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Francis Walsh - The Cosmic Obsession

My story may be unlike any other and I am happy it is as it is. My name is Francis Walsh and I call myself, “Your favorite, amateur astronomer” when speaking about astronomy.

I talk to my friends who share an interest in the night sky but many who call me friend say I should drop ‘amateur’ from the self-given moniker; “You can do more than me” is usually why. I may not be your everyday astronomer but that’s because I’m not your everyday astronomer and I’ll tell you why.

I was asked not too long ago, “Francis, why are you doing what your doing?” by someone who found me to be less than excited one day. I had to stop and think what the best answer would be.

On a late November afternoon in 2009 outside of Houston, my wife pulled her favorite piece of technology away from an ear to inform me, “My dad said the space station is going to fly overhead tonight.” She waited for an answer momentarily before pressing the phone to her ear and going back to what must have been a more interesting conversation.

 Francis and Sean are looking for the ISS

Francis and Sean are looking for the ISS

Exactly where I was before she said that I cannot remember but something in the information made me think about the sight. It might have been the first time to be told such timely information about the ISS. The thought evolved into action and two hours later five members of our close-knit family were looking up.

The equipment available for viewing was what we had at the time; store-bought and gifted to my son. There were five people and two telescopes standing in the middle of the open lot adjacent to the family home, my eye was in one and my son’s eye was in the other while my wife and her parents looked on at us maneuvering these small tubes one way and then the other. We were all waiting to see something that would tell us the space station was near.

A bright spot of light appeared where it was supposed to and at the appointed time. I swung my tube to the northwest thinking I would be able to do what I was unable to do. I should have stopped and looked up at the brightest object, the International Space Station in the sky moving from one side of the sky to the other. It faded in and out of that early night. I was happy that the experience went so well. I just had an early experience with a telescope at age 40 for the first time and I learned it’s hard to capture a moving target in the sights of a small telescope.

My friend and father-in-law Bob Fitzhenry had a different experience than me as he watched us that night. It was at that moment, or those moments, that an idea was born for him and it has compelled me to be the type of amateur astronomer I am and again, I’m not your average, everyday astronomer and neither is Bob.

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Now that I said it twice you’re thinking that an astronomer is an astronomer is an astronomer. Well, I can tell you that it has been my experience that is anything but the truth; astronomy is what you want it to be.

To me being an astronomer has evolved from a once-in-40-years thing to an almost constant thought movement that involves outer space. Before we get to that I should continue what the story has to say about what has me writing to you now about me.

I started getting an idea that something more than the space station flying over head occurred that night when our son received an Orion reflector telescope for his birthday which happens to be on Christmas day. It was about 30-days after the space station event that I learned Bob had taken to astronomy and that we were going to be enjoying a new family tradition and it had everything to do with the night sky and telescopes.

The 10-inch Dobsonian from Orion came with ‘go-to’ features and gave us our first look into the night with the help of a tool that could tempt you with the fruits of astronomy labor. We began to learn about setting up and aligning and calibrating and collimating a telescope. As we learned, modifications were made to see better and farther. After thirty days Bob was thinking again there must be a better way and that thought resulted in a new telescope being ordered. This time he was going big and we were all going big with him.

From December of 2009 until October 2010 we learned abut astronomy and spent time under the stars looking up. Now we were waiting for a new 25-inch mirror to be sent to us from Obsession telescope inside the company’s truss-type Dobsonian telescope.

We were just your ordinary family doing ordinary astronomy until it sunk in what was coming. This new purchase created new interactions through the internet that were not being had in the past. Our family was speaking to other astronomers online and finding new places to learn new things. The process continued to mature until the current plan was in order. The new telescope would be used for astro-photography and eventual LIVE video for broadcasting to the public via the internet. This plan was the stepping stone for where we are today and you maybe can imagine the next step if you’ve gotten this far with us.

It’s December 10, 2010 and 60-days after the arrival of the new, huge telescope. Since then there has been a Mallincam CCD camera delivered and another telescope on its way, an 11” Celestron aplanatic Schmidt Cassegrain. We were setting up the equipment at a mobile location and trying to learn how to make all the pieces work.

I didn’t know it but a future friend of mine, Leonid Elenin, was making a new discovery of his own on that day in December.

