I couldn't help but notice this summer that South African amateur astronomer, Berto Monard, had an amazing string of supernovae discoveries. The IAU Circulars seemed to be announcing another Monard supernova every week. So I contacted the one-man-southern-hemisphere-supernova-factory, and asked if he would grant an interview to tell us how he does it. Berto graciously accepted, and I think you'll like getting to know him as much as I did. He is in a word, remarkable.
Mike: Hi, Berto. Thanks for granting this interview. We’ve never met face to face but I’ve known you through the Internet for many years now. I’m anxious to learn more. Tell me a little about yourself.
Let’s start with where you live, and what do you do for a living.
Berto: Thanks, Mike, for the opportunity and indeed I am involved with astronomy for quite some time now.
I live with my wife, Brigitte on a small holding 35km ESE of Pretoria, the capital of the republic of South Africa. On top of the Bronberg mountain ridge we have an unobstructed view to the N and E horizons with little light pollution and beautiful sunrises. A hill behind the house cuts out 10 degrees from the other horizons, shielding the worst part of the immense light pollution of the Highveld agglomeration (Johannesburg-Pretoria) and the airfield OR Tambo Airport.
Together with the other owners around here we have established a conservancy area and we now live amidst game of the plant eating kind.
I am on pension since 2008, but still work part-time as a consulting metrologist at NMISA (National Measurement Institute of South Africa). Mainly involved with mentoring young scientists in the laboratory of Photometry and Radiometry, I still have full responsibilities in UV radiometry and spectroradiometry. NMISA is similar to NIST (USA), NPL (UK) and PTB (Germany).
Being trained as an electro-mechanical engineer (Energy conversions) / M Sc Eng, Louvain, Belgium 1974, the choice to enter into the field of optical radiometry at the time of my immigration to South Africa in 1981 was distinctly influenced by latent interests in astronomy.
Most of my free time is taken up by astronomy related tasks. Any spare time is used to do clearing work in our wattle forest and I also fancy a game of golf twice a month. We have three children and two grandchildren.
Mike: Where is Bronberg Observatory located? Is it on your home property, or is it at a remote site you have to travel to?
Berto: The Bronberg Observatory is situated 90m from the house amidst large rocks and indigenous plants. The coordinates are 25° 54’ 32 S, 28° 26 18 E and the altitude is 1590m above sea.
Mike: How did you get started in astronomy, and what led you to the study of variable stars in particular?
Berto: From a young age I had admiration for the night sky and wondered what was going on there in the distance. I grew up in Belgium, a country with lots of light pollution and grey skies (with rain in the morning and showers in the afternoon, as the weather forecasts mostly went). Not much came from my interests even after buying a small telescope in 1976. But I did read books on astronomy and even studied pocket book atlases. I was especially impressed by Betelgeuse, and an awkward large star named epsilon Aurigae, of which not much was known....
I had taken that small scope with the flimsy equatorial mount into S. Africa but started only using it in 1990. Together with two work colleagues we intended to track satellites and I used that scope and a couple of star charts to do that. One of those colleagues had been involved with the organization of the Moonwatch team (late 1950s) in the Pretoria region. To that effect he had gotten lots of charts and also a set of converted apogee telescopes with 5" lenses. That's what I used from 1990 until 1996 to do variable star observing. It's a heavy and sturdy steel constructed refractor telescope that requires a firm alt-az mounting.
Initially it was interesting to wait for and spot the passage of those satellites through the 2.4 degree FOV of the apogee, but those satellites became rather boring as they had predictable orbits. Instead, I started observing R Centauri and other bright variables shown on those charts. That's how I got hooked.
Mike: What instruments do you employ at the observatory?
Berto: At the moment a 30cm (12") telescope Meade RCX 400, with reducer 0,62x and CCD camera ST7-XME, giving an effective f/5. An old filter wheel is squeezed in between the camera and the reducer, providing a firm fit onto the scope. This instrumentation is mounted on a pier, polar aligned and the images show on the screen with North up and East left. In addition to simple and straightforward observing software (I stick to CCDOPS) I use Scopedriver (S. Hutson, ADP) for driving the scope. Keypads run out of life-time eventually.
