John Dobson: Grandfather of Modern Amateur Astronomy
John Dobson, who revolutionized the design of amateur telescopes, holds his daylight-safe sun telescope at Strathcona Park, Ottawa, Canada, in 1988
Copyright: Mark Gee/National Maritime Museum
Traveling through capital cities is always a stressful occasion and this time was no exception. I had left myself a whole hour to get from the train station to the Royal Observatory Greenwich in London for The Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2013, and it seems an hour was only just enough! But once I'd arrived, I settled back in the very comfortable seats of the Peter Harrison Planetarium and the lights dimmed as the winning photographs were presented to the excited audience. There was a tangible buzz as the images appeared right over our heads on the inside of the planetarium dome against a beautiful background of glittering stars.
This years winners did not disappoint, there was a wide range of skills and techniques on show from the stunning "Deep Space" category where the photos had taken literally days to capture and process to the simple yet enigmatically beautiful "People and Space" category. As I watched the beautiful images appearing above me it reminded me just how powerful images of space can be in communicating the wonder of the Universe. The shortlisted photographs entered into the competition came from 49 countries. The overall winning image was taken by Mark Gee from Australia and was titled 'Guiding Light to the Stars' (shown here), depicting the stunning sight of the Milky Way with a glowing beacon of a lighthouse to the right of the scene. The composition reflects the way the stars used to be employed as a way of navigation in contrast to modern navigation techniques. Mark's image also won the "Earth and Space" category.
Copyright: Adam Block/National Maritime Museum
Adam Block from the United States won the Deep Space category with his image called "Celestial Impasto." The picture beautifully captures the delicate shades in the dust and dark nebulae of Sh2-239 in the Taurus molecular cloud about 450 light-years away.
Copyright: Man-To Hui/National Maritime Museum
The winner of the "Solar System" category was Man-To Hui from China with this beautifully captured image of the Australian solar eclipse of 2012. Phenomenal levels of detail can be seen in the usually hidden solar corona which can only be seen at the moment of totality during a solar eclipse.
Copyright: Jacob Marchio/National Maritime Museum
Jacob Marchio from the United States was the winner of the Young Astronomy Photographer of the Year and at the age of 14 was able to capture this beautiful image captioned simply "The Milky Way." The image is a beautiful reminder of our place in the Universe as the stars from our galaxy shine with a lovely warm glow.
Copyright: Mark Gee/National Maritime Museum
There were three special categories too this year, the first "People and Space" was won by Mark Gee with this beautifully composed image of an observation platform silhouetted against the moon. Mark took this picture from a distance of about 3 kilometers and used a zoom lens to get the shot.
Copyright: Sam Cornwell/National Maritime Museum
The winner of the Sir Patrick Moore Prize for Best Newcomer was Sam Cornwell form the UK who managed, against the odds of the British weather, to capture a glimpse of the 2012 Venus transit just before it finished. The cloud really adds atmosphere to the picture and wonderfully represents the challenges facing astronomers suffering adverse weather conditions.
Copyright: László Francsics/National Maritime Museum
The Robotic Scope Image of the Year was picked up by László Francsics from Hungary with an amazing picture of the famous Trapezium Cluster in the Orion Nebula.
Copyright: Fredrik Broms/National Maritime Museum
The shifting lights of the Aurora Borealis can take on many shapes and forms as they are molded by the Earth’s complex magnetic field. Sheets and planes of glowing gas appear to be twisted into a giant vortex above Grøtfjord in Norway.
Copyright: Dani Caxete/National Maritime Museum
All of the light which reaches the ground from space must first travel through the Earth’s atmosphere. During its journey the light can be altered by all sorts of atmospheric phenomena. Tiny ice crystals high above the ground refract the moonlight diverting it into a number of beautiful halos.
Copyright: Fredrik Broms/National Maritime Museum
Like the snowy mountains in the foreground, the nucleus of Comet Panstarrs is composed largely of ice and rock. The nucleus itself is just a few kilometers across but as it neared the Sun in early 2013, ice evaporating from the surface formed a tail of gas and dust hundreds of thousands of kilometers long.
Copyright: David Kingham/National Maritime Museum
A great deal of careful planning, a long night of photography and hours of painstaking image processing have gone into creating this startling composite image of the Perseid meteor shower. The Perseid meteors get their name from the constellation of Perseus from where they appear to come. However, even at the peak of the shower it is impossible to predict exactly when or where the next meteor will appear. The photographer has combined 23 individual stills to convey the excitement and dynamism of this natural firework display.
