Trevor Barry's journey from backyard astronomer to working with NASA

Trevor Barry, Swinburne Astronomy alumni at the W. M Keck Observatory, Hawaii

After a 34 year mining career and limited academic background, Trevor Barry pursued his obsession with astronomy and has become an important contributor to astronomy activities across the world.

"I am a very ordinary bloke. I left school after year 10 to take up an apprenticeship on one of the local mines in Broken Hill, New South Wales. I always wondered why stuff in the night sky looked the way it did. My obsession with astronomy reached its peak when I designed and built my own observatory and several telescopes. I spent the next 15 years observing as an amateur astronomer.

Desperate to learn more, I applied for a Graduate Certificate of Science (Astronomy) at Swinburne. Everyone else already had tertiary qualifications. I asked all these silly questions, but I was like a sponge, sucking up information. My lecturers were so patient and understanding – which made the transition to higher education that much easier.

It was an amazing experience to conduct research using my own equipment, rather than risk the possibility of plagiarising something that had already been done. Two years later, I finished with straight High Distinctions and was presented the Award for Excellence as the top graduating student in my degree.

"For anyone thinking about a career in astronomy, you don’t need a qualification, but people in industry take you more seriously if you do. Even though I built the observatory prior to beginning my degree, now people actually want my data."

In 2008, I serendipitously imaged a white spot on Saturn, which turned out to be an electrical storm under observation by researchers at NASA with the Cassini RPWS (Radio & Plasma Wave Science) team at the University of IOWA. They were working with the CASSINI space craft orbiting Saturn. The cameras on the space craft couldn’t image the storm on a day to day basis, due to its orbit and other priorities. So I was invited to supply image data of the optical counterpart to the CASSINI RPWS radio source.

The storm swirled for seven months, making it the longest lived storm ever recorded on Saturn. As an amateur astronomer and former mine worker from Broken Hill, the opportunity to be involved in the project was an honour, a privilege and a truly humbling experience.

Following recognition by NASA for my role in the CASSINI mission, I’ve continued to supply data to a number of organisations. I send Saturn storm data to the Austrian Academy of Sciences, with Saturn, Jupiter and Mars data also going to The British Astronomical Association, ALPO and the PVOL database, and continue to collaborate with NASA and other research teams, primarily regarding the gas giants with my speciality being the long-term tracking of atmospheric detail and structure of Saturn.

I have also co-authored a journal in the prestigious Nature Communications. The lead author gave me this honour due to "my significant participation in the observations" tracking the atmospheric detail and structure long term. It was a thrill to see my Broken Hill Observatory listed alongside some of the leading professional institutions in the world, including the NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre. It’s heartening to see professionals recognising the contribution that amateurs can make to planetary science.

With 99% of our population yet to discover the joy and stimulation that astronomy can offer, my goal now is to raise the profile of astronomy while continuing to make a contribution to science."