The Night Sky Observer has been providing astronomy and space news since 1997 making it one of the longest-lived astronomy sites online.
I’ve been interested in astronomy since the time of the moon landings though my first real memory of looking for something specific in the sky was of Comet Kahoutek in 1973.
While passion for astronomy has ebbed and flowed through the years, I’ve always had some level of interest in it.
When I initially went to university, I had intended studying for a degree in something related to astronomy. Jobs in the 1980s were thin on the ground, let alone jobs in the sciences, and specifically astronomy. Computers were the up and coming thing and seemed to offer better medium and long-term prospects, so I switched discipline to the computer sciences.
I wrote my first bit of astronomy software, to predict the positions of the planets in the sky, in 1981, for the Sinclair ZX81 (for those who remember back to the dawn of personal computing!). Other bits and pieces followed but with the arrival of the IBM PC in 1984, I wrote the very first version of Jupsat for it – software that modelled the positions of Jupiter’s four main satellites.
In the late 1980s, I joined the Irish Astronomical Society (IAS) and made some life-long friends there. But there is an endemic restlessness in the Irish astronomical community that causes rifts and splits (with astounding regularity) as different people want to go in different directions with their astronomical pursuits.
Such a rift happens in the IAS in 1989. It was pretty acrimonious on both sides and I urged my friends to leave the IAS and form a new society that better suited our vision for astronomy in Ireland. That society was born in my car outside a McDonald’s restaurant as three of us munched on burgers and fries. It would go on to be named Astronomy Ireland (AI).
We had come to the conclusion that democratically run societies didn’t work. They led to in-fighting, division and rancour; so we decided to run Astronomy Ireland as a benevolent dictatorship, governed by a board of seven directors. I’m not one who likes being in the limelight, so I declined the Chairman position and took Vice-Chairman instead. I also edited the new society magazine (the Journal of Astronomy Ireland – a bit of a mouthful!). That first 18 months of were some of the best in my life. We seven had a ball, doing what we loved, including bringing over cosmonaut Georgi Gretchko to speak at the Royal Dublin Society.
At the time I was working for a Dublin-based software company that got projects from the European Space Agency. Since I was working on a project to analyse data from the Olympus F-1 satellite, I managed to convince my employer to stump up half the sponsorship funds to bring Georgi Gretchko over, as the company would get some great exposure in return.
But things in AI started to go downhill and yes, there was another rift. It ended with six of the board (including myself) leaving and AI becoming a subscription-based business rather than a society put together by astronomers for astronomers.
In the mid 90s, I wrote a bit of software for the PC called LunarPhase. While it’s still available, it later morphed into the much more comprehensive LunarPhase Pro which you’ll see advertised on this site. 1997 also saw the birth of the Night Sky Observer site. Though it was a traditional website for most of it’s life, it’s now been transferred to the WordPress platform. It’s changed several times over the years, having undergone several revamps in that time.
Jupsat underwent a couple of revisions over the years into its current Jupsat Pro incarnation.
In 1999, I rejoined the IAS, served on the committee for a number of years and subsequently became President. I also edited Orbit, the society’s magazine. 1999 is also the year when I bought my first decent telescope – a Vixen VC200 8″ reflector.
Irish weather is never quiescent and I soon found that by the time I’d set up the ‘scope, the clouds had rolled in. Building an observatory seemed to be the best solution – just nip out to it during clear spells and be up and running in a couple of minutes to make the most of observing opportunities. You can read the trials and tribulations of building the observatory if you’re so inclined.
My main interest is astrophotography. I first took pictures of the night sky in the early 80s using a camera, telephoto lenses and black and white film. My University science labs had a darkroom where I could develop the film. To track the stars I used a barn-door mount. I got pretty decent results. The skies were darker back then (less light pollution) and I could track for 5-15 minutes without the sky getting burned out.
With the observatory and new ‘scope, I wanted to try CCD imaging of deep sky objects. I had some success but not as much as I’d hoped. I could never get the mount to reliably track stars – I was using a StarLight Xpress CCD camera that self-autoguided. So it became a frustrating exercise of spending clear-sky time trying to get the system to track accurately, either to have it not do so or for the clouds to roll in again and put paid to any further imaging.
So here I am in 2009, getting the imaging bug again. After 10 years, the observatory is still standing (to my utter amazement) and the roof still rolls off (I half expected it to fall into the garden when I tried it out after so long (it’s been about 5 years since I last used it!).
Cameras and imaging technology have moved on a lot in those years and the My Personal Astronomy Blog section on this site is primarily to document my progress (or lack of it) in setting up an imaging system and the results I get from it.
So stay tuned…