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AAVSOnet Benefits and Management

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SXN
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This is in response to a message posted July 27, 2012 at 11:48am by Jim Roe under another topic. I have moved the discussion here by copying the original text and will add my comments in italics.

KTC wrote:  "AAVSONet is a free benefit to members."

I'm still trying to figure out which members benefit from AAVSONet.  I understand that a small number of members have had observing projects served by AAVSONet but it is far from clear to me that the vast majority of members will ever benefit from it .  I've heard fuzzy claims that "science" benefits every time a variable star measurement is made - something like angels getting their wings when a bell rings? - and the AAVSO members benefit when science is served, but that sounds weak.

AAVSOnet is like every other tool or benefit of membership. It is made available to all the members, but whether or not they "all " use it is up to them. No one has ever claimed that it will benefit all the members. The light curve generator doesn't benefit everyone, but I don't think it is a waste of time supporting it or offering it as a tool in the AAVSO toolbox. The newsletter and annual report are benefits, but whether or not they benefit you is up to you. If you don't read them, you won't benefit from them.

There are actually two main parts to AAVSOnet. There are the survey telescopes, which are not generally available to members to reserve time on, and there are the user telescopes. The survey telescopes are and will benefit all AAVSO observers as well as the scientific community at large by producing the first all sky photometric survey covering the AAVSO observers "Goldilocks Zone" from 10th to 17th magnitude. All this photometry is being used to update and enhance all the AAVSO comparison star charts for all the observers. It is also a boon to the entire astronomical community who now have reliable secondary standards across the entire sky with which to do photometry of everything from comets and asteroids, to galaxies and gamma-ray bursts.

The user telescopes are a fantastic opportunity for AAVSO members. If you have a well reasoned and scientifically justified program of stars to observe, you can submit a proposal and get time on science grade telescopes and CCD systems for $60.00 annually. That is the best telescope time rental agreement on the planet, bar none. You can also have your images dark and flat subtracted and sent to your VPHOT account for processing at no additional cost. If you can't afford a C14 on a Paramount located at a superior site at 9000 feet in New Mexico and $5000 worth of software to acquire targets and manage your telescope observing queue robotically and process your images, don't worry, your AAVSO membership gains you access to that and many more telescopes!

Granted, you will have to think about what you want to observe and why before you will be granted time on the network, but you should be doing that anyway.

It has been hard (at least for me) to find out information about AAVSONet.  There is a link on the main page of the AAVSO web site that leads to a rather dry description of telescopes and locations and further links that don't go very far and appear to be dated (the link to previous observing runs indicates the latest run to be initiated was in May of 2009 ).  There is mention of a "Time Allocation Committee."  Who are these people?  Do they have a separate page/blog wherein they report their activities, assess the projects they approved, etc?

The dry (yet thorough) descriptions are necessary for anyone trying to construct an observing proposal, so they know the specifications and capabilities of each telescope system.

The program list is woefully out of date, and points to a distinct failure on our part in administering the network. I have begun revising this page and can say it looks like there are currently 25-30 different users running approximately 100-125 programs on AAVSOnet scopes, including photometric calibrations of clusters, exoplanet transits, LPV, CV, EB, RCB, NR, novae, SNe and RR Lyrae monitoring.

The Telescope Allocation Committee has up to this point been Arne. He looked over the proposals and allocated time on specific telescopes. I can say he was very thorough in his assessment of any proposals I submitted for myself and in helping others, and usually had questions and suggestions for making the programs better. But this is not a great use of the Director's time, so a committee was formed to create the policies and procedures for a new "AAVSOnet Telescope Management Committee".

The committee was Jim Bedient, Tom Krajci, Donn Starkey and me. We have completed the first phase of commissioning this new TMC and submitted our report and a P&P document to Arne for review. According to our plan, the President will appoint a chair to the TMC who will then draft volunteers to serve on the committee, just like other committees are formed according to AAVSO Bylaws. Whether or not the names of the people serving on the committee will be or need to be made public is up to the Council. There are just as many good reasons for anonymity in this case as for transparency.

Looking at the (dated?) list of projects I see several "one-off" projects such as nova field calibration that kinda make sense to me as an AAVSO activity.  I came across a reference somewhere that a high school science fair project had been served and I applaud that.  But I have to wonder if most of those continuing monitoring projects couldn't be better handled by another approach?  Maybe there are scientifically urgent projects that can't (or aren't) being served by the Alert system and observations by regular members with their own resources?  That would seem to indicate the Alert system should be refined.

