As NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft prepares to observe the ice giants Uranus and Neptune from its vantage point in the outer solar system this fall, the space agency is extending a unique opportunity to amateur astronomers worldwide. In a move that underlines the growing importance and potential of citizen science, NASA is inviting those with telescopes as small as 16 inches to join the mission and contribute to space science by simultaneously observing the two planets.
In September, New Horizons will collaborate with the Hubble Space Telescope, focusing its color camera on Uranus and Neptune. From its position in the Kuiper Belt, over five billion miles from Earth, the spacecraft will capture images from ‘behind’ these two giant planets, offering new insights into their atmospheres and internal energy balances. This initiative underscores the symbiotic relationship between space and ground-based observations, with data from Earth-bound telescopes supplementing and strengthening the models built from the information collected in space.
NASA Invites Global Amateur Astronomers to Assist in Groundbreaking Research
NASA has issued a global call to arms, inviting amateur astronomers to participate in their new research project as they probe Uranus’s unseen side. The space agency’s New Horizons spacecraft, situated in the outer reaches of the solar system, aims to study both Uranus and Neptune in the coming autumn.
A Unique Opportunity to Contribute to Space Science
NASA has encouragingly stated that even space enthusiasts with telescopes as small as 16 inches can "make a real contribution to space science" by observing both ice giants concurrently. In September, in association with the Hubble Space Telescope, New Horizons will point its color camera towards Uranus and Neptune. The spacecraft’s unique position in the Kuiper Belt, over five billion miles away from Earth, will allow it to capture unprecedented images from ‘behind’ these two giant planets, providing fresh insights into their atmospheres and internal energy balance.
Strengthening Our Understanding of Uranus and Neptune
Alan Stern, the Principal Investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, emphasized the importance of supplementing space data with earthly observations in fortifying our understanding of the mysteries enveloping Uranus and Neptune’s atmospheres. Even observations from small, amateur telescopes can significantly contribute to this endeavor.
While the New Horizons and Hubble will focus on the planets’ atmospheric details and the heat transfer from their rocky cores to their gaseous exteriors, Earth-based observers can help measure the distribution of bright features on Uranus and characterize any unusually bright features on Neptune. NASA added, "They can also track those features much longer than either spacecraft."
Participate and Share Your Discoveries
After the observation campaign, participants can share their images, including when they were taken and in what filter passbands, on social media platforms like X (formerly Twitter) or Facebook using the hashtag #NHIceGiants. The New Horizons team will collect these images and supporting information using this identifier.
The public will have access to the Hubble images of Uranus and Neptune in late September. The New Horizons team expects to receive images from the spacecraft by the end of 2023, which will also be made available to all.
This initiative represents a remarkable opportunity for amateur astronomers across the globe to contribute to NASA’s groundbreaking research. By combining the power of professional spacecraft and amateur astronomy, we can hope to unravel the mysteries of Uranus and Neptune’s atmospheres. It’s a call to arms for every space enthusiast out there to make their mark on space science.