My latest shoot for the BBC's The One Show took me to the Royal Greenwich Observatory in London.
During part of the film, we were in the Altazimuth Pavilion that was built in 1899 to plot the altitude and azimuth of celestial objects. More recently, it has been home to the Newbegin 6.25-inch refractor and Dallmeyer No.2 Photoheliograph, an instrument used for photographing the sun, but since 1949 they've only been used for special events.
A thought struck me while I was looking around that my own astronomical equipment offered a worthy alternative to this once-Royal setup. It seems that the unrelenting advance of technology has changed the face of amateur astronomy, but what gadget or piece of equipment has had the biggest impact?
When I started in astronomy I was bought a cheap secondhand telescope. It was small and had no tripod. To use it, I had to prop it against a ladder. Over the years, I bought bigger telescopes, and even tried -- moderately successfully -- to make one.
In the 20 years as an amateur astronomer, I've noticed a change in the range of telescopes available, off the shelf. Super-large telescopes will always be the preserve of the professional astronomer, but thanks to a reduction in manufacturing costs against a general increase in wealth, larger and more advanced telescopes have become more readily available. You only have to go to a "star party" to see the incredible range of large telescopes owned by private individuals.
Computers have of course played a big part over recent years. This really kicked off in the 1990's when you could buy telescopes with integrated computer systems. No longer did amateur astronomers have to spend hours hunting down elusive galaxies; instead we simply typed in its catalogue number and the telescope would take you straight to it.
I once owned a Meade LX200 telescope and never got anywhere near exhausting the 64,000 object database. Amateur astronomers can now spend their time studying objects rather than spending their time looking for objects. Interfacing computers to these instruments opened up a world of automated projects such as asteroid or supernova searching, all from the comfort of your own back garden.
I think the real revolution has been advances in imaging technology. When I started, it was film. Reels and reels of exposures, most of which were useless with slightly out of focus stars or trailed images where the tracking was slightly off. It was laborious and challenging to say the least.
Then the CCD camera became accessible to the amateur and things started looking up. Strangely though, the real driving force that has catapulted amateur imaging into a different league didn't come from astronomy, but from the general public. The development of the digital SLR camera and user-friendly image processing software has meant color imaging has never been so easy.
Even the use of the lowly webcam now means that even pretty basic telescopic equipment can yield phenomenal planetary images. The work done by some amateurs have even produced comparable results to some of the early space missions.
Speaking as someone who has felt the pain and frustration of taking photographs of the sky with film and now enjoys the more modern way of doing things, I think I'm qualified to say that the imaging revolution has had the biggest impact on amateur astronomy over the last few decades.
It's never been easier to get incredible images of the night sky. Only last night I received a picture via my Twitter feed ( @peoplesastro ) of the moon; it was awesome and was taken by placing a cameraphone to the eyepiece of a telescope.
Interestingly, there is a new gadget that's having a big impact on amateur astronomy but in a different way: smartphones.
These incredible, relatively new devices are bringing a whole new influx of people to the subject. Applications (or apps) can be downloaded to the phone that turns it into a mini planetarium. All you need to do is hold it up to the sky and it will tell you what you can see in that direction. It's making it easy to pinpoint planets and other treasures in the sky and getting people looking up who wouldn't ordinarily bother.
There's no doubt about it, the face of amateur astronomy has changed in the last few years and that is a great thing. Yes, astronomy is a science but that doesn't mean it can't be accessible to everyone.
© 2012 Discovery Channel