My name is Julian W McNeil II, however, everyone simply knows me as "Jay". I was born and raised in a rural area of the Mississippi Delta, near Greenville. This is an area of the United States known for its deep blues musical heritage, its fertile soil, and to my chagrin mosquitoes! Of course, growing up in such an agricultural based community does have some advantages, one of them being very dark skies. My initial interest in the night sky was sparked by my grandfather, who showed me the moon through a small Tasco 50mm refractor when I was about 5 years old. At the age of 12, however, a local city official (and now close friend) showed me Saturn through his 10-inch Cave-Astrola reflector, and I was hooked! I convinced my then divorced parents that my very survival depended upon me owning a telescope, and I was soon given a Tasco 50mm refractor of my own! I was truly obsessed... I would spend summer days at the library devouring every word from every book on astronomy that I could find. I would spend sleepless hours outside each and every clear night, often fighting off swarms of mosquitoes and occasional frostbite just to learn the constellations and their intricate patterns.

   I could not see it at the time, but I now know that everyone around me must have thought that I had gone off the deep end. Try as I might, I simply could not explain this fascination to others nor could I get them even mildly interested. To me, however, it was much more than a hobby. For I had found great contentment in the solitude that was offered by the nighttime sky. You see, as a child I often found myself having a difficult time understanding people and their actions. But the universe somehow made sense to me. The more I watched and studied the sky, the more predictable it's actions become! Although I could not yet fully comprehend Kepler's laws of celestial motion, I found myself quite capable of knowing just which day, what time, and over which distant tree the brilliant stars of Orion's belt would first be visible each and every year. I admired nothing more than that great hunter rising everso higher in the sky each and every cold winter night. And I found great solace in the fact that the astronomers of antiquity, even those of ancient Egypt some 4000 years before me, anticipated the very same sighting!

   Anyhow, this was 1983, and I knew that Halley's Comet would be making it's "once in a lifetime" voyage around our inner solar system in just a few short years...I was going to be prepared. But I was also somewhat dismayed. After spending countless hours peering into my small scope at the rings of Saturn, the bright Galilean moons of Jupiter, and of course our very own moon, I begin to ask myself "what else is there to see out there?" I just knew that my small scope would not show all of those wonderful nebulae and distant galaxies that adorned the covers of those glossy astronomy magazines and text books. Right? These sprawling clouds of glowing gas and stars were being photographed by some of the world's largest telescopes from atop some of the highest mountains...not from the banks of a local catfish pond with a Tasco refractor, where the astronomers had to thrash about every now and then in order to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Furthermore, these socalled "deep sky" objects often had exotic names like Messier 1 or Messier 42. I could only assume that this Messier guy must be using the 200-inch reflector at Palomar to find these things. A bit further reading, however, revealed that the Messier deep sky objects were actually discovered during the 18th century by a French comet hunter named Charles Messier with relatively small telescopes! So one clear night, I gave it a shot. I grabbed my Peterson's Field Guide to the Stars and Planets, and looked through the index to find the object known as Messier 1. As I pored over the notes, I learned that M1 was a supernova remnant known as the Crab Nebula, and that it was the "left-overs" from a gigantic explosion of a massive star that had occured in a relatively nearby area of our very own Milky Way galaxy. What made this event even more awesome was that the actual explosion was unexpectedly recorded by Chinese and Arabic star gazers in the year 1054AD as a "guest star" that was visible for many days even during the daylight hours!

   With my scope perched atop it's wobbly tripod, I set out to find my prey. Like the ancient hunter Orion with primative weapon in hand, I stalked this elusive crab. I hopped from star to star with my low powered instrument until I was just north of a star known as Zeta Tauri. According to the literature, this is where my quarry lay hidden in the vastness of space. Then it happened! A faint fuzzy object flew through my field of view. I quickly slewed the scope back to where I had captured the faint glow, and there it was, Messier 1. I was glimpsing light that had been blasted through space and time for more than 6500 years before reaching my eye! I, of course, thought that was a mighty long distance for photons to travel, but I had no idea at that time just how much further I could actually see with a larger telescope.

   At the age of 23, I purchased a 16-inch Starmaster, which stood about 7 foot tall and had an increased light gathering ability of around 6400% compared to my boyhood Tasco refractor. I began a program of rather serious visual observing, note taking, and even sketching many socalled deep sky objects. By the age of 30, I had logged literally thousands of visual observations, including successful sightings of more than 400 various planetary nebulae (another type of nebula created by a dying star). Many of the objects that I was able to catch glimpses of with the large reflector existed at the very edge of what was possible with amateur telescopes. Some were estimated to be more than 1 billion light years from earth! Think about it...imagine catching the faint glow of the Abell 2065 galaxy cluster in Corona Borealis. According to modern theory, the packets of light striking your retina at that very moment have been traversing the depths of space and time for more than a billion years. When that light left it's source, there were no plants nor animals on Earth, our planet's atmosphere contained less than 2% oxygen, and one Earth day was about 18 of our current hours in length! Other amateur astronomers soon showed great interest in what I was doing, and between the years of 1999 and 2000, I wrote a series of articles for Sky and Telescope Magazine in order to share a few of my observations with others.

