Speaking to Charles
Duarte, MAstro (Masters in Astronomy), Fellowship Member of the Royal Astronomy
Society (UK) and head of the Gibraltar Amateur Astronomer’s Society.
By Sophie Clifton-Tucker
March 1, 2020
What is the Gibraltar Amateur Astronomers Society, and who was it founded by?
After obtaining a Master’s Degree in
Astronomy, I decided to create the GAAS back in 2013 with the help of a small
group of fellow astronomers. The aims were and are to provide a forum for
discussion of astronomy matters and share knowledge, as well as to meet other
fellow stargazers, whether just getting started in astronomy or as a seasoned
observer and/or astrophotographer. It’s also a great way to learn about
telescopes, eyepieces, cameras, and the Universe.
How many members are there? When/where do you
meet? What do you do?
Since its founding in 2013, membership in the
society has been limited to members interested in astrophotography, and currently,
we meet in Spain at least once a month. We have a Facebook page of nearly 700
followers, and Facebook groups of over 2000 members. I would like to establish
a club locally to develop and create awareness of the sky above us, bring
together local people from our community to share our passion for astronomy and
the wonders of the Universe. I receive many requests from local parents asking
how their children can join the society, but without premises, it’s difficult.
REMEMBER THE EXCITEMENT I FELT SEEING IT.
When did your interest in astronomy begin?
When I was in school from a very young age, I
was interested in all kinds of science things. There weren’t many books on
astronomy at the time, but I read all the ones in John Mackintosh Hall library.
TV series like Star Trek and Lost in Space when I was growing up did influence
me quite a bit. I do remember the first trips that were made into space, like
the Gemini and Apollo missions. It wasn’t until later in life when I could
afford a telescope, that I saw for the very first time a close-up of the Moon;
I remember the excitement I felt seeing it.
What do you love most about it?
I had to think about this for a long time. But
I think the best thing is being able to share what I have learned about the
Universe with others and enjoy their enthusiasm and amazement.
What has been the most significant/exciting discovery, in your opinion?
There have been many significant discoveries,
mostly in the past fifty years. Still, I will stick with last year’s breakthrough
and one in particular, which proves a theory going back decades. I am talking
about the first image of a black hole, taken using Event Horizon Telescope
observations of the center of the galaxy M87, published in April. This shows
the supermassive black hole at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy, which is
about 54 million light-years away from Earth. The black hole’s mass is
equivalent to 6.5 billion suns.
Scientists struggled for decades to capture a
black hole on camera to prove it exists, since black holes distort space-time,
ensuring that nothing can break free of their gravitational pull — even light.
That’s why the image shows a shadow in the form of a perfect circle at the
How do you see our knowledge of the skies
advancing over the next decade?
In the next decades, we will see a global
competition between nations and the private sector to reach the Moon and Mars
to establish colonies within the next twenty years. India will send astronauts
into space in the next few years. Late this year ESA with Roscosmos aims to
discover life in Mars. SpaceX by 2024 plan to send a crewed spacecraft to Mars.
China expects a spacecraft landing on the far side of the Moon. We mustn’t
forget the USA and Russia, whose sole interest is in the Moon’s minerals.
Would you take part in the Mars mission, given
Sure, wouldn’t you? I can picture a special
tour: First a stop on the Moon, wearing spacesuits and exploring all its
splendor. Second stop, Mars. There are lots of places to visit there — the
Grand Canyon of Mars, the ice caps, strolling along in the morning in the ice
fog. Our imagination has no limits. Even if there are no tour ships yet, it
will come, but we will need to wait for some years before this is a reality. I
would also like to mention that space is a dangerous place, from cosmos
radiations to super-speedy dust grains that can damage spacecrafts and
astronauts, to gravitation forces that affect our bodies.
WILL SEE A GLOBAL COMPETITION BETWEEN NATIONS TO REACH THE MOON AND MARS.
How much of the observable Universe do we know
about? What is it comprised of? What do you think lies beyond?
Ahh, the million-dollar question. Of the many
ideas that have been discussed over time, the one theory that I feel is most
likely is that outside this Universe, there are a bunch of others all expanding
just like ours, or contracting.
The Universe is expanding. Space itself is
expanding. That much we know from the cosmic redshift of distant galaxies in
every direction and which is measurable. The fact it is expanding means it was
once smaller, and carrying that to its finality is to recognise that it must
have at some point been unified in some form or way. Although I have read a lot
about this subject, there is no concrete answer yet.
Now, to make everybody aware of how little we
know about the Universe. All the stars, planets, and galaxies that can be seen
today make up just 4% of the Universe. The other 96% is made of stuff
astronomers cannot see, detect, or even comprehend.
What planets/constellations are best seen from
Gibraltar/Spain, and in what spots?
Gibraltar’s uniqueness makes it difficult for
seeing. We have a big rock and quite a lot of light pollution, and there are
only a few places you can appreciate the cosmos with your naked eye; one spot
is on the top of the rock, but only if you’re lucky. Remember the night sky
changes throughout the year and constellation position changes as well. If you
look towards the North (North Star-Polaris) you will see Constellations like
Perseus, Cepheus, and a few others rotating around Polaris. Spain is a vast
country, and there are quite a lot of pitch-dark sites nearby. My observatory,
for example, is in Istan (Malaga) mountainside with a night sky reading of 21
What equipment would one need? Or where can we
borrow it/use someone else’s?
The simple answer is minimal to get
started. A clear night and a star chart are enough. Star
charts can be bought from most of the larger book shops online, such as WH
Smith. As you gather sky knowledge, buy a reasonably low budget telescope with
a GOTO mount. This will be your starting point, and remember, do not run before
walking, or it will cost you eventually.
Do you have a favourite constellation?
Not sure, I suppose Orion given its
spectacular colorful nebule images once processed. I have been observing and
imaging the night sky for years. For me, the Universe is my favorite space.
Do you have any advice for someone who is
interested in getting into the field of astronomy?
Amateur astronomy should be calming and fun. If
you find yourself getting wound up over your eyepiece’s aberrations or a
planet’s invisibility, take a deep breath and remember that you are doing this
because you enjoy it. Take it only as fast or as slow, as intense or as easy,
as is right for you.