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Double Star Astrometry

Astrometry (not to be confused with astronomy) is the “branch of astronomy concerned with the measurement of the positions and apparent motions of celestial objects in the sky and the factors that can affect them” (Cambridge Dictionary of Astronomy, J. Mitton 2001). Whether it is observationally determining the position angles and separations of close double stars (which may be binary stars orbiting about a common center-of-gravity), or the positions of fast-moving asteroids with respect to fixed background stars, determining the positions of objects—astrometry—is a fundamental task of observational astronomy and makes an ideal entry point into the world of astronomical research. 


In this Institute for Student Astronomical Research (InStAR) Seminar, Double Star Astrometry, researchers will use a remote robotic telescope to obtain observations of a close double star that might be gravitationally bound. Based on their observations, each research team will determine the position angle and separation distances between the two components of the double star. Analysis will, hopefully, suggest whether or not the components are gravitationally bound binaries, common proper motion pairs born near each other, or just chance optical doubles that appear close together but are actually far apart. Each team will then write, revise, and submit a manuscript for publication in the Journal of Double Star Observations, and summarize their research results in an online PowerPoint presentation.


This InStAR Research Seminar is totally online and features weekly, synchronous staff meetings (Zoom online conferencing) every Wednesday evening between the research supervisors and the research teams. The Seminar’s textbook, the 217-page Small Telescope Astronomical Research Handbookwas specifically written for the Astronomy Research Seminars, and is included as part of the registration (choice of e-book, softcover, or hardcover). Detailed seminar instructions, videos, reference material, quizzes, etc., are all contained in the easy-to-use, totally online Canvas Learning Management System.  


There are no prerequisites or advanced knowledge required for this Research Seminar. There are always enough diverse talents on the teams that by working together (with generous outside support) the research teams can complete the research in the allotted time. Please note that in the past, approximately half of the teams have been high school teams and they completed their research projects in a timely manner. Also note that a diversity of talents makes teams work well. Researchers who have no knowledge of astronomy and are not keen on mathematics or spreadsheets but have writing or editing skills are especially valuable.  ​​

Double Star Astrometry Research Seminar

This 10-week Research Seminar provides practical experience in astronomical research and an understanding of the nature of scientific research. Participants, who need no previous experience, plan a team research project, make observations, analyze results, and write a paper for publication in the Journal of Double Star Observations. This fall’s (2018) InStAR Research Seminar will focus on double star astrometry, specifically the measurement of the position angles and separations of close double stars that have the potential for being gravitationally-bound binary stars. The recent (April 2018) DR2 data release of the European Space Agency’s Gaia astrometric space telescope, which has surveyed over a billion stars, will be searched by student teams for previously unreported binary star candidates.

Overview of the Seminar

This InStAR Research Seminar is open to anyone interested in astronomical research, though traditionally most seminars have been directed toward undergraduate and high school students. The seminar will engage you as a researcher in a team research project that will result in a published paper. Completing actual research will help you, if you are a student, understand how all the individual lecture courses and technique labs you have and will be taking will, in the end, come together in a usable, coherent manner. After all, we wouldn’t expect someone who wants to be a professional basketball player to take classes in the theory of basketball and participate in dunking and dribbling labs for years on end without ever actually playing a basketball game as a team member! 


You will be immersed, as a member of a research team, within an existing, double star research community of practice that consists of both professional and amateur astronomers as well as former seminar participants who were bitten by the research bug and continued on with research projects after completing their first seminar. Your team will prepare and submit a research proposal, manage your own research, write up your results, send your co-authored paper out for external review, and submit your final paper for publication in the Journal of Double Star Observations. Being a co-author of a published research paper will boost your career with respect to admissions and scholarships if you are a student, opening up many doors for you. The seminar student teams have produced some 150 published papers with 500 co-authors. Over half of the seminar’s participants have been high schools students, many of them taking the seminar on the side as their first college course.


Researchers at the University of Oregon’s Pine Mountain Observatory. Four summer seminars conducted research on close double stars that resulted in the publication of a dozen papers.

Over the past decade we have learned how to reliably produce team research papers and send them off for publication within the constraints of the time period of a semester or less. We:


  • Conduct research within a student-friendly area of scientific research—double stars—that features a very supportive professional-amateur (pro-am) community of practice.

  • Immerse research teams within this supportive, pro-am community of practice.

  • Form diverse teams with a wide range of participant talents, backgrounds, and experience. Such variation, it should be noted, is also the norm within professional research teams.

  • Encourage varying levels of participation; participants have different skills and some have more time than others. The same is true in professional research. Justice, with respect to the degree of participation, is handled by author order, as is the case with professional research teams.

  • Have teams take ownership of their projects and manage their own projects.

