TO THE MOON AND BACK

AM TALKS TO AMATEUR ASTRONOMER, TOM MCCRORIE

Gill Sherry

In this modern world of technology, so many of us spend far too long looking down at our laptops or our phones. Even the most memorable moments – live concerts, football matches, ceremonies, firework displays – are witnessed through a tiny screen to be viewed at a later date, rather than enjoyed first-hand.

There are, however, so many reasons to look up. Even at night. Especially at night.

Galloway Forest is renowned for being one of the first Dark Sky Parks in Europe but Ayrshire is also blessed with some amazing stargazing locations, as amateur astronomer and astrophotographer, Tom McCrorie, knows only too well.

“I’ve always had a massive passion for space,” Tom tells me when I ask why and when he took up the hobby. “My wife got me a starter telescope for my 50th birthday and the passion just exploded from there.”

Tom, a full-time branding strategist and graphic designer, enjoyed taking pictures with his new telescope but soon realised he needed to see more.

“That little starter scope was great because it allowed me to take amazing pictures of the moon and planets. Looking back, they’re still amazing to see, but the images I can take now are mind blowing to me.”

Tom upgraded his telescope after three months but would urge anyone interested in the hobby to get a book and binoculars.

“I learned so much about the moon,” he says. “I even self-published a book about it.”

50 Shades of Titanium was published in 2022. It’s a factual book with an irreverent side.

“The hobby can be a little stuffy and taken quite seriously. I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen so I created a tongue-in-cheek moon book. It gives an indication of how big the craters are in relation to everyday objects like the Eiffel Tower. Then you get an idea of how vast these things can be.”

The humorous slant comes courtesy of Tom pairing the craters names given by the International Astronomical Union, such as Rost and Pitatus.

The main purpose of the book, he informs me, was not just to tell people about amateur astronomy but also to inspire them and show them how accessible it is.

“I learned so much about it that I wanted to impart that to other people who maybe just started in the hobby. There’s a huge amount of learning involved with the equipment… but it’s fairly accessible to buy.”

Tom’s first telescope allowed him to stand in his back garden in Prestwick and look at the moon, Jupiter and Saturn. He describes it as an exciting start to his journey which has resulted in him setting up a business.

“Everyone in the astro community… we all post our images on social media. But I spotted really quickly that social media is broken. We see images based on an algorithm or things we’ve spoken about, and our own amazing space images are hidden behind TikTok dance videos, adverts, spam and fake accounts.”
I know exactly what he means. And it’s a shame because Tom’s pictures are stunning and not enough people are getting to see them.

“The images that I want to share with people to inspire them to look up have been lost. So I thought, I need to craft, design and develop something that allows the community to share with each other but also share with people who actually have an interest in the hobby.”

He refers to it as an image sharing platform for space nerds that will consist entirely of space, science and astronomy content, and where the images will be seen and appreciated by those with a genuine interest (www.Picastroapp.com).

Tom goes on to explain about the Bortle Scale which measures the brightness of the night sky in different areas, 1 being the best, and 9 the worst.

“I’m really lucky here in Prestwick because on a clear night you can see so many stars. And even a galaxy if you know where to look. Prestwick is Bortle 4, which is not too bad. I went to Perthshire… Bortle 2… that’s where I saw a bit of the Milky Way for the first time ever. The sky was insanely clear, there were so many stars!”

One of Tom’s favourite photographs is his Rosette nebula, so named because it resembles the shape of a rosette. It’s his favourite because, he says, there’s a Herbig–Haro object in it.

A what?

“They are formed when narrow jets of partially ejected ionized gas ejected by stars collide with nearby clouds of gas. This is the stuff that makes it really exciting.”

He shows me another image, this time of the Pacman nebula.

“That took 50 hours to take,” he says. “To be fair… the software kind of does it for you. It helps you to point in the right direction and to track the stars. If I had to do this manually, I’m not sure I’d have the patience for it.”

Seeing as Tom spends so much time looking up at the sky (and beyond), I ask if he thinks there is other intelligent life up there.

“That’s a really good question. The closest galaxy to us is the Andromeda galaxy. That’s 2.5 million light years away. It’s one of the biggest galaxies in our local group of galaxies, and even within Andromeda there are trillions of stars like our sun, with planets orbiting those stars. You’d be crazy daft to think there wasn’t other intelligent life forms, whatever that life form might take.”

And does he honestly believe man has walked on the moon or is that a 55-year conspiracy theory?

“It’s definitely not fake,” says Tom. “One reason you can tell it’s not fake is because there are three mirrors on the moon and those mirrors are used to calculate how far the moon is moving away from us every year. Humans put them there.”

Fair enough.

Although Tom is still very much an amateur when it comes to astronomy, his knowledge is vast. This is one of the reasons why Tom wants to initiate discussions with South Ayrshire Council about light pollution.

“There’s a massive movement to encourage Councils to use lighting that helps mitigate light pollution.”

Watch this space. In the meantime, Tom is keen to point out the well-being benefits associated with the hobby.

“One thing the community is really conscious of is the mental health aspect. It’s so grounding. You can take yourself away to your happy place. Also, on the new platform… there won’t be any spam, or fake accounts, or the horrible stuff that you get on existing social media. The hobby is filled with people who are so inclusive and helpful.”

I can certainly understand the appeal. Being able to see those nebulae and galaxies must be awesome and I’m drawn again to Tom’s incredible photographs. But although Tom gets immense pleasure from taking images with his telescope, he still enjoys looking up at the night sky with his naked eye.

“It’s calming to stand out on a crisp cloudless evening and just look up, because you can see so much. It’s genuinely humbling. I still stand in my back garden and look at the moon. There are millions of craters on the moon, you will always see something different.”