Stargazer celebrates landmark find

IT has taken more than 14,000 hours of painstaking exploration and nine years of sleepless nights.But Tom Boles' passion for astronomical discovery is about to turn him into something of a star himself.

By Danielle Nuttall

IT has taken more than 14,000 hours of painstaking exploration and nine years of sleepless nights.

But Tom Boles' passion for astronomical discovery is about to turn him into something of a star himself.

For the amateur astronomer, who explores the galaxies from his astronomical observatory in Coddenham, near Ipswich, has recently discovered his 100th supernova - a world record for a lone amateur astronomer.


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A supernova is an explosion caused when a massive star, at least eight times the sun's mass, dies and collapses, making it appear up to 300 million times brighter than normal.

The supernova's high energies enable them to be observed over great distances and allow them to be used as standard distance indicators enabling the size and age of the universe to be calculated.

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Mr Boles, who has two grown-up children, discovered his 100th supernova on April 5 after sifting through thousands of photographic images recorded by his robotic telescope.

The new supernova is in a galaxy numbered MCG+06-33-20 which is in the constellation of Bootes the Herdsman, and has been measured at 680million light years away.

The discovery, designated SN2006bk, was announced on International Astronomical Union Circular number 8698, which is issued by the Central Bureau of Astronomical Telegrams in Massachusetts, USA.

Mr Boles, 62, who is a retired computer and telecom support engineer, has searched 12,000 distant galaxies and has studied 311,662 images of the sky during the past nine years.

He estimates the number of hours he has spent searching the skies as 14,000 hours and said it takes him an average of 140 hours and 3,200 images to unearth each supernova.

“It's an obsession as much as anything. I'm doing this every clear night I can get my hands on. I stay up all night, sunset to sunrise, and sleep during the day,” he said.

“My wife is very supportive. There are far worse things I could be doing. Sometimes I've turned down going to the pub but I wouldn't for important things like anniversaries - I would be killed!”

Mr Boles' recent milestone was discovered in the same way as the rest.

His robotic telescopes captures images of distant galaxies - sometimes 2,000 pictures a night - and he is left with the laborious task of comparing each and every one with photographs in his archive.

“I look and see the differences. Once I spot a difference I need to measure the position of the object and its brightness,” he said.

“I send it off to the Central Bureau of Astronomical Telegrams in the USA. They're the people who vet every discovery worldwide.”

It might have taken him a long time, but making his 100th supernova discovery has firmly planted him on the astronomical map.

“Nobody else in the world has done it before. It's a world record. Some professional observatories have equalled or bettered it but it's the first time an individual has done it and it's the first time an amateur has,” he said.

Mr Boles, who formerly designed and made telescopes for a company in Glasgow, built and manages the Coddenham Astronomical Observatory himself. It was opened by The Sky at Night presenter Sir Patrick Moore in 2001.

Mr Boles has no plans to curb his hobby yet and has already spotted two new supernovas since last week.

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