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Gippsland plumber wins Australian astronomy medal for 400,000 star measurements over decades

Astronomical Society of Australia 3 mins read
Plumber and award-winning amateur astronomer Rod Stubbings, pictured with his telescope. Credit: Rod Stubbings

Gippsland plumber wins Australian astronomy medal

for 400,000 star measurements over decades

Every clear night for decades, Rod Stubbings from Tetoora Road in Gippsland has looked at a set of about 700 stars annually, recording changes in their brightness.

He is just one of three people worldwide to have made 400,000 measurements of the brightness of variable stars. His observations have helped astronomers in over a dozen countries to understand stars in the Milky Way. “When I report an interesting outburst, ground and space telescopes can zoom in for a closer look,” Rod says.

“Rod has been honoured with the 2024 Berenice and Arthur Page Medal from the Astronomical Society of Australia (ASA) for scientific contributions by an amateur astronomer that has served to advance astronomy,” says Associate Professor Stas Shabala, President of the ASA. The award was announced at the National Australian Convention of Amateur Astronomers at Parkes on Saturday night.

“Rod’s work reminds us that everyone can look at the night sky and observe. Rod has shown how ‘amateur’ observations can make a real difference to our understanding of the Milky Way and the Universe.”

“The big telescopes on Earth and in space can’t watch everything. Amateur astronomers like Rod play an important role in keeping an eye out for changes in the night sky that merit detailed investigation,” Stas says.

Living at the base of the Strzelecki Ranges, Rod bought a telescope in 1986 and struggled at first to use it. Then he learnt about variable stars and realised that he could do something useful for science.

So, every clear night, he walks out to the observatory in his garden and observes up to 300 stars. He doesn’t take photographs or use gadgets. Working from memory, he looks at each star through his telescope and assesses its brightness.

He looks mostly at dwarf nova stars – binary stars with a white dwarf stealing matter from its companion star. Their brightness or luminosity can jump by orders of magnitude on a cycle of days, months or years. And there are always surprises.

“I don’t know what I’m going to see each night. Some nights, there will be ten outbursts or more amongst my list of stars. Some nights, just one or two. But each night, that leads to an alert I send to astronomers around the world enabling them to study outbursts in the stars of interest to them.

“My favourite star is AR Pavonis; it is a symbiotic binary star with eclipses every 604 days that last 70 days. I’ve got 14 years of data, which I share with a Slovakian astronomer.”

Rod continues to work as a plumber. “The local builders know that if the weather’s good, I won’t be on site until smoko,” Rod says.

In February, he reached the impressive milestone of recording 400,000 visual variable star observations accumulated over the last 30 years.

“Rod is diligent in sharing his observations with the astronomical community,” says Dr Tanya Hill, ASA prizes coordinator and astronomer at the Melbourne Planetarium.

“He alerts the professional community to outbursts and transients that would otherwise go undetected in the southern sky. The quality of his observations is highly regarded and trusted. He has detected many rare and significant outbursts, which has helped to advance knowledge on dwarf novae and black hole X-ray binaries. It is particularly impressive that his observations have contributed to the reclassification of specific stars, and by making hourly observations of stars such as U Piscis Austrini and SW Crateris that has correctly determined their short periods, which professional surveys simply can’t achieve due to a lack of datapoints. Stubbings is a co-author and author of more than 100 refereed research papers,” she says.

See Rod’s website at https://rodstubbingsobservatory.wordpress.com/.

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For interviews with Rod Stubbings or Dr Tanya Hill contact Tanya Ha, Science in Public on 0404 083 863, tanya@scienceinpublic.com.au.

Background information

The Berenice and Arthur Page Medal

The Berenice Page Medal was inaugurated by the ASA in 1972 in memory of Mrs Berenice Page, an exceptional amateur astronomer and foundation member of the Society. Although most ASA members are professional astronomers, Berenice and her husband Arthur, were readily accepted into the Society because of the indispensable part they played in the IAU Flare Star Programme in the 1960s. Arthur Page remained an ASA member until his death in 2011 and, with his family’s agreement, the Society renamed the medal as the Berenice and Arthur Page Medal.

The ASA awards the Berenice and Arthur Page Medal for excellence in amateur astronomy in Australia and its territories. It is normally awarded every two years for scientific contributions by an amateur astronomer that has served to advance astronomy.

Rod Stubbing’s telescope and observatory

Rod’s telescope, named “Infinity”, is a 22″ f/3.8 Dobsonian telescope by SDM Telescopes. It is equipped with ServoCAT for computer assisted control, and a Nexus interface with built in GPS and WiFi. More about Rod’s current and past telescopes: https://rodstubbingsobservatory.wordpress.com/telescope/.

Rod’s observatory is listed as a Private “designated” optical observatory Registry Number – D03-35 under Australian Standards, which is maintained by the Astronomical Society of Australia.

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