Steuben Institute showcasing Hampden astronomer’s hunt for exploding stars

Amateur astronomer Doug Rich of Hampden has discovered 22 supernovas in the last nine years, including this one in 2005.
Doug Rich
Amateur astronomer Doug Rich of Hampden has discovered 22 supernovas in the last nine years, including this one in 2005.
Posted Dec. 05, 2012, at 3 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 05, 2012, at 3:24 p.m.

STEUBEN, Maine — You could say that Doug Rich of Hampden has spent most of his professional life studying the sky.

A retired air traffic controller, Rich is also an accomplished amateur astronomer. Over the last nine years of stargazing, he has discovered 22 previously undetected supernovae — exploding stars — in a wide range of galaxies. His latest find was logged just a few weeks ago.

“A supernova is the explosive death of a star,” Rich said Wednesday. “Nine years ago I read an article in a telescope magazine about an amateur in Australia who was doing the same thing. I do these searches from home, using a 16-inch, robotic reflector telescope, which is linked to a computer. I have the computer screen image remoted to my living room so that I can watch TV while keeping an eye on things.”

The computer’s software, he said, automatically searches from a list of galaxies for new objects that weren’t at the same point in the sky on previous scans. Rich said he reviews the overnight images the next day and compares them with earlier images.

“What I’m seeing as a new object may be a lot of things,” Rich said. “It may be ‘noise’ from the camera, or it may be an asteroid. I eliminate the possibilities by taking a confirmation image.”

Once Rich confirms a new discovery, he notifies the Massachusetts-based Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams. New sightings are named in order of their discovery.

“The first new discovery in 2013 would be ‘2013A’ and will continue through ‘2013Z’ and then go on to ‘AA,’” he said. “Astronomers or scientists who do any kind of report on their discoveries are given credit.”

Rich is well aware that dark skies that are not polluted by man-made light are becoming rarer every day. The Down East skies and those above Baxter State Park are among the least light-polluted in Maine, he said.

“Dark skies are going fast,” Rich said. “Hampden used to be really dark, but that’s changed with urban sprawl. I live on a dead-end road, but a developer put up three houses near me. When I’m doing my telescope surveys, I sometimes have to ask my neighbors to turn off any lights they don’t need.”

Rich is teaming up with the Eagle Hill Institute in the Washington County community of Steuben, where this weekend he will be giving an hour-long lecture on supernovae and the techniques and technologies he uses in discovering them. The event, at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8, is free and open to the public. Those attending will have the option of placing an order before the lecture for an individual-size gourmet pizza to be served after the event. The cost of the pizza is $10 and includes a beverage and dessert ice cream.

The 150-acre Eagle Hill Institute, which is located in Washington County off the Dyer Bay Road in Steuben, is in the process of launching a new astronomy initiative that will include construction of a five-story observation tower located on a hilltop that offers an unobstructed 360-degree panorama of the sky. The nonprofit institute has no firm timeline for building its proposed observatory facilities, but is beginning to ramp up fundraising for the project.

For information about the Institute’s astronomy effort and Rich’s upcoming lecture, call 546-2821.

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