NASA released the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope on July 11. The $10 billion instrument captured the highest-resolution astrophotography of the deep universe ever. Its gravitationally distorted images of the first galaxies offer a detailed look at the dawn of time, just a few million years after the Big Bang.
The images shocked Dan Self.
“They will certainly lead to new discoveries,” he said.
Dr Self is Chairman of the Breckland Astronomical Observatory, a charity and stargazing society founded in 1993 by Spencer Allen. Its constitutional goal is to inspire people while providing astronomy to the public for free.
On a clear Tuesday evening shortly after the James Webb photos were published, I walked past a blood-red sunset to a cricket club in Great Ellingham to meet Dan. The dome of the observatory rose from the corner of the field like a great brain as the blue twilight filtered to black.
Dan pulled out the Dobsonian – a “light cube” that I’m told is the most affordable tool for amateur astronomers. We directed it to the rising moon. The scope revealed the most detailed perspective of lunar craters I can remember seeing.
Dan, 46, grew up in central Norwich and remembers visiting the old Colney observatory as a child. When Jupiter came out of the viewfinder, he tried to correct it, only to be scolded for touching the telescope!
But Dan’s imagination was really captured in 1996 when he came across an article in the Oriental Daily Press anticipating the arrival of a comet called Hyakutake that would be visible from Earth for the first time in 17,000 years. Armed with an old Zenit-B from Philip’s Cameras in Magdalen Street, Dan and his father traveled to a field outside Rackheath.
“We looked up and – wow! – the long tail was stretching overhead. It was incredible.”
And after Comet Hale-Bopp followed in 1997 with its two blue and white tails, Dan knew this was his calling. “I got a challenging PhD in meteorite chemistry soon after.”
At UEA, Dan guided ultraviolet lasers, which were “so much fun,” into high-pressure deuterium tubes. “We had to sign a disclaimer saying we wouldn’t make nuclear weapons.”
Instead of producing atomic warheads, Dan devoted his career to a different kind of thermonuclear energy: stars.
I squinted trying to spot Saturn and its rings shining in the viewfinder as we talked about Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin aerospace company, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet. Dan mentioned that satellites are affecting professional astronomers everywhere as they “destroy” astrophotography by disrupting long exposures and noisy radio transmissions around the world.
Next, I was invited to the observatory.
Built at the turn of the millennium, the Breckland Astronomical Observatory houses an electronically tracked 20-inch telescope that allows members to observe the universe.
“Our telescope is a precious resource for the community and is not used as often as it should be,” said Dan.
The observatory is open for individual or group tours, and hosts weekly member nights for socializing and monthly talks by experts from around the country.
“Society will benefit from anyone willing to learn. If you’re interested in astrophotography, we have a lot of experience to pass on.”
Astronomy is a notoriously difficult pursuit, especially in the UK.
“Time is never your friend as an astronomer,” Dan said. “According to my calculations, you only get good stargazing about 1% of the time.”
This is due to sunlight, moonlight, twilight and midsummer light interfering with our ability to see celestial bodies. When you also factor in other visibility issues and necessary activities like sleep and life commitments consuming precious stargazing time, there’s only a small window left to look up.
Despite these obstacles, Dan said it’s more than worth it.
“Your eyes are open to a universe of strange phenomena, like dark matter and neutron stars.
“It’s mind-boggling to try to wrap your head around the brightness of a supernova,” Dan said. “A scary analogy is to ask what would be brighter: a hydrogen bomb pressed against your eyeball or a supernova as far away as the sun?
“The answer is the supernova, but for billion times more!”
Dan’s favorite astral phenomenon is Lyra, a constellation in the northern sky.
“It’s a very small thing, with the star Vega super bright shining in the summer and the constellation of David’s Harp fairies floating slowly across the sky around it. I named my daughter after this”.
Around 1am, Dan points to the sky and spots Andromeda, our large nearest neighbor galaxy. I am in awe of their literacy with the ever-blooming infinity that swirls above and around us.
“I have been an astronomer since I was eight years old. With years of practice, it’s like knowing the engine of a car.”
The Andromeda Galaxy is 2.5 million light-years away, a star city filled with about a trillion stars hurtling toward the Milky Way at 68 miles per second.
“Eventually, we will merge with this galaxy.”
When I return to Norwich, my head is swimming with the incomprehensible multiplicity of outer space: noctilucent clouds, meteor dust, aurora borealis, supermassive black holes, pinwheel galaxies, crescent nebulae. Dan’s sense of wonder is contagious.
Many moons ago, Dan visited a family friend on Christmas 1986, who showed him the burning streak of Halley’s Comet in his binoculars. Halley is the only comet that can appear twice in a human lifetime.
Dan hopes he’ll still be looking up at the sky when he returns in 2061.
For more information visit brecklandastro.org.uk
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