Backyard astronomers win recognition from the professionals

Astronomical Society of Australia (ASA), Media releases

200 supernovae found by six mates – enabling discoveries about the evolution of stars and the ingredients of life

Ex-miner from Broken Hill discovers a massive electrical storm on Saturn and guides NASA mission

Two amateur astronomy projects were awarded the 2022 Page Medal on Saturday 16 April at the National Australian Convention of Amateur Astronomers held online.

The six friends who make up The Backyard Observatory Supernova Search (BOSS) Team monitor distant galaxies to detect the death throes of massive stars as they explode in brilliant supernovae. The team then alerts professional telescopes to swing into action and study these phenomena at the crucial moment. The sooner those observations begin, the more is learnt about the lead up to the star’s final moments.

Without supernovae shedding their material across space, there wouldn’t have been any ingredients available for life or even for planets like the Earth to develop. The BOSS Team make their observations from backyards in Brisbane, on the Gold Coast and from a dairy farm near Christchurch, New Zealand. The team are Pat Pearl, Stu Parker, Greg Bock, Peter Marples, Colin Drescher and Brendan Downs.

“We’ve discovered about 200 confirmed supernova over the years,” says BOSS member Greg Bock.

In 2008, former mine worker Trevor Barry found a white spot on Saturn, which turned out to be an electrical storm.

“The CASSINI space craft orbiting Saturn couldn’t image the storm on a day-to-day basis, due to its orbit and other priorities. I could,” says Trevor. The storm swirled for seven months, making it the longest-lived storm ever recorded on Saturn. Trevor continues to provide storm data to NASA and others about Saturn, Jupiter and Mars.

The Page Medal is awarded every two years by the Astronomical Society of Australia (ASA) to recognise scientific contributions that have advanced the field of astronomy. It was established to honour Berenice and Arthur Page, a wife-and-husband team who were amateur pioneers of astronomy in Australia and foundation members of the ASA.

ASA President Professor John Lattanzio says that this year’s winners demonstrate the scientific value of amateurs who can continuously observe their targets.

“Professional telescopes have their time fully allocated, plotted minute by minute, months in advance. Whereas these dedicated and highly skilled amateurs can monitor their targets on the chance something interesting happens – and that’s where the value lies,” says John.

“The winners are truly outstanding and well-deserving, and it was impossible to differentiate between their contribution to advancement of astronomy. Hence, the decision to make two awards for the first time in the prize history,” he says.

Trevor Barry says he’ll keep watching Saturn for as long as he’s alive. “I’m waiting for the next big thing to happen, because Saturn can be a bit staid. It’s not rambunctious like Jupiter, he says.

“I’m so honoured by this award. It’s the highest honour that the peak professional body in Australia can bestow on an amateur. It’s humbling to me,” says Trevor.

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Greg Bock with his Meade 14LX200R telescope
Trevor Barry at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii

Supporting information

2022 Winners of the ASA Page Medal

Trevor Barry – for a broad range of planetary science, and in particular observations of Saturn’s North Polar Hexagon over 3115 Earth days

Trevor Barry single-handedly built an observatory in Broken Hill. This amateur observatory is capable of providing state-of-the-art planetary imagery. On its own, this is a significant achievement.

Trevor’s work on the differential rotation of the polar hexagon on Saturn gives a greater handle on the internal atmospheric dynamics. This is careful work, and it complements spacecraft measurements. Trevor’s work is widely known and highly regarded by NASA.

The difference and contribution that Trevor makes is the ability to almost continuously observe Saturn and analyse dynamic process over hours, days and weeks. This is something HST or satellite missions cannot do. 

Backyard Observatory Supernova Search (BOSS) team for a coordinated, collaborative program with a focus on supernovae studies

The BOSS Team is a well-coordinated, collaborative program with a focus on supernovae studies. The coordination of the team is what makes its achievement unique.

They are able to monitor many galaxies and detect supernovae in their early stages, often way ahead of professional programs.

The importance of the initial discoveries and tracing the light curves has led to an impressive sweep of late stellar evolution science. It also led to cooperation with Purdue University and had impact on their REFITT program.

The 2022 Berenice and Arthur Page Medal

The Berenice and Arthur Page Medal is awarded every two years by the Astronomical Society of Australia (ASA).  The Medal recognises excellence in amateur astronomy in Australia and its territories, based on scientific contributions which have served to advance astronomy.

The award was established in 1972 as the Berenice Page Medal, through a bequest by the late Mrs Berenice Page of Brisbane. The nature of the award was developed with the support and consultation of Berenice’s husband, Arthur Page.

Berenice and Arthur were exceptional amateur astronomers and foundation members of the ASA. Formed in 1966, the ASA is the organisation for professional astronomers in Australia. The Pages were readily accepted as members of the society because of the indispensable part they played in the IAU Flare Star Programme in the 1960’s. This work involved collaborating with astronomers from the CSIRO Division of Radiophysics to observe the spectacular and unpredictable outbursts of stars.

Arthur Page remained an ASA member until his death in 2011 and, with his family’s consent, the ASA renamed the award as the Berenice and Arthur Page Medal, to honour the achievements and dedication of both Berenice and Arthur towards astronomy.

