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Friday, November 28, 2008

Amateur astronomer captures dawn of the universe from back garden observatory

By John Bingham

One of the pictures taken by astronomer Greg Parker from his back garden 'Portaloo' observatory
Photo: Barcroft

Stretching millions - even billions - of light years into space, this is not the usual view one might expect from the back of a house.

Yet these extraordinary images show what Greg Parker, an amateur astronomer, was able to record with an 11in telescope in his garden in the New Forest.

While some husbands choose to relax with a radio in their garden shed, the 54-year-old engineering professor makes nightly visits to a small white dome-shaped observatory to gaze at the stars.

Nicknamed "the Portaloo" by his wife and with more than a passing resemblance to a swing topped bin, the fibreglass structure sits wedged into decking on his patio.

But it has enabled him to capture images to rival even those from Nasa telescopes and his photographs have now been published in a new book, Space Vistas.

One star-like quasar he caught on camera through his reflecting telescope is just a shade under 12 billion light years away.

"That's almost at the beginning of the whole universe," he remarked casually.

Many of the images are the result of hundreds, even thousands of separate exposures each taking between one minute and 20 minutes.

They were taken with a specialised digital camera which is cooled down to allow for longer exposures, bolted on to the telescope.

He then emailed each picture to Noel Carboni, an expert in astrophotography based in Florida, and co-author of the book, who processed them to bring out details such as the dust and gas clouds known as nebulae which initially appear feint.

The swirling yellow, red and blue disc of the Andromeda Galaxy featured in the book, took several years and was the result of more than 40 hours of exposures.

"That's a close one, it is only 2.2 million light years away," he joked.

"In Galactic terms that's a day trip."

Prof Parker, whose full time job is teaching at Southampton University, describes the astronomy as a "hobby" dating back to childhood.

"I had a telescope when I was eight or nine," he said.

"But when I was 12 my parents wanted to see New Zealand so we spent a couple of years in New Zealand.

"When you see what real dark skies are like without light pollution it triggers something."

Among his admirers is Sir Patrick Moore, presenter of the BBC's The Sky At Night.

"The pictures are of real scientific value, and they are also works of art," Sir Patrick wrote in the foreword to the book.

"You will enjoy them, and you will learn a great deal from them, as I did."

But despite his success, Prof Parker has no plans to give up the academic life.

"When your hobby becomes your job it can sometimes lose its appeal so it is probably a good idea to keep it as an obsession," he said.

Original here

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