Space Weather Scientist

This is Space Weather Scientist Dr Alan Brockman in front of his purpose-built Deep Southern Skies Observatory in the Byron hinterland. I met Alan through local soccer club Eureka FC and wrote an article about his fascinating life story for Byron News. Before moving to Federal, the Brockman’s were living in the small, Western Australian town of Exmouth on the North West cape, where he was working as a space weather scientist and the Australian manager of the Learmonth Solar Observatory, conjointly run by the U.S. Airforce Weather Agency.

“I am originally from Sydney but studied for a Master’s Degree in Tropical Medicine at a Thailand University and spent the next 12 years on the Thai-Burmese border working in malaria research with displaced Karen refugees,” he explained. “I also completed a PhD in malaria with the University of Queensland over that time and commenced a Master’s degree in astronomy and astrophysics – just for fun!”

In 2003 Alan relocated to Darwin to continue working in malaria research where, by chance, he came across a vacancy for a space weather scientist at Learmonth. “I was so intrigued that I applied for the position and was successful, so I moved with my family to Exmouth in 2006 to realise a long standing dream of turning my passion for amateur astronomy into a profession.”

Late 2009, and three years into the job, Alan was cycling home from the observatory, a distance of 36km, when he was deliberately run down by a disgruntled work colleague – “whose probation I had just written a negative review” – driving at highway speed and was hit from behind. The driver was subsequently charged and convicted with causing grievous bodily harm with intent and jailed for 10 1/2 years (though recently reduced on appeal to 8 1/2 years). The injuries were life threatening and catastrophic with multiple head and spinal fractures and nerve injury.

“Expert care on the side of the road by the volunteer ambulance crew and doctors no doubt saved my life,” Alan said. “Ironically, being a volunteer ambulance officer myself, I was called out to my own accident. I was rushed by the Royal Flying Doctor Service to Royal Perth Hospital and spent three months in spinal traction and another six months in and out of hospital for multiple orthopaedic surgery.”

The highly esteemed scientist formally retired, moving his family from the most westerly point in Australia to the most easterly point. “We came across a beautiful property in Federal with wide open skies and the opportunity to continue with my longstanding interest in astronomy,” he said.

Hidden amongst Alan’s tropical garden is a state-of-the-art, split roof observatory that houses two main telescopes: a 12.5 inch diameter CDK (Corrected Dall-Kirkham Astrograph) scope and a 6” diameter refractor.

“I have not made any discoveries as such, however, every time I turn my telescope to an object I have never seen before, it becomes a journey of discovery on a personal level and I try to learn as much about that object as possible,” Alan said. “I am continually fascinated by the fact that the light from these distant objects have been travelling for thousands and millions and tens of millions of years, unimpeded through the depths of space, to reach the CCD chip on my camera to be recorded and observed. It overwhelms me.”

Since establishing the Deep Southern Skies Observatory on my property in Federal, Alan hopes to make it open for public viewing and also as a homestay for international amateur astronomers interested in digital astrophotography.

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Photography by Veda Dante.

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