   Then it happened. I'll never forget the night that it all changed. It was mid October 1999, and a coolfront had swept through Texas. So the Houston Astronomical Society's observing field near Columbus, Texas was quite busy. It was past midnight, it was cold, and I had just climbed down Larry Mitchell's 18-foot ladder from where I had been perched for atleast 15 minutes trying to see this heavily obscured galaxy known as Dwingaloo I. Yes, this guy's telescope was some 20 foot tall when pointed straight up! It was one of those "well, maybe, kinda, uhhh...but wait I sorta see the same smudge over here also" know, one of those type observations. And I remind you, this is through a 36-inch scope aptly named "King of the Photons"! Then suddenly the side door of an imported van across the observing field slides open and some fellow climbs out. He literally stumbles over to the 36-inch scope and says softly, "Do any of you guys want to see Dwingaloo I?" I thought to myself, "Sure, whatever! This ought to be interesting..." So I walked over towards the distant van, when I suddenly realized that this guy had something like an 8-inch scope on a little Takahashi equatorial mount set up! I was nearly in the about-face position when I noticed there were a bundle of wires leading from the scope into the sliding door of the van. He reached and slid open the door, and BAM! There on the computer screen before me was an awesome image of Dwingaloo I taken with an 8-inch reflector whilst I was literally weeping atop this 18-foot ladder giving it all I had visually! Needless to say, I was hooked once again...the 36-incher suddenly didn't seem so tough after all, and my good ol' 16-incher was almost a joke compared to this guys 8-inch scope with this CCD-thing.

   From that moment on, my interest in astronomy changed from visual observation to taking digital images of the many objects that I had spent my entire life peering at through the telescope. I have since owned a number of Charge Couple Device type imaging cameras and a plethora of telescopes, from homemade Newtonian astrographs to apochromatic refractors having lenses made from exotic materials. My primary interest at this point is high resolution imaging of distant galaxies using an 11-inch Aplanatic Schmidt-Cassegrain that has a focal length of nearly 2800 mm at f/10. In the spring of 2004, I actually discovered a rare object known as an FU Orionis type variable star along with it's associated reflection nebula, now affectionately known as "McNeil's Nebula". The star responsible for McNeil's Nebula, officially known as V1647 Orionis, appears to be a young stellar object. In other words, it is a star not unlike our very own Sun that is in the process of being born out of a womb of interstellar gas and dust. It has been theorized that all stars begin their life cycles in this way. It is, however, a rare prize to capture one during the process. As the fetal star gathers material from the surrounding clouds, it will ocassionally acquire enough mass in order to produce a sudden "outburst" of light that is visible across much of the electromagnetic spectrum and illuminates the surrounding area of sky. I happened to be imaging this star's parental cloud of gas during one such outburst. V1647 Orionis has since been called a "missing link" in stellar evolutionary theory by astrophysicists. McNeil's Nebula has disappeared and reappeared, as the associated star goes in and out of outburst, every several years since it's discovery and continues to be studied by astronomers worldwide.

   Of course, astronomy isn't my only interest. I have always been inquisitive, especially regarding the forces (natural or otherwise) that govern both the universe and the many facets of human nature. Books concerning archaeology, cosmology, evolutionary psychology, paleontology, and religion often find themselves in my hands. I do, however, have specific interests in regards to religious faith and scientific discovery, and how they have both managed to influence history and the civilzation of mankind. It never ceases to amaze me, the multitude of new questions that arise with each and every shard of enlightenment that I obtain. But, alas, this is my nature and I have learned to embrace it. I can't think of a better way to say it, so I will simply quote someone who already has...“As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it.”--Albert Einstein

    Here is my Celestron C-14 Schmidt-Cassegrain (3908 mm focal length at f/11).

This is a shot of my "homebrew" 10-inch Newtonian astrograph (1472 mm focal legth at f/5.8). Yes...that is duct tape and cardboard Sonotube from Lowes! This image was taken inside my old backyard observatory near Paducah, KY.

Here is the 120mm Skywatcher apochromatic refractor (900 mm focal length at f/7.5)

Here is a shot of the 3-inch Takahashi FCT-76 refractor that was used in the discovery of McNeil's Nebula (487mm focal length at f/6.4).

Here is a quick shot of the observatory that I designed and built in my backyard in Mississippi. This is during construction, of course. The entire roof rolls off and on with the push of a hand! Note that the concrete pier footer and anchor bolts have already been set near the buildings center.

Email me at: jay_mcneil(at)deepskyastro(dot)com

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