My Journey in Astronomy – 5 Years Since It All Began!

My wife will tell you – I don’t get into hobbies lightly. I become engrossed in them, obsessed πŸ™‚ It becomes a passion, not just a hobby.

And so it was when in June 2004, I decided that I was going to start pursuing my interest in Astronomy and take it up as a hobby. Now, 5 years later – wow, what a journey it has been!

Rainbow of Comet McNaught

Rainbow of Comet McNaught. One of the major highlights of my time in Astronomy.

Writing this article has been quite a trip down memory lane.

Continue reading to find out how it all began, the ups and downs along the way, and my plans for the future.

My previous obsession/hobby was playing online games, which I’d been doing for about 4-5 years. In the early parts of 2004, I’d been learning a bit more about astronomy as a hobby and when my 3rd child (Abbey) came along, I found that I couldn’t put the required energy into both hobbies – I had to choose one. So I gave up online games and started pursuing amateur astronomy actively.

After much research, I started with a pair of binoculars (Saxon 11×70’s) so I could learn the sky and see whether I actually liked being outside at night – in the cold, with the mozzies, etc. It didn’t dampen my enthusiasm so in July 2004, I bought my first telescope – a 10″ dob from Bintel.

Me with my 10" dob on the night I put it together

Me with my 10" dob on the night I put it together

It was all so new and so exciting back then. Every time out with the scope was full of new experiences – the joy of learning, the fascination, the thrill of finding and observing a new galaxy or other object for the first time.

Coming from the world of online games, having your own website (for your group/”clan”) was pretty common so it wasn’t a great leap of faith for me to create my own website for my hobby.

What to call my personal space/astronomy website? My nickname in online games was ‘iceman’, so I called it “IceInSpace“! Seemed logical to me! πŸ™‚ My website started out as just my website – a place to have some pictures and info about my equipment, my observing reports and logs, a bit about me and some space-based news from around the web.

I found that my natural inclination was write things in a “how-to” way, so it wasn’t long before I started adding how-to type project articles to my site – based on my experiences with my 10″ dob. I’d been a member of Cloudy Nights astronomy forum for a little while, but realised that there was no local flavour. Again, my experiences with forums in online games meant that the idea of creating a local forum for astronomy wasn’t a huge leaf of faith – so in September 2004, I added a forum to IceInSpace and it officially became a community site.

While all this was going on, I was continuing to get out there with my 10″ dob and I was wanting to show others the great stuff I was seeing. So I started trying to take pictures of what I saw – using the family 2 megapixel digital camera, pointing into the eyepiece and snapping away. After research and failed attempts, I quickly found the limitations with the equipment I was using but I wanted more.

Afocal Imaging Setup

Afocal Imaging Setup

It was in December 2004 that I got my first webcam – the ToUcam Pro II, which I used to image the planets and the Moon with my 10″ Dob. I’d been reading on various forums that imaging with a Dob couldn’t be done, that it was impossible. That sounded like a challenge to me! A dob was all I had! So I worked on my techniques with the webcam and a point and shoot digital camera to take acceptable pictures of the moon and planets. In May 2005, I documented my findings and techniques in an article:

Astrophotography with a Dob

which has been used by thousands of people around the world (~30,000 views to-date) to help them enter the world of astrophotography, even if all they have is budget equipment and no tracking!

I’d reached the limit of what I could achieve without tracking but I still wanted more, so in July 2005 I bought an Equatorial Platform for my 10″ dob, which gave me the tracking I needed to go to the next level.

Equatorial Platform Imaging

Equatorial Platform Imaging

My images steadily improved as my skills improved in both capture and processing. I went through a stage of lots of trial and error, refining my techniques, learning off others and trying to extract the most out of my budget equipment and the data I captured.

In January 2006 I organised my first star party – the IceInSpace AstroCamp (IISAC2006) which has been an annual event since, and has been the venue for some of the most amazing things I’ve seen in my 5 years of Astronomy (including Comet McNaught! in January 2007).

I was fortunate enough to achieve my first APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day) in March 2006 for a Jupiter image and animation, which spurred me on to try and achieve more.

Jupiter and Red Jr. Click to play.

Jupiter and Red Jr. Click to play.

In June 2006, I documented the techniques I’d learned in planetary imaging and processing in a new article:

Planetary Imaging and Image Processing

which has been read over 22,000 times to help planetary imagers refine their workflow and get the most out of the data they’ve captured.

In December 2006, I upgraded to my current telescope – a 12″ Newtonian on an EQ6. This is my planetary imaging equipment I use in combination with a DMK21AU04, 5x powermate and Astronomik RGB filters – still to take images of the planets and the Moon.