Copyright: Tom O’Donoghue/National Maritime Museum
The smoky appearance of the dust clouds in this image is fitting, since the grains of dust which make up the nebula are similar in size to particles of smoke here on Earth. The dust can reflect the light of nearby stars, as seen in the blue and yellow regions. It can also block and absorb the light of more distant stars, appearing brown and black in this image. To the right a bright star is ionizing a cloud of hydrogen gas, causing it to glow red, while below it far in the distance, is a globular cluster containing thousands of stars.
Copyright: Michael Sidonio/National Maritime Museum
First discovered by astronomer Caroline Herschel in 1783, NGC 253 is a rare example of a ‘starburst galaxy’ with new stars being formed at many times the rate in our own galaxy, the Milky Way. Its mottled appearance comes from extensive lanes of dust which thread through the galactic disk. These are studded with many red clouds of ionized hydrogen gas, marking the sites where new stars are being born.
Copyright: Ivan Eder/National Maritime Museum
Lying at a distance of twelve million light years from Earth, M81 and M82 are galaxies with a difference. Close encounters between the two objects have forced gas down into their central regions. In M81 this influx of gas is being devoured by a supermassive black hole. In neighboring M82 the gas is fueling a burst of new star formation which in turn is blasting clouds of hydrogen (shown in red) back out into space.
Copyright: Diaz Bobillo/National Maritime Museum
Omega Centauri is a globular cluster, a spherical cloud containing several million stars. As this image shows, the stars are more densely clustered towards the center. The pronounced red color of several of the stars gives away the cluster’s great age: it is thought to have been formed billions of years ago. The cluster was first noted by the astronomer Ptolemy almost 2000 years ago and cataloged by Astronomer Royal Edmond Halley in 1677.
Copyright: Ariana Bernal/National Maritime Museum
The awesome scale presented in this image depicts what as far as we’re concerned, are the three most significant objects in the Universe. The Sun and Moon each play an important role to us on Earth, and both are seen here, reddened by our vital atmosphere, presiding over the horizon. The third object is the Earth itself, and here its land, sea and sky meet around an amazing human megastructure, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
Copyright: Samuel Copley/National Maritime Museum
The Great Nebula, also referred to as The Orion Nebula and M42 is found in the well-known constellation of Orion, just below the hunter’s belt. To the naked eye the nebula looks like another star in Orion’s sword. However, this skilful young photographer has shown there is more to it than meets the eye by producing this beautiful image that not only shows the stunning formation of this popularly observed nebula but also it diffuse nature.
Copyright: Jacob Marchio/National Maritime Museum
The Moon seems to be emerging from the interplanetary darkness, and the young photographer has captured the contrast been the dark lava-filled lunar ‘seas’ and the mountainous southern highlands.
Copyright: Eric Dewar/National Maritime Museum
By keeping the camera shutter open this young photographer gathers precious light, making the desert scenery seem as bright as day. But the stars in the blue sky give the game away, showing that this dramatic photograph was actually taken in the middle of the night.
Copyright: Ben Canales/National Maritime Museum
Appearing like a column of smoke rising from the horizon, a dark lane of dust marks the plane of the Milky Way in this photograph. This dust plays a vital role in the life story of our galaxy. Formed from the ashes of dead and dying stars, the dust clouds are also the regions in which new stars will form.
Copyright: Alan Friedman/National Maritime Museum
The darkest patches or ‘umbrae’ in this image are each about the size of Earth, with the entire region of magnetic turmoil spanning the diameter of ten Earths. This image captures rich details directly around the sunspots, and further out in the so-called ‘quiet’ Sun where simmering hot plasma rises, cools and falls back. This produces a patchwork surface like a pot of boiling water, but on an epic scale – each bubbling granule is about the size of France.
Copyright: Ignacio Diaz Bobillo/National Maritime Museum
At a glance, this image may seem like a post-processed montage of objects from three separate images. However the truth is that they were all captured together providing the viewer with an amazing view of the Solar System, galaxy and Universe. Comet Lemmon only comes into our neighborhood every 11,000 years, racing around our Sun and back out to the far reaches of the Solar System. The light from the globular cluster in the center of this image took a journey of over 16,000 years to reach Earth. The furthest object in the image is a dwarf galaxy called the Small Magellanic Cloud whose starlight takes 200,000 years to reach us.
