Article - Gibraltar Magazine March 2020

Gibraltar Magazine Article - March 2020

Reach for the Stars

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.



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 center.

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 the opportunity?

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.


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 SQM.

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.


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