Me and my 12" scope

Me and my 12" scope

In March 2007, I received my second APOD – again for an image and animation of Jupiter. This image has been my favourite Jupiter capture since then, and has received a number of awards and has been published many times. See my From the Vault: Dynamic Jupiter in Motion entry for this image to learn more about it.

Dynamic Jupiter in Motion. Click to play.

Dynamic Jupiter in Motion. Click to play.

Things continued to improve during 2007 as I received awards and encouragement from many sources. I started presenting talks as a guest speaker at astronomical societies, talking about my journey in planetary imaging and how to capture great images using budget equipment.

The Total Lunar Eclipse in August 2007 was a massive occassion, both personally and for IceInSpace. Records on IceInSpace were broken, I was published in the local newspaper (twice) and spoke on a few radio stations.

In January 2008, it seemed that nothing was out of reach when I was listed as a contributing author in an article in the Nature journal, thanks to some of my (and some other amateur imagers) Jupiter images being used in their scientific analysis.

In February 2008, I wrote my third planetary imaging article – this time on capturing and processing images using a monochrome camera.

RGB Planetary Imaging with a Monochrome Camera

But the rest of 2008 turned out to be a bit of a yo-yo, with a lot of ups and downs. A long and frustrating period of bad weather in the second half of 2008 meant I didn’t get a lot of imaging opportunities. Combine this with a thriving interest in my other hobby of Karate, and I started to question whether this astronomy thing was for me.

But I managed to push through the bad times with a bit of luck and good fortune. In September 2008, I achieved my 3rd APOD – this time with a simple camera+lens shot of an evening conjunction with my daughter Eliza posing as the model.

4 Rocky Planets in One Field of View

4 Rocky Planets in One Field of View

Also in September 2008, my baby, IceInSpace, passed another milestone – 5,000 registered members, and continues to grow at a record rate.

In October 2008, I launched this site, mikesalway.com.au as a place to post my images and share my thoughts.

The 3rd IceInSpace AstroCamp (IISAC2008) was held in October 2008 to 3 nights of clouds and rain, but literally the week before I managed to capture my best deep-space image using my Canon 350D and ED80.

M42 - The Great Orion Nebula

M42 - The Great Orion Nebula

Just when motivation was coming and going, along comes the Smiley Face Conjunction on the 1st December 2008. What a brilliant event. It got loads of people outside looking up and finding out more about astronomy. It helped me achieve my 4th APOD, with an image that very nearly didn’t happen thanks to clouds and rain.

Smiley Face Conjunction at Sunset

Smiley Face Conjunction at Sunset

2009 saw a renewed interest and passion for Astronomy, but the weather conditions continue to conspire against me for any high-res planetary or lunar imaging. Fortunately though, my widefield camera+lens imaging, combined with beautiful celestial events has kept my interest going.

In late February 2009, I captured a fantastic conjunction featuring the Moon, Jupiter, Mercury and Mars and was rewarded with my 5th APOD. Something I never thought possible 5 years ago when I looked at those images with admiration.

Moon, Jupiter, Mercury and Mars Conjunction

Moon, Jupiter, Mercury and Mars Conjunction

Now it’s June 2009, and another period of very cloudy and frustrating weather with bad seeing has been tested me these last few months, but so far my resolve is strong enough to push past it. Updating this site, and working on another project (to be announced in a few months) has kept me busy enough that the lack of imaging opportunities hasn’t pushed me over the edge just yet.

So, now it’s been 5 years with Astronomy as my hobby.

Through starting IceInSpace, I feel I’ve contributed a great deal to growing and building amateur astronomy in Australia.

Through my own imaging and articles, I feel I’ve helped a lot of astrophotographers improve their skills and produce better images.

I’m proud that I’ve made a difference.

What does the future hold?

Hopefully more of the same. While astrophotography continues to excite and challenge me, I’ll continue to try and capture better images. I’ll continue to help others to improve their images, and I’ll definitely continue to grow IceInSpace with some exciting changes coming up in the second half of 2009 (including IceInSpace’s 5th birthday!).

It’s unlikely I’ll change from my current scope/mount combination, as I just can’t afford it. But some of the things I’d like to do in the next few years:

  • I’d like to upgrade to a better, more sensitive planetary camera.
  • I’d like to capture sharper and more detailed views of the International Space Station.
  • I’d like to do more lunar imaging.
  • I’d like to capture more stunning wide field views of conjunctions using a camera and lens
  • I’d like to earn a few more APOD’s πŸ™‚
  • I’d like to modify my 350D and do some more deep-space imaging.
  • I’d like to view and photograph the Total Solar Eclipse in Cairns in 2012 (I’m planning to go!)

Hopefully I can achieve some, if not all of those.

Thanks for strolling down memory lane with me.

A list of most of my published images, awards and other information can be found on my About page, so please have a read there if you want to see more detail.

Thanks for reading, and I look forward to another 5 great years in this excellent and fascinating hobby.

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