Astronomer Dan Self on Breckland Astronomical Observatory

NASA released the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope on July 11. The $10 billion instrument captured the highest resolution astrophotography of the deep universe ever taken. Its gravitationally distorted pictures of early galaxies offer a detailed gaze into the dawn of time – just a few million years after the Big Bang.

The images blew Dan Self’s mind.

“They are surely going to lead to new discoveries,” he said.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope image of deep universe


NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope captured the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the early universe ever taken in July 2022

– Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI 

Dr Self is chairman at Breckland Astronomical Observatory, a charity and stargazing society founded in 1993 by Spencer Allen. Its constitutional aim is to inspire people while providing astronomy to the public free of charge. 

On a clear Tuesday evening shortly after the James Webb photos were released, I drove past a bloodred sunset to a cricket club in Great Ellingham to meet with Dan. The observatory’s dome rose from the corner of the field like a great brain as the blue twilight seeped to black.  

Dan wheeled out the Dobsonian – a “light bucket” that I am told is the most affordable amateur astronomer’s tool. We directed it at the rising moon. The scope revealed the most detailed perspective of lunar craters I can remember seeing. 

Dan, 46, grew up in the centre of Norwich and remembers visiting the old observatory at Colney as a child. When Jupiter drifted out of the viewfinder, he attempted to correct it – only to be scolded for touching the telescope! 

But Dan’s imagination was truly captured in 1996 when he came across an article in the Eastern Daily Press anticipating the arrival of a comet called Hyakutake which would be visible from Earth for the first time in 17,000 years. Armed with an old Zenit-B from Philip’s Cameras on Magdalen Street, Dan and his father travelled to a field outside Rackheath.  

an article in the Eastern Daily Press anticipating the arrival of a comet called Hyakutake


Dan read a newspaper article in the Eastern Daily Press anticipating the arrival of a comet called Hyakutake on March 15, 1996. Accessed via localrecall.co.uk.

– Credit: Archant Library

“We looked up and – wow! – the long tail stretched all the way overhead. It was unbelievable.”  

And after Comet Hale-Bopp followed in 1997 with its twin blue-and-white tails, Dan knew this was his calling. “I landed a challenging PhD in meteor chemistry shortly after that.”  

At UEA, Dan guided ultraviolet lasers – which were “so fun” – into high-pressured tubes of deuterium. “We had to sign a disclaimer saying we wouldn’t make nuclear weapons.” 

Rather than producing atomic warheads, Dan dedicated his career to a different kind of thermonuclear energy – stars. 

The moon seen through the 20-inch telescope at Breckland Astronomical Observatory


The moon seen through the 20-inch telescope at Breckland Astronomical Observatory

– Credit: Dan Self / Breckland Astronomical Observatory

I squinted my eyes trying to locate Saturn and its rings shimmering in the viewfinder as we discussed Jeff Bezos’s aerospace company Blue Origin, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet. Dan mentioned that satellites are affecting professional astronomers everywhere, as they “destroy” astrophotography by interrupting long exposures and beam noisy radio transmissions across the globe.

Next, I was invited into the observatory.  

Built at the turn of the millennium, Breckland Astronomical Observatory is home to a 20-inch telescope with electronic tracking that enables members to observe the universe.  

“Our telescope is a precious resource to the community and doesn’t get used anywhere near as often as it should,” Dan said. 

The observatory is open for individual or group visits, and hosts weekly members’ nights for socialising and monthly talks from experts around the country. 

“The society would benefit from anyone with a keenness to learn. If you are interested in astrophotography, we have a lot of expertise to pass on.” 

Breckland Astronomical Observatory at night


Breckland Astronomical Observatory aims to inspire people while providing astronomy to the public free of charge

– Credit: Dan Self / Breckland Astronomical Observatory

Astronomy is a notoriously difficult pursuit, especially in the UK.  

“The weather is never your friend as an astronomer,” Dan said. “According to my calculations, you can only do good stargazing about 1% of the time.” 

This is due to sunlight, moonlight, twilight and midsummer light, which all interfere with our ability to see celestial bodies. When you also take into account other visibility problems and necessary activities like sleeping and life commitments eating up precious stargazing time, only a small window is left to look up.  

Despite these hindrances, Dan said it is more than worth it. 

“Your eyes are opened to a universe of weird phenomena – like dark matter and neutron stars. 

“It is mind-blowing to try to wrap your head around how bright a supernova is,” Dan said. “A gruesome analogy is to ask what would be brighter: a hydrogen bomb pressed against your eyeball or a supernova as far away as the sun? 

“The answer is the supernova, but by a billion times more!”  

Dan’s favourite astral phenomenon is Lyra, a constellation in the northern sky.  

“It’s a pretty little thing, with the superbright Vega star shining overhead in summer and the fairy-like constellation of David’s Harp drifting across the sky slowly around it. I named my daughter after it.” 

Dan Self in the dome at Breckland Astronomical Observatory


Dan named his daughter after the constellation Lyra

– Credit: Charles Bliss / Archant

Around 1am, Dan points to the sky and identifies Andromeda, our closest neighbouring major galaxy. I am impressed by his literacy with the everblooming infinity revolving above and around us.   

“I’ve been an astronomer since I was eight years old. With years of practice, it’s like knowing your way around the engine of a car.” 

The Andromeda Galaxy is 2.5 million lightyears away, a stellar city teeming with roughly one trillion stars that is hurtling towards the Milky Way at 68 miles per second.  

“Eventually, we’re going to merge with that galaxy.” 

As I drive back to Norwich, my head is swimming with the incomprehensible multiplicity of outer space: noctilucent clouds, meteor dust, aurora borealis, supermassive black holes, pinwheel galaxies, crescent nebulas. Dan’s sense of wonder is infectious.  

Many moons ago, Dan visited a family friend at Christmas in 1986, who showed him the streak of Halley’s Comet burning in his binoculars. Halley is the only comet that can appear twice in a human lifetime.  

Dan hopes he’ll still be staring up at the skies when it returns in 2061. 

For more information, please visit brecklandastro.org.uk

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