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DISCOVERING a new galaxy wasn’t something amateur astronomer and former strongman Michael Sidonio ever expected would come of his stargazing and astrophotography hobby.
And now another of Michael’s astro-images has revealed something new and unique about stars, although there’s more information to come early in the New Year as follow-up observations are confirmed.
“Amateur and pro collaborations are always good, and I’m happy to be involved in them,” says Michael, who works at the Legislative Assembly as part of the security team.
“With the galaxy, it might be the equivalent of a grain of sand on the beach but it’s my grain of sand!” he says.
Michael says the galaxy discovery, which looked more like a smudge on a film initially, was significant in terms of what it revealed about dark matter.
“Professional astrophysicists could see the galaxy was elongated and pointing at the main known galaxy, NGC 253, which was actually stretching the dwarf galaxy, which was named NGC 253-dw2,” he says.
Michael says that from a young age he was interested in stars, space and rockets, but it was as a teenager in Newcastle, when he started earning money that he decided to buy a telescope.
“I started looking into telescopes and researching the things you can see with a really good one, stars, galaxies and nebulas, and the bug just took me,” he says.
“I ended up saving up $375 when I was 15 and bought a nice astronomical telescope but I didn’t understand it and rushed into using it. I expected to see things like the amazing footage and images that were coming from Voyager and space missions in the 1980s,
“So I took it to my front yard and looked up but all I could see was dots, and I thought it was disappointing. But I took a step back and thought, now hang on, let’s do a bit more research.”
Michael says the best night in the early days was when he found Saturn by accident, which looked like a bright star until he pointed the telescope at it.
“It was three dimensional, I could see the division in the rings, and it was so clear and bright,” he says.
“I ran inside and yelled to mum and dad to come and have a look, and they were blown away.”
Michael says he was very much fumbling along at the start, but eventually worked out how to use the telescope properly and follow star maps, and that was when everything changed for him.
“The skies in Newcastle aren’t great in terms of pollution, so when I started getting my telescope on to dark skies and getting bigger telescopes, I very quickly got what’s known as aperture fever in astronomical circles, where you get bigger telescopes that became increasingly more expensive!” he says.
A move to Canberra in 1984 to study at Dickson College further cemented his love of stars, says Michael, with the ability to study astronomy, have access to Mount Stromlo and dark skies.
“Dickson College at that time was almost certainly the only place in the world that offered astronomy at year 11 and 12, so I was able to study my passion with the results going towards my tertiary entrance score,” he says.
“I met another astrophotographer at Dickson College who ended up being best man at my wedding – we used to go out to Gundaroo to look at the sky, there were lots of late nights but mum was never worried because we were doing astronomy. No alcohol, girls or fast cars!”
Michael says he’s now been in public astronomy for more than 10 years and that, for him, it’s about looking up at the sky and having it mapped out in his head.
“After many years now I see it in three dimensions, I see the Milky Way and I know what it is. I can see the planets, I know them and can distinguish them from stars. My mind can zoom out and look down on it all with a sense of where everything is,” he says.
“I’m what you’d call an active amateur astronomer. I have a dome with a telescope and sleeping quarters at Terroux observatory in Wallaroo, which I get to as often as I can.
“Those nights where the camera is chugging away collecting photons from the galaxy millions of light years away, and I can sit there in my camp chair with a cup of coffee or a whiskey, and look up at the Milky Way and go: ‘Wow. This is life – this is what I love’.”