There are no longer "calibration programs" running on AAVSOnet since APASS has taken over that task permanently. Educational programs will always be welcomed, but they will be subject to review by the TMC. I'm not sure what alert system you refer to. Tom has experimented with interrupting ongoing schedules to point to VOEvents, but this is not fully implemented, nor are we sure it should be. There are a lot of false detections to weed through. 

I guess my bottom line is, I can't find a "management plan" for AAVSONet.  We kinda know what it is, but we don't know why nor where it it going or how it can be utilized.  I can think of things I would like to see, but will wait to hear what (if anything) is already in place and/or comments from others.

The management plan for AAVSOnet has up to now been in Arne's head. He has managed to spin gold out of air in creating AAVSOnet, including APASS which is probably the single most important step in legitimizing the AAVSO to the professional community AAVSO has ever taken, in spite of a lack of direct financial support from the Council to build or manage it. There is still not a line item in the budget for AAVSOnet, but there is now a written policy and procedures document to form a telescope management committee, and the technical staff are now working on implementing several facets of that plan to automate some of the tracking and assessment of the programs running on the network.

There is a lot going on behind the curtain that doesn't get talked or written about simply because there isn't time to do it. There are only a few of us working on each specific aspect of AAVSO that you see on the surface. It is a classic Catch-22 situation. If I were to take the time to explain every thing I do to the membership I would not have any time left over to DO anything! I'm all for transparency, but it comes with a cost in time and effort.

I hope you get elected to Council this fall, Jim. Then you will know better what is going on and YOU can write about some of it to better inform the membership.

:-)

AAVSONet vs. personal visual or CCD scopes?
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lmk
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I tried reserving time on BRT once and was quite disappointed in the long wait and small amount I was allocated! I could have observed hundreds of variables with my own visual scope in the time it took waiting for the shared scope.

I dont know if AAVSONet is better or worse, but the fundamental issue is the same. Just like when cable first comes to your neighborhood, its blazingly fast, but as more and more sign up and use it, it slows to a crawl.

My questions are:

1.  What is a user's realistic chances of getting the time they request for their projects, and when they need it?

2. What if they encounter equipment failures, clouds, poor seeing and cannot acquire what they need? Do they get free second chances or bumped by the next project in the queue?

3. What is the realistic amount of imaging time an average proposal is going to get?

4. Can you get time on a moments notice for urgent events, eg. GRB's?

5. What happens as AAVSONet grows in popularity and usage? Will scopes be added fast enough to prevent user's projects getting bogged down and delayed beyond acceptability?

6. In a way, is it necessary to emulate the professionals approach of sharing scopes and time allocation and competition? Is this desirable for an amateur organization, especially if the scopes are pretty small and commonplace and can be acquired individually?

These are the questions that I ask myself when I consider moving away from my own personal scopes to shared resources. My earlier experience was not positive.

Mike LMK

answers to AAVSOnet questions
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HQA
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lmk wrote:

I tried reserving time on BRT once and was quite disappointed in the long wait and small amount I was allocated! I could have observed hundreds of variables with my own visual scope in the time it took waiting for the shared scope.

I dont know if AAVSONet is better or worse, but the fundamental issue is the same. Just like when cable first comes to your neighborhood, its blazingly fast, but as more and more sign up and use it, it slows to a crawl.

My questions are:

1.  What is a user's realistic chances of getting the time they request for their projects, and when they need it?

2. What if they encounter equipment failures, clouds, poor seeing and cannot acquire what they need? Do they get free second chances or bumped by the next project in the queue?

3. What is the realistic amount of imaging time an average proposal is going to get?

4. Can you get time on a moments notice for urgent events, eg. GRB's?

5. What happens as AAVSONet grows in popularity and usage? Will scopes be added fast enough to prevent user's projects getting bogged down and delayed beyond acceptability?

6. In a way, is it necessary to emulate the professionals approach of sharing scopes and time allocation and competition? Is this desirable for an amateur organization, especially if the scopes are pretty small and commonplace and can be acquired individually?

These are the questions that I ask myself when I consider moving away from my own personal scopes to shared resources. My earlier experience was not positive.

Mike LMK

1.  Some of the AAVSOnet telescopes, such as the BSM systems, have dedicated use (bright star monitoring).  For them, it takes a good scientific project to get sufficient priority to use them (and it has happened).  However, we currently have four general-purpose telescopes that are available for normal projects, and expect another four or so to come on-line this year.  So far, we've been able to satisfy most requestors, especially if they are asking for monitoring observations (once per night on a handful of objects).  The main difference is that we typically ask for the observations to be part of a project, with some sort of end result (a paper, talk, or at least submission to the AID).  Much of AAVSOnet is a volunteer effort, and the people involved would like to see their efforts be worthwhile - seeing papers written about the telescope use is a good step in that direction.

