Dunsink Lane, Dublin 15, D15 XR2R

Meteors 2020: Interview with Michael O’Connell

From our regular blogger Qi Qi Kennedy, Masters student at UCD

Continuing to review the meteor project over the last few years at DIAS Dunsink Observatory, next on my list was Michael O’Connell (IFAS, Midlands Astronomy Club, NEMETODE Network, BAA). Michael runs his own observatory and is a member of the NEMETODE meteor network. I spoke to Michael about his passion for all things astronomy and astrophotography related, Astroshot Observatory and his involvement with DIAS Dunsink Observatory as a Citizen Scientist over the last number of years.  You can hear more from Michael on the 3rd of November, as part of the DIAS “Samhain Agus Science” series of online events.

Astroshot Observatory

Waxing gibbous Moon (credit: Michael O'Connell)
10-day waxing gibbous Moon taken with a refractor telescope and planetary camera from Astroshot Observatory in Kildare on the 1st June 2020. The image gives a good idea of what can be seen through the eyepiece of an amateur telescope.

Michael first became interested in astronomy as a child. The area where he grew up had very dark skies and it was the wonder of the planets and stars in the sky above that sparked his interest. So today Michael runs his own observatory, established 14 years ago and registered with the IAU, called Astroshot Observatory in County Kildare. He told me his first observatory consisted of a converted garden shed with a sliding roof, telescope and mount. As he became more involved and learned more he wanted and needed bigger and better telescopes. Eventually these telescopes got too big for his “garden shed” observatory. So he treated himself and bought a small dome which gave him a lot more usable space to develop his observing skills (all the photos on this blog are taken by Michael). 

In his observatory, Michael has a Celestron C14 Telescope on a computerised Paramount Equatorial Mount. He also has an SBIG CCD camera and some planetary cameras.  An example of this is a DMK camera which takes a lot of very short exposures and is used for imaging the Sun and the Moon. It takes a video recording with 1000 frames that are stacked together to get a much sharper image.

Prominence on the edge of the Sun's disc (Credit: Michael O'Connell)
Prominence (eruption) on the edge of the Sun’s disc taken on the 2nd June 2020. The material is hot plasma blown off the Sun and is linked to the Sun at either end through magnetic fields. This image is in H-Alpha light and was taken with a planetary camera and refractor telescope from Astroshot Observatory in Kildare. Earth is shown to scale.

A further interest of Michael’s is asteroid occultation of stars. This is where the predicted path of an asteroid blocks out, or eclipses, a background star. Computer software can predict when these events occur when seen from Astroshot Observatory, and Michael records the asteroid with an analog CCTV camera. This is a very precisely time-synchronised process, and gives information on the size and shape of the asteroid, as well as improving how accurately its orbit is known.

DIAS Dunsink Observatory

Michael’s involvement with DIAS Dunsink Observatory started 10-12 years ago and during this time he has been an enormous asset to the Citizen Science platform formed through many people and partners in the Irish Astronomical societies here in Ireland. Michael began as part of this group by founding SolarFest in 2009, designed as an event for both professional and amateur astronomers in Ireland (and beyond) to come together to discuss and learn about Solar Astronomy. The aim is to encourage amateur astronomers to connect with the professional community, to share and learn from each other, and to pass this knowledge on to members of the public and the school community. Michael says this gets “all three elements of the community actively connected”.


A bright meteor from the 29th January 2019 with it’s spectrum on either side, taken from Astroshot Observatory with a sensitive cctv camera, and 500 lines/mm diffraction grating in front of the lens. The spectrum reveals the elements the meteor is composed of: Iron, Calcium, Magnesium, Sodium and Silicon.

Michael is very involved with the NEMETODE meteor network, a group of amateur astronomers in Ireland, the UK and northern France, including volunteers like DIAS members Jonathan Mackey and Sam Green. Members of the group have cameras pointed at the night sky that work on the basis of motion detection. They pick up a meteor, or shooting star, passing through the field of view and save a recording. From those recordings the group can analyse where the meteors come from and trace those orbits back out into the distant solar system. Even though a shooting star or meteor will only last for one or two seconds, the video recording provides enough information to trace its trajectory back to where it originally came from in our Solar System. 

Citizen Science

‘Strawberry’ Full Moon rising on the 5th June 2020. Taken from Astroshot Observatory in Kildare with a camera lens and DSLR.

As an active member of the Irish Federation of Astronomical Societies (IFAS)  Michael is also involved with astronomy clubs across the country. These clubs organise their own local events and star parties, with observing sessions such as “sidewalk astronomy.” Michael advises members of the general public to log onto the page to find their local organisations. These organisations are run by generous, practical, sociable people who are very interested in sharing their love and knowledge of astronomy with members of the public both young and old, and Michael strongly encourages anyone who is interested to get involved. In these times of COVID-19 it is quite challenging to host events but there are plenty of online events. 

Michael thinks Citizen Science is important because it forms a connection between the academic and amateur astronomer communities and members of the general public. Professional research has reached a level of sophistication that can sometimes make it difficult to understand and to share this with society. The amateur astronomers have a passion for astronomy and a good local connection. They can carry out elements of research into astronomy that perhaps the academic community may not have the time or equipment for, and the NEMETODE Network is a great example of this. By continuously monitoring the night sky from a variety of locations using fairly simple equipment, they carry out detailed analysis of meteors, where they’re coming from and how the meteor showers vary from year to year. They can link up with the professional community to better understand why these patterns are changing. In their locality they give public talks to try and share these published results and their information of what they are learning. Michael says, “it’s important to have that full connection between the fantastic research that’s done in our top institutes in Ireland and then to have that middle ground with members of the public as well to get the full connection going.”

Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) taken from Portarlington, Co. Laois (Credit: Michael O'Connell).
Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) taken from Portarlington, Co. Laois on the 11th July 2020 with a camera lens and DSLR.

Organising, speaking at, and volunteering at many events at Dunsink Observatory with the volunteering group there has given Michael, as he says, “a fantastic opportunity to discuss many aspects of observational and practical astronomy with the great group of people there.” Michael says, “for anyone who hasn’t been to an astronomical society event before now should not be afraid to reach out to their local club and maybe develop a hobby for the future for themselves and their family and to log onto to find a list of clubs in your local area.” His final words of our interview: “to reach out and connect to them.”

COVID-19 has made 2020 a difficult year for organised events, but we hope to welcome back Michael and old and new friends to Dunsink Observatory in 2021.