On the night of July 19th, Australian astronomer Anthony Wesley was just regular guy, hanging out with his custom-built telescope, taking in the sights of Earth’s largest planetary neighbor. Now, a week later, his website‘s been Slashdotted, his name and images have been featured in blogs and newspapers around the world, and he has been recognized as the first person to lay eyes one of the largest and most powerful impacts to grace the Sol system since we’ve turned our collective eyes skyward. We caught up with the new rock star (pun intended) with 10 questions about the earth-sized collision, his new found fame, and his astronomy rig.
GD: How does it feel to be the first to see the Jupiter event? What were your first “out loud” words?
It still feels unbelievable. In hindsight the part of this that I feel happiest about was the fast reporting to alert others. The observing part came about naturally, I was just in the right place at the right time. But, the reporting required action on my part and a bit of a gamble that I was doing the right thing. At the time I wasn’t sure if I was just going to end up looking stupid but I was willing to take the chance.
First words out loud? Almost certainly not printable! I remember looking at this dark spot in the live feed from the camera and slowly coming around from puzzlement to disbelief and then to tremendous excitement, all in the space of about 15 minutes.
GD: How did you get into astronomy and astrophotography?
Astronomy, from a small telescope as a Christmas present when I was very young, maybe 10 years old. Also my science teacher at school recognised that there was a group of us who were dead keen on science & astronomy and managed to swing funds to buy a Celestron C8. In 1983 (and in a small country town in Australia) this was a big deal for him to do, and probably took a lot of the years budget. Nonetheless my friends and I had a great time for the next few years with that scope, including trying to photograph the Mars opposition of 1984.
That scope is still in use in Glen Innes high school as far as I know.
More recently the Mars opposition of 2003 saw me invest in a webcam and start imaging again, after a break of nearly 20 years. I even won 12th place in a Mars imaging competition run by OPT, the only time I’ve ever won anything!
GD: You have some pretty serious equipment and spend a lot of time observing. Does it bother you to be called an amateur?
Nope, by definition an amateur is not paid for his work, and this gives me the freedom to do whatever I want. That freedom has let me pursue my own agenda which in many cases has taken me down tracks different to accepted wisdom.
GD: You’ve built your own scope (called Nemesis, tres cool!). Was this a personal challenge? Why not buy a bigger scope?
Simply put, I haven’t found any of the commercial scopes within my budget that I like. Nemesis is an ongoing R&D project and there are a number of things about its design that I keep tinkering with to try and improve. For example, peltier cooling of the primary for boundary layer control, and the use of unpainted aluminum as the tube to avoid any tube currents. These sort of design changes lead to dramatically better images but never seem to be done in the commercial scopes sold to consumers, probably because they’re either (a) too difficult, (b) don’t look good or, my personal suspicion, (c) no-one is demanding them.
A lot of these techniques are standard on larger professional observatories and instruments.
GD: How long did it take to build Nemesis and if you don’t mind what was the final cost?
Nemesis is never finished! The cost is difficult to estimate, as some parts are re-used from the earlier scope (LEXX) which was in use until a few weeks ago. If I had to replace it all from scratch then I’d be up for something like $30k australian.
GD: You touched off a tsunami of observing after your discovery. What type of feedback have you received from the astronomical community, professional and other amateurs?
Nothing but excitement and congratulations from all over. I’ve had almost 1000 emails in the last few days, from all over the world and in several languages.
GD: What does your family think of your discovery and new celebrity status (in the astronomy world)?
This has caught everyone (me included) by surprise with the amount of international attention it’s garnered. I suspect that these type of impacts aren’t as rare as we thought, and there will be several more observed and analysed in the course of this century.
GD: If you could get time on any scope in the world, which one would it be?
Not directly answering your question, but I’d love to take my scope to the locations that are used by the professionals – high up in the Chilean Andes or on top of Mauna Kea.
GD: Any suggestions for other people thinking of buying their first scope or getting into astronomy?
Most important is to find your local club or society and get involved, meet other people who have been in the hobby for a while and can let you look through their scopes and pass on advice. Beginners in astronomy can easily fall into the trap of buying items that are advertised as telescopes but are really only suitable for young children and will immediately disappoint a keen adult or older child.
GD: What is your vision for the future of humans and space exploration in the next 20 – 30 years?
Personally I think we have no choice but to go hunting for resources someplace other than the Earth. Seems inevitable to me that we’ll exhaust the supplies of easy energy in the next 50 to 100 years and we better have found a means to replace it before it’s gone or we’ll end up caught without the time or means to develop an alternative. There are so many potential sources of power around in the solar system, from kinetic to thermal, that’s the obvious place to go looking fro the long term solution.