Berenice Rose was trained as a pharmaceutical chemist, graduating in 1951.  She moved up through the profession and was managing her own pharmacy in Brisbane in the late 1960’s.  Throughout this time she had a deep interest in astronomy, building her own 22.5cm Newtonian telescope in the 1950’s. 

Arthur Page was fascinated by astronomy from an early age. His family came to Australia in 1941, fleeing Japan during World War II. He joined the Australian Army, where his astronomy knowledge proved to be life-saving. His patrol unit became lost in the swampy jungle of New Guinea and Arthur, to his Commander’s amazement, used the Sun and stars to guide the unit to safety.

Many years later, in 1954, Arthur built a 15-cm Newtonian telescope for the purpose of astrophotography. Bart Bok, then Director of Mount Stromlo Observatory, was so impressed with the results that Arthur was invited to work at the observatory as a Visiting Observer.

Arthur later returned to Brisbane and met Berenice in 1963 when they worked together on the IAU Flare Star Programme. They were married the following year, and together established the Page Observatory near Brisbane, constructing a 31cm Schmidt for photographic observations, mainly of flare stars.

Berenice and Arthur contributed a great deal to astronomy throughout the 1960’s.  Sadly, at the height of her career, Berenice was struck down by a cerebral haemorrhage and died in July 1970 at just over 40 years of age.  The amateur and professional astronomical communities suffered a severe blow and felt a deep sense of loss.  Members of the ASA learnt with gratitude of Berenice’s wish to leave a portion of her estate to the ASA for the advancement of astronomy in Australia.

In 1971, Arthur built a new observatory on Mount Tamborine, south of Brisbane. His astronomy work was prolific, including the publication of the Atlas of Flare Stars Within the Solar Neighbourhood in 1988. In 1993, his observatory was moved to Mount Kent, near Toowoomba, with help from the University of Queensland and the University of Southern Queensland. The University of Southern Queensland now operates the observatory for stellar photometry and as a teaching tool for students.

The Medal was first awarded in May 1973 and now stands as an impressive record of outstanding Australian amateur astronomers.

The most recent award in 2020, was made to TG Tan who designed, built and operates the Perth Exoplanet Survey Telescope Observatory.

TG has co-discovered more than 70 exoplanets so far, including one potentially habitable planet. He has collaborated and published with many of the world’s professional exoplanet search teams and is currently a member of the Follow-up Observing Program for NASA’s TESS mission working to confirm TESS planet candidates. TG has developed novel observing and analysis techniques that he has shared freely with the amateur astronomy community.

Astronomy is unique in the extent to which amateurs and professionals can work together to build knowledge. Amateur astronomers have played an indispensable role in many research teams. There are a large number of phenomena in the sky to observe and a much smaller number of instruments to make those observations. Amateur astronomers help fill this gap and their work is greatly valued by professional astronomers and the ASA.

Astronomy also advances by keeping the public informed of astronomical events and great contributions are made by amateurs in this area through their tireless efforts. Professional astronomers are keenly aware of the importance of an informed and interested public, as they depend on public support through the Australian Government. Australian astronomy has been generously supported in the past and this is likely to continue if the public remain interested in and excited by, the contributions made by all astronomers.

Previous Winners

2020       Mr Thiam-Guan ‘TG’ Tan – Perth Exoplanet Survey Telescope observations

2018       Prof David Moriarty – eclipsing binaries & its application to models of stellar evolution

2016       Dr Roy Axelsen – photometric observations & the Fourier analysis of Delta Scuti variables

2014       Prof Tim Napier-Munn – precision modelling to resolve binary stars

2012       Mr Anthony Wesley – observations of transitory events in the atmospheres of Jupiter & Saturn

2010      Mr David Gault – significant observations of Pluto occultations

2008      Mr John Broughton – the systematic survey of Near Earth Objects, including numerous occultation timings

2006      Dr Tom Richards – CCD photometric lightcurve observations of minor planets, variable stars and contributions to exoplanet searches

2004       Mr Colin Bembrick – photometric lightcurve observations of minor planets and derivation of their rotation periods

2002       The Reynolds Amateur Photometry Team – photometric observations of distant supernovae and gravitational microlensing events

2000       Mr Andrew Pearce – observations of comets, variable stars and novae

1998       Mr Gordon Garradd – observation of asteroids, comets, novae and supernovae

1996       Mr Peter Williams – visual observations of variable stars, especially the R Coronae Borealis variables

1994       Mr Paul Camilleri – discoveries of novae and Mira variables and the development of simple photographic techniques for nova searches

1992       Dr Mal Wilkinson – the design and construction of a radio-telescope to observe and model the Io-Jupiter system

1990       Mr Barry Adcock – telescope design work and planetary observations

1988       Mr Robert McNaught – photographic nova & supernova discoveries

1986       The Reverend Robert Evans – visual discoveries of supernovae

1983       Mr Byron Soulsby – work on the oblateness of the umbral shadow

1981       Mr Bill Bradfield – the discovery of 11 comets (to date at that time)

1975       Mr David Herald – observations of Baily’s Beads in the 1974 solar eclipse

1973       Mr S.J. Elwin – observations of the occultation of Beta Scorpii by Jupiter.