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Alan Friedman: Astronomer

Get to know a Buffalonian...

Alan Friedman: Astronomer

The president of the award-winning greeting card company Great Arrow Graphics by day, Friedman really comes alive at his night job. Buffalo’s premiere backyard astronomer and president of the Buffalo Astronomical Association, Friedman is also a highly accomplished photographer. His breathtaking images of the cosmos have been featured across the web and numerous times on the NASA picture of the day website. You can view his incredible work at

When and how did you first develop an interest in space. Were there any particularly inspiring moments to you?

I attended a public high school in NYC that specialized in math and science... that competition was stiff enough to encourage my drift towards the arts. The reawakening happened when I ran into a friend who had wheeled a large telescope out onto a Buffalo street corner to give passers by a look at saturn. I climbed up on a ladder to see (it was a BIG scope). I was mesmerized by the experience... hooked. I bought my first telescope shortly after. I’ve had some amazing experiences at the eyepiece of a telescope, but this first encounter with saturn is what opened my eyes to all that came after.

From a photographic standpoint, what is Buffalo like as a viewing locale? What are some of the challenges facing WNY astronomers?

It’s awful in many ways that you might expect... endless months of lake-effect clouds. Half a year where the clear nights come with sub-freezing temperatures. The jet stream and its atmospheric turbulence is parked in the airspace over Buffalo most of the year. But my back door is located in the city of Buffalo. The best astronomy opportunities happen close to home, so I’ve built my interest in astronomy to center on objects that I can observe from my backyard. I try to do the best work I can within the limits of my location.

What kind of equipment is necessary for the amateur astronomer/photographer? Whats the easiest way to get into this hobby?

Perhaps the easiest project to explore in astro-photography is using a camera (without a telescope) to record the star trails caused by the earth’s rotation. All you need is a camera with a shutter that can be left open and a tripod. A long shutter setting will capture the beautiful arcs of starlight created as the earth rotates on its axis. Astro-photography through a telescope consists of placing a camera body where the eyepiece would go. This requires a steady mount that tracks the sky, which can be expensive. The solar system photography that I do uses a video camera (an industrial webcam, actually) placed in the back of the telescope. The camera is connected to a laptop and the focusing is done real time while watching the image on the laptop screen. From there, it gets a little complicated!

Whats the most meaningful or memorable photo that you’ve taken?

I’ve had the good fortune to capture some wonderful sights through my telescopes. I’ll share a couple of my favorites with a bit of background on them:

These two recent solar images are among my best. Each had a somewhat wild run on the internet that resulted in a lot of international press attention and a couple of interviews on MSNBC Today show:,

This image of the International Space Station passing in front of the sun also includes the docked space shuttle Discovery on its final mission:

This tableau of saturn images records the changes seen over six years of observing the ringed planet from my backyard:

A moment recorded from the transit of the planet Venus in front of the sun... taken from the rooftop of the Buffalo Museum of Science. This was the first transit of Venus in more than 100 years. No one alive had witnessed one. I watched this with 500 early risers in a public event that I held at the Museum to witness and celebrate this rare phenomenon.

I’ve spent a lot of time recording the lunar surface at high resolution, but this simple view of the waxing crescent moon was the first image of mine to be published:

Do you have a favorite object in space? Something you never tired of capturing?

Saturn... but it is very difficult, requiring high magnification and very steady and stable air. I also love shooting our neighborhood star. The sun changes from day to day - there is always something new to observe and photograph.

What were your feelings about the decision to discontinue the Space Shuttle program? What will it take to get kids excited about space and engineering again?

I think we all feel a little sad to see the Space Shuttle program end without a clear next generation manned mission in sight. But for me, the most thrilling programs are the missions to explore and photograph the universe with robotic equipment. The Mars Rover mission, the Cassini probe out by Saturn, the Solar Dynamics Observatories, and of course, the Hubble Space Telescope... this is the stuff that dreams are made of and we are receiving their thrills on a daily basis.

If you could choose one accomplishment in space to be achieved in your lifetime, what would it be?

If I could see one accomplishment achieved, it would be to turn down the lights on earth so that we can once again see the night sky above our heads. If we could observe the stars from our backyards again, it would do more to inspire exploration of the universe than anything else. And we don’t have to dream up any new technology to get there. We just have to make good collective environmental decisions. Easy, right?!

With all your time spent looking into space, have you ever seen a UFO? Do you believe in them?

Lots of them... but there are tens of thousands of things orbiting in the space above earth. What is unidentified by me is generally known to someone... military satellites, weather balloons... But if you mean UFOs coming from other places with aliens in them? No. By listening to first hand reports of these experiences, it is clear that aliens are selecting the wackiest characters on earth to approach. If there really were UFOS and aliens out there, they would have found me a long time ago.

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