2. Once in a queue, you stay in the queue and get your observations when conditions permit.  There is no time-slot allocation that goes away if conditions are not favorable at the time your slot comes around.

3. The amount of time depends on the project, though our typical user probably gets less than 10 images per night.  Time series takes over an entire telescope for many hours, so we ask for more justification for them.  The automated schedulers are really optimized to handle snapshots of lots of objects.

4. Urgent events (targets of opportunity) can be handled either through the normal VOEvent interrupt (as we've done with GRBs), or with a request for Director's Discretionary Time.

5. Let's wait until AAVSOnet grows that much in popularity.  Right now, we've made arrangements to fill out the network to between 15-20 telescopes, and don't envision going much beyond that.  Much of our current expansion is towards systems that amateurs don't normally access - large aperture, spectroscopy, NIR imaging, etc.

6.  I think the proposal request and Telescope Allocation Committee concept is entirely suitable for AAVSOnet telescopes, where AAVSO staff and funds are being used.

Submit a proposal, Mike!

Arne

AAVSONet - is what you put into it
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I could have observed hundreds of variables with my own visual scope in the time it took waiting for the shared scope.

Strange statement coming from you.  You observe a great deal.  I think you are looking at it the wrong way.  BRT took images while you were doing something else.  It augmented/enhanced your data collection ability...and from a different longitude that can take images at a time when it's daylight in Hawaii.

5. What happens as AAVSONet grows in popularity and usage? Will scopes be added fast enough to prevent user's projects getting bogged down and delayed beyond acceptability?

It's monsoon here, and in the last few days I've dug holes and poured concrete for scope shelters nine and ten.  (Scope eleven is in the garage, in need of lots of refurbishment.)

How can you help expand AAVSONet?  Raise funds?  Manage programs?  Energize stalled AAVSONet scope projects?  Research refurbishment parts/designs for various scopes?  Set up some CCD-scopes in your unique longitude?  Other?

Is this desirable for an amateur organization, especially if the scopes are pretty small and commonplace and can be acquired individually?

Again, your bias is showing.  Small scopes, who needs them?  The 60mm aperture Bright  Star Monitor covers a niche that is largely untouched by the pro's, and most amateurs....and we still need more BSM's.  Mine is shut down for monsoon.  Does Hawaii suffer from a monsoon season?  How many BSM's are running at your longitude?

Commonplace?  Does that mean that CCD rigs are scattered all over Hawaii?  Pleas tell me about all of those scopes at that unique longitude.

AAVSONet - is what you put into it.  You can help by setting up scopes to take data, or you can write observing proposals...or you could help organize and run the AAVSONet Rapid Reaction Corps...which would analyze images from fast-breaking/transient events, and report on the results so that the community knows what is happening with these new objects.  (This is a known shortfall in AAVSONet at this time - no team of people to analyze transient events...where timely feedback is critical.)

Here are some reasons why your AAVSONet experience will be better than your BRT experience.  I keep a master list of all 'hard time' events that have been requested on the various AAVSONet scopes here.  If there is a conflict between multiple requests...I mention that before the scheduled date, and work with Arne to make the best choice.  (So far this does not happen often.)  If your request is impossible (object is not visible at requested time, for example), I provide that feedback promptly.  I review the target request, and if I find that the object and available comp stars require offset field centering, I'll provide recommended coords and explain the situation to the requester.  If it's a difficult target (very faint, very bright, crowded field, etc.)...I'll try and review the first batch of images, and adjust exposure/pointing as needed.  If it's a tough target, I will set up a test run well in advance of the requested date and review images...and let you know if we can meet your needs.

How much of this is done by BRT?  Or does BRT merely accept requests and run them 'blind'...with no human review/QC/sanity check?

BRT
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 BRT runs jobs 'blind'!

It should be remembered though that BRT is a 'schools telescope', designed for educational purposes and funded by the schools that use it (and a couple of other outside sources).  We amateur users are allowed whatever times is left over.  It's also totally unmanned.  If it breaks, we have to wait for someone to fly out and fix it (which is a drain on expenses for the team). You just can't compare BRT to AAVSOnet.

