Nine star-struck back yard astronomers came to Baltimore this week to prepare to use one of the world's most powerful telescopes, NASA's $2.1 billion Hubble orbiting observatory, for research that strays off the beaten path.
"Welcome to Fantasyland," said a grinning Karl J. Hricko, 57, a high school science teacher from Edison, N.J., following a tour Monday of the Space Telescope Science on the Johns Hopkins University campus.
Mr. Hricko and three co-investigators plan to point the Hubble next year at a galaxy 100 million light years away and at a quasar, an object brighter than a trillion suns. The quasar appears close to the galaxy in the sky but lies an estimated 8 billion light years away.
Mr. Hricko's team hopes to see what the professionals may have missed: a bridge of stellar material between these supposedly distant objects.
It's a long shot. But if strong evidence for that bridge is found, Mr. Hricko and his co-investigators would raise serious doubts about the accuracy of the yardstick that astronomers use to measure the relative distance of stars. That, in turn, could rattle the foundations of the Big Bang theory of the creation of the cosmos.
Whatever the outcome, Mr. Hricko is grateful for the chance to use the Hubble. "It's like getting married to a beautiful woman," he said. "Wedding night."
Professional astronomers must compete for time on Hubble, which is fully booked for observations a year in advance. But since the space telescope was launched in April 1990, the institute has twice set aside precious viewing time for amateurs chosen through competing proposals.
The institute's first novices are still poring over images and data from their observations.
The latest round of amateur observations, totaling 18 hours of telescope time, is expected to take place next year.
"I expect the amateur astronomers to ask refreshing new questions and that their findings will make a real contribution to the advancement of astronomy," said Dr. Riccardo Giacconi, director of the institute. Other officials said Hubble is the only major telescope in the world with an amateur program.
Nancy Cox, a 46-year-old psychiatric nurse from San Francisco, said she plans to use Hubble's ultraviolet instruments to look at star-forming regions and to measure, for the first time, the level of certain carbon-based chemicals.
She became interested in stargazing in 1968, when Apollo astronauts first circled the moon, and still studies the sky with the San Francisco Amateur Astronomers club. "They are certainly quite proud of someone coming from their club to get Hubble-ized," she said.
"For an amateur, it's truly like a dream. I'm still in shock," said George Lewycky, 25, a computer programmer from Milltown, N.J., who works for a brokerage firm. He plans to study whether the thick atmosphere of Titan, one of the moons of Saturn, might contain a key chemical -- formaldehyde -- needed to manufacture some of the components of DNA, the chemical blueprint for life.
Harald Schenk, a 48-year-old land surveyor with the city of Sheboygan, Wis., is one of two amateurs studying whether some rocky asteroids whizzing around the sun are old comets with their icy mantles boiled off.
Mr. Schenk recalled that when he was a child growing up in post-World War II East Berlin, most of the power plants had been destroyed. With few electric lights to pollute it, the night sky was a deep well of blackness.
"The stars were so bright you could almost touch them," he recalled. "It's never been like that since. I loved it. That's why I had almost a kinship with the stars."
He said he sometimes stole his mother's eyeglasses off her bedside table while she slept. After popping the lenses out of the frame, he put them in a cardboard tube to form a crude telescope. He peered at the sky until morning, then reassembled the glasses before she awoke.
Mr. Schenk is working with James Secosky, 45, a high school science teacher from Manchester, N.Y. They will study certain asteroids and comets, measuring hydroxyl, a molecule composed of one hydrogen and one oxygen atom, that should be produced by icy surfaces. If the suspect asteroids produce trace amounts of hydroxyl, Mr. Schenk said, "I think it will be a pretty fair indication that these asteroids were comets."
Three college students are planning to use Hubble to conduct a long-shot search for so-called binary asteroids, where one of the rocky objects is in orbit around the other.
Asteroids are small, generally about a half-mile to a mile in diameter, and very distant. Most orbit about 140 million miles farther from the sun than Earth does.
The Hubble, with its 8-foot-wide mirror operating above the distorting atmosphere of Earth, is the only telescope capable of viewing even a large asteroid in enough detail to determine if it is one object or two.
"There is a chance of getting conclusive proof that binaries exist," said a confident Benjamin P. Weiss, 19, an Amherst sophomore wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt bearing a drawing of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.
Mr. Weiss, Winslow Burleson, 21, a junior at Rice University, and Rukmini Sichitiu, 19, a sophomore at Dartmouth, originally planned to use Hubble to make numerous close-up images of five asteroids -- Nysa, Pales, Ophelia, Hektor and Betulia.
But Alexander Storrs of the institute's Science Planning Branch recommended that the students do more limited studies of a larger number of objects. That way, he said, they would have a better shot at finding a binary within the three hours of telescope time they are allotted. But, he conceded, it would also mean that they wouldn't have enough pictures to show one asteroid orbiting another.
"All you can do is get these tantalizing, tentative results, because of limited spacecraft time," Dr. Storrs shrugged. Many astronomers, he said, doubt that asteroids form stable binary pairs because such objects would likely collide, shattering both.
But the amateurs were not discouraged.
"That's what's exciting," Dr. Storrs agreed. "You could get important results. No one else is doing this work."