Mike: Do you still do any visual observing? If so, what do you observe?
Berto: After our move to the Bronberg I mounted the old apogee scope on the terrace there with the intention to observe bright stars and novae, but instead I now look at the impalas, wildebeest (gnus), zebras, springbuck, etc.; or at distant thunderstorms during summer. CCD cameras are dangerous things to ever start with...
Mike: I know you best from your activities observing cataclysmic variables for the Center for Backyard Astrophysics. How long have you been collecting data on cataclysmic variables (CVs) and sharing it with Joe Patterson and the gang at CBA?
Berto: CVs became my main visual observing targets since 1992, but it would be another 10 years before I joined CBA and started contributing CCD observed data.
I really enjoyed visual observing and I made quite a large number of CV observations mainly through a 32cm Dobsonian which I acquired in 1997. Constraints at that time would have made it difficult to go into CCD observing.
I am now an active CBA member since 2002 and CBA Pretoria has made significant contributions to the CBA cause, mainly during our wintertime with more than 90% of open skies. I know Professor Joe Patterson is quite pleased with my long runs on Milky Way bulge CVs. CBA is a great initiative.
Mike: Has your activity with CBA led to you co-authoring any scientific papers?
Berto: CBA observers get to share co-authorship on publications that they contribute data to. This is the going standard. CBA Pretoria has therefore co-authored several CBA publications since 2002. Besides CBA, I also contributed to VSNET campaigns with resulting publications. It's all about cataclysmic variables, how they behave during active phases and why.
I have co-authored publications resulting from my other observing activities: for instance on the interesting transient in NGC 300 which was 5 magnitudes short of what a SN would peak at. Some astronomers graduate with theses made on such objects.
Just to make sure I have publications, I write annual reports on the Bronberg Observatory / CBA Pretoria activities which are then included in the Monthly Notices of the Astronomical Society of S Africa. These reports include a list of the publications that I co-authored in that year. That's my way of documenting them.
Mike: You also make a point of following up on interesting transient objects like novae, and gamma-ray bursts. Tell us a little about chasing after GRB afterglows. It is a difficult quest, but a few amateurs, including you, have succeeded in imaging these elusive short-lived phenomena.
Berto: I have always loved to follow up on alerts. Most often it concerns faint and even undetectable objects like counterparts of X ray transients. I have been doing them since 2002, after CBA Pretoria became operational.
GRBs were another such challenge. I remember GRB 030329 which was quite bright and I was very excited to follow up on that one right from the beginning and provided some good light curves. Then there followed a period that I went after GRB alerts just to spot or even discover the counterparts and with success. It can be quite a demanding endeavour at times and a matter of fighting the sleep during such observing nights. But in fact it’s just hard routine.
I stopped GRB afterglow chasing in 2005 but still follow up on satellite-detected transients. There are a number of INTEGRAL detected magnetic CVs that are since added to my CV observing program.
Mike: The thing that got me to write you about doing this interview was your incredible success recently at discovering supernovae. I may have lost count, but I think you have discovered at least a dozen in 2009 alone! How do you do it, and how many have you discovered now altogether?
Berto: SN hunting is very much what I always wanted to do. It's the most time consuming of my projects because of the additional efforts in processing and the image inspection. SNe cannot be forced to appear, they have to happen in the galaxies surveyed and that was the case this year: six finds in July and three in August. In view of the increased competition in the southern hemisphere this is a good score. My total of SN discoveries now stands at 84. This is larger than my best golf score, therefore I am in need of another milestone ;-), perhaps reaching 100.
There is a lot of work and sophistication behind these discoveries. Enthusiasm is a great help to get started but there must be an adequate target selection to get maximum results from the time spent. Not every galaxy is a good candidate for SN production and it also doesn't help to image distant galaxies so that SNe will not be visible outside their peak brightness. It took regular efforts over three years to compose an efficient search list of around 2000 galaxies. Executing that list on a routine basis has to lead to discoveries.
Mike: What are your plans for the future? Are you planning to acquire a bigger telescope, or more telescopes? Or perhaps hiring an assistant to help you keep up the prodigious amount of work you are doing?!