I think AAVSOnet is worth the subscription alone.  I use it to monitor Polars, and have just written up a report for the BAA Journal (which has been accepted for publication), which contains AAVSOnet observations over the past five years (along with other observers data of course).  The project is half way through, and AAVSOnet has made a major contribution.

I await the flack and boiling oil on this last comment, but I might go as far to say that it's AAVSOnet which is probably maintaining my subscription to the AAVSO at the moment.  Most of what AAVSO offers is freely available to non paying users - including Journal papers.  All you need is a username.  This is something which has been irritating me for a while now, but I guess that's another topic.  Subscribing to 'support astronomy' is not an argument which swings it for me personally, as I do this in lots of other area's.

Gary (PYG)

AAVSOnet questions and benefits
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AAVSOnet is a very useful benefit, and Tom K. is correct in saying it is what you put into it.
I've been using the AAVSOnet for more than two years now on multiple projects.  Overall, I've been quite pleased with the AAVSOnet and its support staff. I think the important points of my experiences are as follows:

First, you have to have a good, well defined idea for a project.  Arne (and now presumably this new committee) asks hard questions about the purpose of the project and what you intend to do with the data.  So do you homework before proposing something.  Arne also tends to make excellent suggestions to better focus your project.

Secondly, you have to understand the AAVSOnet suffers from the same problems your scope does.  They get weathered-out periodically, the images are occasionally slightly unfocused, and sometimes they try to take data in marginal weather conditions.  There have been computer crashes. The data is usually high quality, but not always.  Don't expect milli-mag accuracy from every image.

Third, the operation of the scopes can produce A LOT of data.  This can produce quite a blacklog for you to process and analyze if you aren't prepared to keep up with it as it comes in.

Fourth, the most important point to remember is this is supported by a volunteer effort.  These folks have lives outside of the AAVSO (I know - hard to believe at times), and they sometime forget to input something or start something.  If you haven't seen any data for awhile and the weather has been good for the AAVSOnet scopes, send a email and find out what may be the problem.

Don't be scared at the prospect of writing an observing proposal
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...you have to have a good, well defined idea for a project.  Arne (and now presumably this new committee) asks hard questions about the purpose of the project and what you intend to do with the data.  So do you homework before proposing something.

We intend to also make available mentoring for people that want to submit an observing proposal, but have no experience in that area.

We understand that most amateurs lack experience in this area, and want to make sure that the process of writing the observing proposal does not turn away members.

AAVSONet issues
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Don't get me wrong, I think AAVSONet is a great thing, it fits a certain "niche". But is it right for me?

I get the impression its more for "one shot" kind of projects with a specific goal and time frame.  My observing is more of a general kind, monitoring a wide variety of objects, regularly over a long period of time. I would like to get essentially daily observing time spread over the whole night for several dozen faint objects. Will this work for me?

Another concern, do we want to be promoting it if its already running near capacity?

Tom mentioned Hawaii as a new location. We have a very good year-round climate for observing here. There are no "monsoons", regular extended unusable periods due to weather. But, the main issue is lack of interested individuals to host it. As far as I know, I am the only regular, serious VSO out here (except maybe Jim B.?) Science is not popular out here with the general public. Very few people, if any, would be capable or interested in hosting such an advanced system in their personal property.

Mike

AAVSONet takes data for specific purposes
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I get the impression its more for "one shot" kind of projects with a specific goal and time frame.

Yes, the observing purposes are expected to be specific...but they can be widely different:

- monitor star X (nightly? weekly?  other?) to determine a certain behavior pattern (CV supercycle?  eclipsing binary period?  other?)

- capture a specific event (eclipse, exoplanet transit, synchronized observing for space-based telescopes, other)

The time frame can be flexible.  If we are building a phase curve for a periodic star...weather may cooperate and let us do it in only two nights.  Other times, after timely review by the requester...we find we need a few more nights, at specific times, to complete the phase curve.

I would like to get essentially daily observing time spread over the whole night for several dozen faint objects. Will this work for me?

Mike, submit a specific observing proposal.

Another concern, do we want to be promoting it if its already running near capacity?

I repeat my previous post:  I'm pouring concrete and constructing two more scope shelters.  And a third scope (requiring much refurbishment) is in the garage.

Tom mentioned Hawaii as a new location. We have a very good year-round climate for observing here.....Very few people, if any, would be capable or interested in hosting such an advanced system in their personal property.

Looks like we'll be picking up Hawaii's slack.

Mike, submit an observing proposal.

AAVSO 49 Bay State Rd. Cambridge, MA 02138 aavso@aavso.org 617-354-0484