Australian amateur astronomer wins time on largest optical telescope in world

Posted on Jul 28 2011
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Winning the major astro-photography prize at the inaugural STARMUS festival was the opportunity of a lifetime for Australian amateur astronomer Alex Cherney.

It was not only a chance to rub shoulders with some of the world's most famous space explorers, but earned him a dream date with the largest optical telescope on the planet - 10.4 metre Gran Telescopio Canarias (GranTeCan), in Spain's Canary Islands.

STARMUS was held in June in the Canary Islands and is the first popular festival linking the disciplines of astronomy and the space sciences.

Mr Cherney's winning photographs earned him a trip to the festival and one hour using the GranTeCan telescope at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory.

To win the prize, Mr Cherney beat global entrants with his beautiful collection of time-lapse sequences of the Milky Way, seen over the Southern Ocean. He used an ordinary digital SLR camera, producing a compilation of images taken over 31 hours of exposure time.

Judges said Mr Cherney's scenes were "chosen with the eye of an artist", adding that the "subtle panning and excellent control of colour and contrast revealed technical skills of the highest order"

It is the first time an amateur astronomer has been allowed access to the world's largest telescope and Mr Cherney was keen to make the most of the opportunity. Garik Israelian, the director and founder of STARMUS Festival says, "Astrophotography competition is an important component of STARMUS festival.  We need new mechanisms and tools to create and inspire a young generation of amateur astronomers. This is the principal goal of STARMUS."

After much deliberation, Mr Cherney decided to use his hour to observe and photograph Arp84, a pair of interacting galaxies (NGC5394 and NGC5395).

"I wanted an object that would look nice given the parameters of the telescope (Field of View) and has not been photographed in colour and great detail by a professional telescope," he said.

Noel Carboni, astroimage processing expert from ProDigital Software, whom Mr Cherney met at the festival for the first time, kindly offered his expertise and helped to produce a startling colour image.  Mr Carboni feels this is the clearest image of Arp84 ever made.  Mr Cherney said the experience of using the telescope was "incredible", akin to taking a space flight.

"It is very hard to describe what it is like to observe space with an instrument helping scientists seek answers to the origin of the universe."

At the observatory on La Palma, Mr Cherney used the opportunity to produce another stunning time lapse video featuring GranTeCan and MAGIC (Major Atmospheric Gamma-ray Imaging Cherenkov Telescopes) with exceptional clarity and detail. Mr Cherney has dedicated this video to STARMUS. To see it online go to

Meeting renowned US astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong and Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov was a also a huge thrill, as was chatting to guitarist from the band 'Queen', Brian May, who is an astrophysicist.

To cap off the experience, Mr Cherney also celebrated his 36th birthday at the festival. Having invited guests at the gala dinner - including Neil Armstrong - sing him 'Happy Birthday' was a moment to remember.

STARMUS Festival, celebrated in Tenerife during the week 20-25 June, 2011, brought a whole new dimension to astronomy and space outreach. The Festival combined first-class talks by eminent speakers, a round-table discussion in the dome of the world's largest optical telescope GranTeCan, a star party at 2200 metres above sea level in Tenerife's spectacular Teide National Park and a magnificent concert.

It was a week of superlatives from the word go. The festival was opened by 11-year-old Kathryn Gray from Canada, the youngest ever discoverer of a supernova. There were four days of excellent presentations during the conference 'Discover the Cosmos and Change the World'. Speakers included two Nobel laureates (cosmologist  George Smoot and biologist Jack Szostak), SETI Director Jill Tarter, black hole guru Kip Thorne, biologist and renowned popular science writer Richard Dawkins and the discoverer of the first exoplanets Michel Mayor. STARMUS creator Garik Israelian presented a truly seismic performance with acoustic sounds recorded from real stars and Brian May gave a moving and sobering account of our record as a dominant species and urged that we clean our act up as we venture beyond the Earth's atmosphere.

But not only astronomy was covered during the week; equal time was given to space and astronautics. The dazzling line-up of space veterans and younger-generation spacefarers included Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Jim Lovell, Bill Anders and Charlie Duke, Russian cosmonauts Alexei Leonov (the first man to walk in space), Victor Gorbatko, Yuri Baturin and Sergei Zhukov, and ESA's Claude Nicollier (an astrophysicist and astronaut who flew missions to the Hubble Space Telescope).

The final day of STARMUS saw a moving 'Tribute to Gagarin', opened by Gagarin's colleague and close friend Alexei Leonov, followed by tributes from Apollo astronauts and Russian cosmonauts.

The Festival concluded with a spectacular concert ('Sonic Universe') by the legendary band Tangerine Dream at which there was a guest appearance by Brian May. STARMUS went out with a Bang to the beat of 'We will rock you!'.

Following the success of the first STARMUS festival, organisers are planning an even bigger and more spectacular event for the future.