From our regular blogger Qi Qi Kennedy, Masters student at UCD
Continuing on the review of the meteors project over the last few years at DIAS Dunsink Observatory, next on my list was citizen scientist Mike Foylan, member of the British Astronomical Association, NEMETODE Network, Kingsland Observatory. Mike also runs his own observatory, called Cherryvalley Observatory in County Meath, Ireland and is a member of the NEMETODE meteor network. When I spoke to Mike I discovered his passion for astronomy, Cherryvalley Observatory and his involvement over the many years with DIAS Dunsink Observatory.
Mike first became interested in astronomy when he was five years old. He lived in a small town in County Meath with very little light pollution and, when on a walk with his older sister, he looked up at the stars and thought, â€œWow! This is amazing!â€ From then on he wanted to find out more, and later to question and understand the science of the night sky.
A lot of Mikeâ€™s astronomy knowledge was gained through reading books and journals from his local library, as astronomy was not taught in schools at that stage. He thinks adding astronomy to the curriculum is a great addition to the educational system here in Ireland. Mike started his hobby in astronomy making quantitative measurements of asteroids and stars and so learning about photometry and astrometry.
Mike established Cherryvalley Observatory in County Meath in 2010. He submitted his first observations of asteroids in 2011, including measurements and their positions, to the Minor Planet Center. Mike says, â€œyour first submission is always the most scary because youâ€™re submitting your results, your data, to professionalsâ€. After this submission Mike was awarded his observatory code (I83) and full recognition. Cherryvalley observatory has a number of authored and co-authored peer reviewed papers published in the Minor Planet Bulletin, Journal of the British Astronomical Association and the WGN, the Journal of the International Meteor Organisation (IMO) in collaboration with colleagues and friends from the UK, USA, Italy and Ireland. Mike finds it fascinating, interesting, enlightening and fun to do astronomy, and to share his knowledge freely with others.
In his observatory Mike installed a 200mm (8-inch) diameter Schmidt-Cassegrain Telescope (SCT), with a corrector lens attached to give a wider field of view. He says, â€œA wide field of view is much better because then you can get many comparison stars in the same field of view as the object you are observingâ€. Mike has a cooled CCD camera dedicated to astronomical imaging and measurements. He also has a Celestron CG5 mount, modified to be computer controlled. Mike says, â€œYou donâ€™t have to spend a lot of money, you can get pretty good stuff secondhand, and you can build your observatory with this.â€
On a typical observing run, Mike looks for asteroids that are approaching opposition. This means that the Sun, Earth and the asteroid are almost in a line, and the asteroid is at its brightest. Mike plans the asteroids he is going to target: he finds out what time they are rising at, their location in the sky and how long he can track them across the sky. Following this he sets up his equipment and programmes his telescope system to look at specific asteroids and record the images and make the measurements required. This can take up to a few weeks depending on the asteroid. Mike uses various software packages to process the data taken from these observations. For data acquisition (capturing the images and tracking the sky) he uses â€œThe Sky Sixâ€ software and â€œCCDSoftâ€. For processing the images and making measurements he uses Minor Planet Observer Canopus. Mike says â€œthe hardest part is actually processing all the dataâ€, something all astronomers, professional and amateur, can relate to!
Involvement with DIAS Dunsink Observatory
Mikeâ€™s involvement with DIAS Dunsink Observatory began at a Public Open Night quite a few years ago. He remembers being really impressed by the historic Grubb Telescope, and the historical significance of the observatory for Ireland. He enjoyed meeting other people with a similar interest in astronomy, and through this he got to know the Citizen Science volunteering group at DIAS Dunsink Observatory. He was delighted then to be asked to give a talk on his work. This was Mikeâ€™s first time to give a detailed talk to the general public about the astronomy work he carries out, and he enjoyed it immensely. Mike learned a lot from being around Dunsink Observatory discussing with the Citizen Science volunteering group there, and this gave him huge encouragement to carry on developing his skills further. He says that he learned a lot about presenting his knowledge in a way suitable to different audiences over the years.
Mike first got involved with meteor cameras in 2007, after meeting Apostolos (Tolis) Christou, astronomer at Armagh Observatory and expert in meteor observing and Solar System objects. He gave Mike a lot of advice about starting up, equipment and software. Since then Michael Oâ€™Connell, Mike and others got together to form a network called NEMETODE. This network has lots of members in Ireland, the UK, Northern Ireland, and the North of France. Mike says, â€œItâ€™s great to have that kind of group of people because in the early days we were starting out from scratch. Itâ€™s great to meet people with the same interests, and to teach, learn and work together to grow a really good networkâ€. Mike gives some public talks on meteors, including in the national primary school system and has carried out some astronomy-related experiments with the teachers and pupils. Mike says, â€œItâ€™s been an interesting road, getting what I do and my interests across to other people. Itâ€™s been a good experience overall.â€
Mike says Citizen Science is really important, including having Public Open Nights and outreach projects in schools, colleges and outside. It brings living, active science to people of all ages. He says, â€œIâ€™ve seen families on Public Open Nights at Dunsink and children are often asking the best questionsâ€. He says itâ€™s a really great opportunity to talk to people from the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) and associated people like him about the work they do. Mike tries to attend the Irish National Astronomy Meeting as often as possible. He says, â€œall these opportunities are great as part of the Citizen Science Outreach Programmes. It just gives the opportunity for everybody to get involvedâ€. Mike says that visiting places such as DIAS Dunsink Observatory, as well as talking to researchers from DIAS and the amateur astronomy community, instils a sense of excitement and thirst for knowledge. He says that the opportunity for young people to come to places like Dunsink Observatory is really important, and can inspire the next generation to take up a career in science.