Not so Sirius

By Melissa Walsh   Photos: Yanni   

When Clemens Unger started building an observatory in his backyard five years ago, his neighbours thought he was building a small Greek Orthodox Church.  It’s not the typical thing you would see on a suburban Mornington allotment but then Clemens is not a typical man either.

Clemens, who came out to Australia from Germany in 1996, is a self-confessed “nerd”, a title he wears proudly when his four children stir him about his astronomy passion.

“Having been involved in astronomy for my whole life, I am in a lot of organisations and often attend talks which is when the kids say ‘dad’s going to a nerd meeting’,” said Clemens, who fits the ‘Big Bang Theory’ profile perfectly with his handful of masters degrees in chemical engineering, chemistry and business.

For Clemens, his penchant for astronomy and science was written in the stars from a young age.

“My grandfather would point out all the stars and constellations, like Sirius and Orion, and was an avid star gazer, even though he didn’t have a telescope. We would sit outside for hours on end looking up at the sky,” he said.  “When I went to secondary school I then joined the astronomy club and did astronomy camps during the school holidays that went for weeks at a time. At this stage I was only 13, and my parents bought me my first telescope.”

Of course, this was all during the 1970s when space flight was in its prime and, the year before, the young Clemens had witnessed the first man walking on the moon.

“Watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon in 1969 was the thing that hooked me. I will never forget sitting in our living room in Darmstadt (a city near Frankfurt), watching our grainy black and white television and being mesmerised,” said Clemens, who also had another connection to the space program. “I had a relative from Germany from my grandmother’s side who migrated to the US and married an American  involved in the space program. They lived in Cocoa Beach, Florida when I was a little guy and sent me NASA magazines and bits and pieces from the space program.”

For Clemens, these astronauts became his heroes, and he became obsessed with space flight.

“It fascinated me – guys who get strapped on top of a big rocket and shot into space, and I have always followed the space program and had a keen interest in astronomy,” said Clemens, who believes people don’t look up enough. “We live on the Mornington Peninsula where people are passionate about nature but there is more to nature than the ocean, flora and fauna. We need to teach our kids to look up to the sky more because there is a whole lot of nature out there for us to explore.”

After four decades, Clemens has proven that if you want something badly enough, you just have to work towards it, and five years ago he built his observatory.

“It is something I have always wanted and, as I have a very understanding wife, I finally built one in our backyard,” said Clemens of his scientist-style man cave. “It was delivered to the front yard in flat packs and I moved it around to the back to build. It took about three days to put up but three more weeks to assemble the telescope and get everything perfectly aligned.”

Building an observatory has turned out to be practical, as well as fun, cutting down the set up time for star gazing.

“When you are into astronomy and go out at night the biggest pain is packing up. You are out there for hours and then you have to pack up with the risk of dropping expensive equipment. Now everything is set up for me. I just head outside when the weather is conducive and look through my telescope,” said Clemens, half joking that all his equipment is worth the price of a good car.

While he does spend a lot of time out there alone, occasionally one of the kids shows an interest when something significant is happening.

“I have an app on my phone that shows when the space station is coming over and sometimes the kids are interested in checking it out. The real nerds have a more serious application called ISS Detector which picks up a whole lot of different satellites,” he said. “The ISS Detector will tell you when and where to look for the International Space Station or Iridium flares. You get an alarm a few minutes before a pass. You will never miss a pass of the International Space Station and you will never miss the bright flashes of the iridium communication satellites.”

From his observatory Clemens has photographed the sun, moon, stars, planets, nebula, and galaxies millions of light years away.

“With some galaxies millions of light years away, the telescope is like a time machine. The light that goes through the lens and hits your eye left the Andromeda galaxy two and a half million years ago,” he said. “When you put it into that kind of perspective, it’s like the astronauts who say you get a totally different view of earth from space. We are sitting on this tiny little planet called earth and you realise every small thing is not as mightily important as you think. It makes things clearer.”

Meeting astronauts over the years has been a highlight for Clemens, who holds the space program in the highest regard.

“The most famous was Buzz Aldrin, but the person I really liked was Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon. They are all heroes though and have taken risks for the good of humanity and to further our knowledge, and yet they are so down to earth,” said Clemens who believes that space exploration is essential for human development. “It is in our nature to look beyond what we know, and if we stop we are doomed. We need to explore. That’s why Captain Cook came here on a rickety boat to discover the Great Southern Land.”

Clemens says most people see space travel and technology as money wasting exercises, yet we use parts of this technology in our everyday life.

“Your mobile phone, ccd chips, and computers, are applications which originated somehow in that field, and without space research, we wouldn’t have this technology.”