How amateur astronomers are photographing the galaxy from a field in Doncaster

It may not be as famous as Jodrell Bank.

Tuesday, 12th February 2019, 10:54 am
Updated Wednesday, 27th March 2019, 15:43 pm
Doncaster Astronomical Society's observatory at Austerfield Study Centre. Jonathan Lodge looks through the eyepiece of one of the telescopes

But hidden within the grounds of a former Doncaster primary school building, lie the domes of Doncaster’s own observatory.

Since they were first built, nearly 20 years ago, the telescopes housed within the bright, white structures, each around 10ft tall, have captured stunning pictures of both our galaxy and those beyond its most distant stars.

During that time, the faces getting up close to the telescopes’ eye pieces may have changed, but the enthusiasm and passion for the skies has not.

Doncaster Astronomical Society's observatory at Austerfield Study Centre. Rhys Owen is pictured with a picture of the Andromeda galaxy taken by former society member Brian Joynes

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Club members credit the construction of the domes to Brian Joynes, who was one of the leading lights at the society until his death in 2017, who was also a retired engineer. The observatory now carries his name as the Brian Joynes Observatory.

The current chairman, Jonathan Lodge, is one of the youngest members of the society, at the age of 36. Jonathan, a farmer from Edenthorpe, joined the society three years ago.

He said: “Brian was a prime mover and a driving force. He had a really big role in setting up the observatory, because he was used to setting up telescopes.

“He set up an outreach programme with local schools and scouts and guide groups. Whenever there was a clear night he would be here. He was a bit of a legend, and that is why the whole of the observatory was named after him.”

Doncaster Astronomical Society's observatory at Austerfield Study Centre. Pictured are Jonathan Lodge, Paul Booker, Elaine Booker, Peter Lloyd, John Cox and Rhys Owen

Brian spent most clear nights out in the cold with the telescopes charting the sky and taking pictures.

Jonathan is a relative newcomer to astronomy.

As a child he was fascinated by space and science fiction. His favourite film was Star Wars. He was inspired by a school trip to Jodrell Bank as a boy, and went on to take a physics degree, complete with astronomically related subsidiaries. On a holiday in Spain he visited an observatory, and that inspired him to develop his interest. He started to take pictures of the sky.

He encountered the society by accident. His wife is a girl guides leader, and was taking her group to the observatory for one of the outreach sessions. Knowing of Jonathan’s interest, she asked him if he would like to tag along.

Doncaster Astronomical Society's observatory at Austerfield Study Centre. Pictured is Paul Booker

He was impressed by the visit, joined the society, and has never looked back.

Now, he is involved with the outreach sessions, along with former chairman Dave Hardware.

After a talk, the groups are taken outside to look at the night skies using binoculars and telescopes.

They are shown the constellations, and then other features of the sky.

“There is a ‘wow’ moment when they see the details on the face of the moon, the rings round Saturn, and the moons around Jupiter,” he said.

“It’s not the Hubble space telescope, but they show a good image – it just looks a bit fuzzier.”

The observatory is managed by Rhys Owen, a retired GP from Hatfield Woodhouse.

The 72-year-old has developed an interest in astronomy over the last five years, since he retired from his job.

“Curiosity brought me here, after I heard about the domes,” he said. “It inspired me to get my own telescope at home too. I enjoy coming out and doing the outreach sessions. When you hear the kids go ‘wow’ it makes it all worthwhile.

“My own grandchildren love looking through the ‘scopes.”

Among the longest standing members of the society is John Cox. John aged 60, of Cantley, is a retired IT professional who join in in 1999.

He said: “I had a pair of binoculars as a child and my first memory of astronomy was looking at the constellation of Orion from my back garden. That was it – I was hooked. I used to go out every clear night.

“The faces have changed since I joined – there are only three or four of us still here who were involved in the 90s. At that time we didn’t have a base, but we had portable telescopes and went out to fields where it was dark, and just enjoyed the night sky.

“In the early 2000s it was suggested we get our own telescope – now we have three. We have a 14 inch, which is good for planets, a 12 inch which is good for deep space photography. The third one is on the same mount as the 12 inch, with a wider field of view.”

Former fashion retailer Elaine Booker, aged 70, from Tickhill, bought a telescope 10 years ago. She joined the society after seeing it at stall at the Tickhill Gala. She had not previously known the society existed.

“Before that, I used to just take my telescope into the garden,” she said. “I remember when I was aged about 12 having a teacher who talked about the constellations, and I think it must have lodged in my mind over the years.”

She joined along with her husband Paul, also aged 70, a retired building. He prefers observing the sun using special equipment, rather than watching the night sky. He is not as attracted to the dark, cold winter nights. “I prefer observing the sun, in shorts with a nice cool drink in my hand,” he said.

For Peter Lloyd, of Bawtry, a passion for the skies was born out of illness.

Peter, aged 81, a retired systems engineer with an electronics company, was put into an isolation ward at the age of six, suffering from scarlet fever. Only his mother was allowed near him.

“I asked her to bring the encyclopedia Britannica with planets in it. I’ve been fascinated ever since.

“After I retired I built an observatory at my home. Then I moved to Doncaster four years ago. I found about the society through my estate agent. It was great that was a convenient observatory around the corner. Now I’m the programmes secretary, and I’m most proud to have got in a list of speakers that has included the director of Jodrell Bank.”

In all, there are 25 members, but the group is keen to expand that.

To that end, they are considering moving some of their meetings from Doncaster Minster to Austerfield Study Centre, so they can show visitors the telescopes afterwards.

They are also considering running an open evening, to show off their facilities, and to give a talk. But they are aware of the importance of doing that on a clear night, so the moon and the stars are visible.

Log onto http://www.donastro.org.uk for contact details for the society.