His discovery set my path and accelerated my journey.

 My First image of C/2011 X1 (Elenin) using ITelescope.Net

My First image of C/2011 X1 (Elenin) using ITelescope.Net

By March, 2011 we had officially named the mobile observatory Cosmic Obsession and we worked hard to learn how to use the new tools to the best of our ability. Mobile setups took about two hours time and the tearing it down took an hour. It was hard work but now there was a live broadcast available to the public through our telescope. People could see what we saw on the Night Skies Network http://www.nightskiesnetwork.com. Bob was where he wanted to be and he probed the wonders of the night and I spoke about what I was seeing. It was then that my research, astronomy, and ITelescope came together. It was here that fact and fiction began to play an important part in my personal experience with astronomy, my purpose with astronomy, and the future of astronomy comes face to face with people like me; I’m just like you.

Believe it or not, I was one of the people who listened to and found argument with, researchers of current events that claimed there was a death star coming into the solar system which would create a traumatic event here on Earth. This theory was promoted by few with great fervor. I heard the information and made a connection to what I was doing with Bob. I wanted to get involved but had been unable to get the images I needed with the tools we were using at home. It wasn’t because we couldn’t get to it, it became because we couldn’t get to it before the broadcast or night was over. I had to find another answer to my problem. I had become highly motivated.

 Variable Star in the globular cluster M3

Variable Star in the globular cluster M3

I searched, “rent a telescope” in March of 2011 and I was lead to what today is known as ITelescope.net. Then it was known as Global-Rent-a-Scope. Today they are even better than they were then but either way, they became my window into a part of space where something was happening, just not as it was being told to many people via the internet, talk-radio, and YouTube. I viewed as much information on how to use the system I could before I signed up for a free trial membership. I knew what I wanted and this new tool gave me all the information I needed to get what I wanted. Right at that moment there was just one thing I wanted, a picture of C/2011 X1 (Elenin). By June 19, 2011 I was successful for the first time. There in my image was a fuzzy place where a comet resided, not a brown dwarf star heading in for a close approach to the Sun and then Earth. From a mirror’s point of view I went from a smirk to an all-teeth smile after looking at my images of Elenin for the first time. 

That success motivated me to go back to the researcher who was spreading his interpretation to show him what I had found. That became a daily report of the position and view of the comet from the images that were captured by ITelescopes located around the world. I was imaging this object but not for its beauty but more for the raw data it provided inside the .fit file of the image. Now I had current coordinates and knew exactly where this thing was.

I had fulfilled one goal and carried it through until it was over. After it there was an asteroid, YU-55, and then another object to worry about. But now I was sharing what I knew and it was making things better. In the group I had my interactions with I was an honest astronomer, amateur or not. I started a weekly astronomy report that still airs today every Friday night; Collision Course on Revolution Radio from 8-10PM EDT (about noon on Saturday in Australia).

During the more than 100 LIVE interviews and broadcasts I have had an opportunity to speak to distinguished astronomers like Robert McNaught and researchers like Richard Hoagland. Even Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke to me about how he sees the future of space and science. I have always maintained my position as an observer. Somewhere along the line I became a speaker. Now I’m speaking to you.

We’re all the way to May of 2012 now. I used ITelescope to find a new way to discover variable stars and track NOW/PHA, I also continue to do research at the Cosmic Obsession Observatory as I speak publicly on current space and science news. Cosmic Obsession Observatory is now a permanent dome observatory located 40-miles northwest of Houston, Texas. Every Saturday night when the weather is good you can find us online with our own telescopes. Sometimes I use ITelescope at the same time to capture the same object from a different point of view. We’ve learned a lot and we will continue to learn and share what we learned with the public. Here’s a long video of the whole construction. Construction started in August of 2011 and ended in February, 2012 with ‘First Light’ on the 25th. 

“I want to know when things happen in space if I can and I want to tell others about it honestly while I learn what everyone should learn.”

 Cosmic Obsession Observatory First Light February 25, 2012

Cosmic Obsession Observatory First Light February 25, 2012

I could not do what I do as well as I can without the assistance of the fantastic people at iTelescope.net. This amateur astronomer will endeavor to reach deeper than an average astronomer and go where no average astronomer wants to go eagerly to spread the news about space to those who may become the most affected by it or what is said about it.