BAAVSS Recurrent Objects Programme