Astronomers use tools such as telescopes, cameras, spectrographs, and computers to analyze the light that astronomical objects emit. Amateur astronomers observe the sky as a hobby, while professional astronomers are paid for their research and usually work for large institutions such as colleges, universities, observatories, and government research institutes. Amateur astronomers make valuable observations, but are often limited by lack of access to the powerful and expensive equipment of professional astronomers.
A wide range of astronomical objects is accessible to amateur astronomers. Many solar system objects—such as planets, moons, and comets—are bright enough to be visible through binoculars and small telescopes. Small telescopes are also sufficient to reveal some of the beautiful detail in nebulas—clouds of gas and dust in our Milky Way Galaxy. Many amateur astronomers observe and photograph these objects. The increasing availability of sophisticated electronic instruments and computers over the past few decades has made powerful equipment more affordable and allowed amateur astronomers to expand their observations to much fainter objects. Amateur astronomers sometimes share their observations by posting their photographs on the World Wide Web, a network of information based on connections between computers.
Amateurs often undertake projects that require numerous observations over days, weeks, months, or even years. By searching the sky over a long period of time, amateur astronomers may observe things in the sky that represent sudden change, such as new comets or novas (stars that brighten suddenly). This type of consistent observation is also useful for studying objects that change slowly over time, such as variable stars and double stars. Amateur astronomers observe meteor showers, sunspots, and groupings of planets and the Moon in the sky. They also participate in expeditions to places in which special astronomical events—such as solar eclipses and meteor showers—are most visible. Several organizations, such as the Astronomical League and the American Association of Variable Star Observers, provide meetings and publications through which amateur astronomers can communicate and share their observations.
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