  • Make sure that teams plan their projects, make their proposals, and collect and analyze their data in a prompt manner, leaving ample time for writing and rewriting team papers and giving a final PowerPoint presentation.


Double Star Astrometry Research Seminar Learning Outcomes

Participants who successfully complete the Astronomy Research Seminar will have:

  • Gained an understanding of the nature of scientific, astronomical and double star research

  • Planned a team research project that will be completed during the seminar

  • Gathered and analyzed double star observations

  • Written a team research paper

  • Incorporated an external reviewer’s suggestions into a final paper submitted for publication

  • Described the team’s research findings in PowerPoint presentation


The Roles of the Participant Researchers and Instructor Supervisor

Participants are:

  • Online primarily solo participants for the first two weeks of the seminar as they develop an understanding of the nature of scientific, astronomical and double star research through textbook readings, online videos, and short, objective self-assessment quizzes

  • Online team research scientists for the last six weeks of the seminar


The role of the research supervisor in this seminar is quite different than classroom instructors. The research supervisor:


  • Monitors assignments, answers questions, etc.

  • Provides guidance to the research teams, connects them with both professional and amateur astronomers outside of the seminar for assistance, and critically reviews their research in weekly staff meetings starting with the third week.


Seminar Structure Phase I (of II): Individual Participant Study

  • Unit 1  Introduction to the Seminar and Astronomical Research

  • Unit 2  Visual Double Star Astrometry


The first two of eight units are devoted to individual study. These two units provide participants the needed background in scientific research, astronomical research, and visual double star astrometry to work effectively as a researcher within a team.


The first unit familiarizes participants with different types of scientific and astronomical research, how to work within a pro-am community-of-practice, the key concepts of the Astronomy Research Seminar, and what they will gain by participation in the seminar.


The second unit provides the basic concepts of visual double star astrometry participants need to begin meaningful research. On completion of the second unit, participants will be certified as researchers. They will also, at this point have been assigned to a team based on their response to a questionnaire about their skills, preferences for type of work, and their availability for online, synchronous team meetings. Once certified, seminar participants are researchers and are treated as such by the research supervisor in the weekly staff meetings with each team.


It should be noted that most professional astronomical research is done by teams of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. While these research teams manage their own research, they do report to a research supervisor who provides guidance as well as assistance when requested by the team leader. Seminar research teams are just the same and treated in the same manner as professional teams except: (1) they are not paid to conduct research, and (2) the research projects they take on must be modest in scope because they must be completed in a semester or less by part-time researchers.


Seminar Structure Phase II (of II): Team Research

The last six of eight units are devoted to team research. Individual study is still required of the researchers to prepare them with the knowledge they will need to tackle each unit’s team deliverable. The individual study is tailored to and restricted to just what is required for producing the unit’s team deliverable.


  • Unit 3  Form Teams and Plan Team Research Projects

  • Unit 4  Project Management

  • Unit 5  Write Team Research Paper

  • Unit 6  Rewrite and Edit Team Research Paper

  • Unit 7  External Review / Final Paper

  • Unit 8  Present Team Research Findings / Individual Reflections


Research Supervisor Rachel Freed works via Zoom Conferencing, with the InStAR Astronomy Research Seminar teams at Evergreen State College in Olympia Washington-Spring 2018.

Team Research Unit Process

While the seminar’s first two units are entirely individual learning, the seminar’s remaining six units involve both individual learning and team research activities. The individual learning, which consists of readings and/or pre-recorded online lectures, prepares each researcher to work as an effective team member for the unit. Individual readiness for the unit’s research is assessed by an objective, automatically-graded, unit preparation quizzes.


Each of the six team research units has a specific, well defined team deliverable that the team mustproduce (otherwise there will be little to discuss at the weekly staff meeting). The unit’s individual training material, mentioned above, and each Unit Overview, describes how to produce each unit’s deliverable. Each of the six team research units follows the same process and weekly schedule (except the first and last units as the first unit has no previous research deliverable to discuss, while the last unit has no future research to discuss).


The staff meetings are absolutely central to the success of the research projects, as they are for research projects at professional research institutions. This is especially the case for the Astronomy Research Seminar, as most of the team researchers are novices when it comes to research. Thus, the seminar requires that the research supervisor take an especially active role in the staff meeting. As is the case for professional staff meetings, three basic requirements must be met: (1) all of the team members should attend, (2) participants should show up a bit early, and (3) research teams need to have submitted their deliverable (which will be discussed at the staff meeting) to the research supervisor prior to the staff meeting. 

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Research Supervisors:
Rachel Freed,, (707) 326-8310

Dr. Russell Genet,, (805) 438-3305


Canvas Learning Management System Coordinator:
Dr. Cheryl Genet,, (805) 438-4088

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