Copyright: Jia Hao/National Maritime Museum
The Moon’s orbit about the Earth is not perfectly circular, so that at different times the Moon can be slightly closer or further away than usual. If the Moon passes in front of the Sun when it is at its furthest point, it will appear to be too small to entirely cover the solar disc. This is an ‘annular eclipse’ in which a ring, or annulus, of the Sun remains visible. This composite shot shows the progress of an annular eclipse in May 2013. Close to the horizon the distorting effects of Earth’s atmosphere can also be seen.
Copyright: Damian Peach/National Maritime Museum
This incredibly sharp portrait brilliantly captures the jewel of our solar system, revealing the subtle banding around the orb that results from the planet’s weather. It also shows the exquisite gradation of brightness and color in the planet’s rings. The ultra-faint inner ‘D-Ring’ and outermost Encke gap are clearly visible. The hexagonal storm at the North Pole – a scientific curiosity – shows off three of its angular kinks. Images with this much clarity challenge our ideas of what can be achieved with amateur telescopes.
Full resolution versions of these photographs can be found on the National Maritime Museum (www.rmg.co.uk/astrophoto). All photographs are credited to the respective photographers and the National Maritime Museum. Photo captions for the winning entries are written by Mark Thompson; captions for runners up and highly commended entries are courtesy of the National Maritime Museum and Astronomical Photographer of the Year 2013.
I became interested in astronomy 10 years-old when I saw Saturn through a telescope at my local astronomy society. As a youngster interested in astronomy, cash was in limited supply so as I grew older, my parents helped to subsidize an attempt at making my own telescope. It was a 15 centimeter Dobsonian Newtonian reflecting telescope.
The "Newtonian reflector" phrase describes the optical design of the instrument, while the term "Dobsonian" refers to the style of the mount. It was a beautifully simple style of mount that allowed even me as a young teenager a chance at making one myself out of wood.
Little did I realize at the time that the man who invented it was himself an amateur astronomer.
John Dobson was born in China on Sept. 14, 1915, and his family moved to California in 1927. There he spent 23 years in a monastery even though as a teen he was a self-proclaimed 'belligerent atheist.' He achieved a Masters Degree in Chemistry in 1943 at the age of 28 and just a year later became a monk of the Ramakrishna Order.
Because of his growing interest in the Universe, he was tasked with reconciling astronomy with the teachings of the Order. This ultimately led to him developing an interest in building simple telescopes through which he would share the views of the heavens with neighbors of the monastery.
His sideline interest in telescope building led him to communicate with others outside the monastery that were interested in his work and for this, he developed a code to attract less attention. Instead of referring to telescopes, he wrote about 'geraniums' instead; a 'potted geranium' was a telescope that was fitted to its rocker box (part of the Dobsonian mount) and a 'geranium in bloom' was a telescope that had an aluminumized mirror.
Clearly his passion was elsewhere, so he was forced to choose between the monastery or his telescopes. Thankfully for the rest of the world, he chose the latter.
John Dobson invites people to look through his telescope "Little One", along with his sun telescope, on a street corner in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco in 1989.Corbis
Dobson's telescope design soon became world renowned amongst amateur astronomers who continue to this day to build his telescope. The simplicity of the design makes them cheap to build so a popular choice among newcomers, but the design is scalable allowing the design to work well for large instruments. In fact, among amateur telescopes, I don't think I have seen many telescopes over 35 centimeters aperture that are not of the Dobsonian design.
Sadly, John Dobson passed away last month on Jan. 15, 2014 at the age of 98. Not only did he leave behind one of the most revolutionary telescope designs but he also leaves behind a wonderful trend in taking astronomy and the beauty of the Universe out to the people.
In 1967 he co-founded the San-Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers. The concept was simple: take some simple telescopes, set them up on the sidewalk on a clear night and let passes by look through them and discuss the wonders of the night sky. Over the years, Dobson inspired thousands of people not only to look up to the heavens but also to have a go at building their own telescopes.
What a wonderful legacy, left behind by a truly inspirational man; a man that in my opinion is without doubt one of the grandfathers of modern amateur astronomy.