Berto: I have a bigger scope, an RCX400 35cm, which is kept safely packed in the house and with it an ST8 CCD. They will be used again shortly, I hope. Break-ins in 2007 urged me to empty one of the observatories.
Our main plan now is to move to the Little Karoo in the Western Cape and to build an observatory there. That will probably take place end of 2010. We have our Bronberg property on the market but hope we can organize to still have access to the observatory there for winter campaigns. One of the reasons for our move is the bad weather over the Highveld in the period October-March with very few clear skies at night.
The best possible assistant I can imagine is a fully supportive spouse, which I have. And we both believe that if you want something done properly, you do it yourself.
Mike: Are there any other types of astronomical phenomena you would like to observe, like exoplanet transits or asteroids?
Berto: Observations of exoplanet transits were stopped in 2007, but I still monitor on an ad hoc basis faint CVs, mainly magnetic ones, around magnitude 18.5. Then I observe the southern symbiotic stars, once or twice per month depending on each star's 'merit'. This is such an exciting project, which will probably outlast all the others. Each month there is another star that tends to do something.
There are also many exciting observations I made the last few years and that are still sitting on my PC. Certain objects show unique light curves that are amazing to watch. They need publishing and I need time for that. Just look at the light curve below. These are time-series with an unfiltered CCD. The eclipse depth in V is expected to be even larger.
Since 2006, I have also joined uFUN (Microlens Follow Up Network), which is lead by Prof. A. Gould from Ohio State University.
They coordinate observations of members in different time zones. The intention is to detect exoplanets around distant stars in the Milky Way bulge. This is done by continuously monitoring microlenses that are expected to go high magnification in the hope of detecting signatures of planets orbiting the lens star. Some of these lenses remain very faint and the star density in the Milky Way requires good quality imaging.
In structure this organization is similar to Joe Patterson's CBA, but there are more professional observatories involved and a lot of mathematical modeling is required to decipher the observed anomalies.
Those uFUN projects can be very exciting and I am grateful to have been requested to get involved with these. A couple of publications on recent events will come out soon and there will also be an Sky and Telescope article on one of them.
Three years ago, I had plans and concepts to conduct a nova search. I believe a number of not so bright novae might be missed and I wanted to pick up most of those. This project was shelved in 2007.
And I would like to find comets too, but that's for in another life...
Mike: Everyone is motivated for different reasons. What keeps you working so hard night after night, and what gives you the most personal satisfaction?
Berto: I am just very excited with the possible outcome of a night's observing. Things happen and the universe is changing all the time. You never know what you will find. The excitement is in the anticipation of the unknown. That's the answer.
Mike: What advice can you give to amateurs who would like to contribute to science but may not know exactly what to do, or where to start?
Berto: Every amateur astronomer has his/her own specific range of interests in astronomy and related hobbies and some never get or want to observe. But they may get excitement out of studying observing data, optimizing instrumentation, popularizing astronomy, reading about history, etc... It's difficult to therefore give general advice, except that there must be a drive to do it and fun while doing it. This also has to apply to observing.
More specifically for variable star observers, I would suggest them trying to get at least a superficial understanding of all known mechanisms that lead to star light variations. In other words, get to know the different types of variable stars and then to perhaps observe those types that excite them most. AAVSO has a large list of traditional and more recent stars, some of them in need of observations. If those stars appeal, do them. But there are so many star and star like systems that are very interesting and nobody observes them.
It is not necessary to acquire large and expensive instrumentation to be a good observer. An adequate target selection is all that's needed.
I have always been prepared to help people out. It doesn't mean they will be successful. I have genuinely assisted individuals and groups with SN searching. It didn't always produce results. In a time where team efforts are praised as the all-encompassing means to success, I still believe in the potential of a focused and well equipped individual. If he knows how to utilize or explore existing voids in scientific fields, he/she will have major advantages over professionals. As amateur astronomers we have the privilege of an exciting and unlimited hobby, which will always distinguish us from 'normal' people.
Mike: Thank you, Berto. It has been great getting to know you. I hope we can meet in person one day and share even more.
Berto: Yes, sure. Why don't you come and visit us.
Mike: That sounds like an excellent idea! Thank you for the invitation.