Monday, November 19, 2012

Amateur astronomer, Tom Boles, holds record for supernova discoveries

"Astronomer Tom’s years of reaching for the stars"

November 18th, 2012

Bury Free Press

World record breaking astronomer Tom Boles has discovered more supernovas than anyone in history, has had an asteroid named after him and has even had the Hubble space telescope moved to investigate his discoveries.

With this impressive stargazing resume you would think he works for NASA.

But he does it by himself - in the back garden of his home in the quiet village of Coddenham.

Armed with a set of four telescopes, hi-tech cameras and a bank of computers, Tom, 68, spends his nights scouring the sky for signs of exploding stars.

His love of astronomy began when he looked through a telescope for the first time more than 50 years ago.

“It was 1955 and when I was at school when I first looked through a telescope and I was instantly hooked” he said.

“Then in 1957 the Sky at Night with Patrick Moore started being broadcast on the BBC - it really was the ideal time to get involved in astronomy with so much inspiration about.”

Tom was born in Lennoxtown in Scotland. Opting not to go to university, Tom started work as a telescope designer for Charles Frank Ltd from whom many amateurs in the UK, including Tom himself, acquired their first telescopes.

After working there for seven years Tom changed career paths, working as a computer engineer and later holding director level positions with several multi-national companies.

But it has always been the mysteries of the universe that have gripped him.

And although his knowledge of the stars and astronomy is highly respected, he is almost entirely self-taught.

“Most of what I know about astronomy is from going to the library,” he said

“I did an evening class in astronomy at one point but most of what I know I have learnt myself.

“But experience is what helps you in recognising a supernova - it also stops you being so nervous when you report a discovery.

“I find it an advantage doing it myself out of my garden.

“When you need to use a big telescope, run by an organisation, you need to provide a justification for why you want to use it.

“But with me, if I want to do something and look at a particular galaxy, I can just do it.

“The Hubble telescope has been used to look at my supernovae – it’s an exciting but nervous experience.

“It puts a lot more pressure on you to be right.

“If you make a report on a supernova and it is wrong and the Hubble has been realigned to spot it, you are in trouble.

“I mean, it could be an asteroid, other planets or just imperfections in the pixels of the camera.

“I need to have multiple pictures taken on different nights just to make sure.”

Tom began hunting supernova in 1995 when living in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, where he made his first two discoveries.

But when flood-lit storage depots began popping up around the town’s outskirts, his view of the sky was ruined by the light pollution.

He decided to move, spending more than a year securing the perfect spot for looking at galaxies.

Tom moved to Coddenham with his wife Rita in 1997, installing his fibre glass dome observatory and laying plans for a bigger open-roofed observatory.

He said: “We looked at other areas to set up including Kent and Norfolk but ended up choosing Suffolk because we just liked it here.

“The secret is to get an area that is dark enough to study the sky and that has more clear nights.

“But it is less about getting really good nights to see the sky, more about consistency - it is about being able to see a galaxy regularly.”

Tom, a grandfather of five, goes through a painstaking process of taking pictures of galaxies through his telescopes and then comparing the images collected.

Any changes between the images could be an undiscovered supernova.

“I take a couple of thousand pictures every night and compare them with pictures I have on my hard drive.

“I have software that lines the images up - I then look for anything that has changed.

“I have four telescopes in total, three research telescopes and then one just for fun.

“They all look and take photos of different parts of the night sky.

I usually take around 4,000 pictures for every discovery I make.

“The closest thing I look at is at around 100 million light years away.

“That means by the time I have discovered something it had gone and vanished millions of years ago.

“I take images of 12,000 galaxies every year - I rotate which galaxies I am looking at.

“The telescopes I use are fully automated - it will find a galaxy and then track it through the sky.

“All I need to type in is the name of the galaxy and the computer will look up the co-ordinates and find it.”

Tom has has now discovered 150 supernovas in his 17 years as an amateur astronomer.

“I guess my most exciting discovery was in 2003, he said.

“I made a discovery which, at the time, was the second brightest supernova ever recorded.

“Hubble was directed at that discovery too.

“There were five space probes in the solar system at that time, including one that was flying past Mars, and all five were moved to look at it.”

But not all Tom’s discoveries have taken the same degree of care and attention.

“There was one supernova I discovered while I was at the pub,” he said

“It was a friend’s birthday and had promised I would go see him but it was such a clear night I couldn’t resist setting up the telescope up for a long programme before I set off.

“When I got back, one of the images showed a new supernova.

“I go on telling people how hard it is to discover supernovae and then go and find one while I am at the pub - it doesn’t look good!”

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