Leonard Ellul Mercer

In the second series of Meet the Astronomer, we meet Leonard Ellul Mercer, a well-respected Maltese astronomer and astrophotographer. Leonard has been imaging the Universe for more than 25 years. He has featured in several TV series about astronomy, and his passion for the subject has inspired countless people to look up and photograph the night sky.

How it started

It all started in 1995 with the advent of the Internet in Malta. At the time, the number of websites was still minute compared to the present day. However, one website on the solar system caught my attention and interest. Around the same time, I joined the Astronomical Society of Malta and by doing so I increased my knowledge of Astronomy.

Equipment

My first telescope was a 4.5″ reflector telescope, but I was quite disappointed with what I could observe with it. In 2005, I came across an advert from Celestron US and I purchased an 8” Schmidt Cassegrain telescope on a computerized mount and a Meade DSI CCD colour camera. This telescope and mount limited my exposure time, and by replacing the heavy 8″ scope with a lighter 80mm refractor telescope, I was able to increase my exposure time and as a result, my imaging improved.

As my interest increased, in 2007 I purchased a Celestron CGE (equatorial) mount with an 11″ telescope and Meade DSI mono with LRGB & H-alpha filters. With this setup, I participated in Meade DSI imaging competitions, and on two separate occasions, I placed first and second. In 2008, I was awarded this certificate:

A little while later I purchased an SBIG ST10 XME CCD camera which is an excellent camera and which I still use. This led to a big step forward in astrophotography and it improved my imaging considerably. (Some of my images appeared on the well-known astronomy site Universe Today).  A few months later, I purchased a 2.2-meter Pulsar Dome observatory. As this setup was more suited for close-up imagery, I wanted to capture wide-field images of deep-sky objects as well. So in 2008,  I purchased a Takahashi 106 FSQ ED refractor on a TAK EM11 mount and an SBIG STL10000 CCD camera. This setup is unique in allowing me to capture some fantastic images in wide-field. This led me to purchase my second 2.2m dome observatory. In 2013, I decided to go for a 10″ Ritchey-Chrétien telescope (RCT or simply RC) telescope and a Paramount MX robotic mount to obtain even better close-ups than ever before. Obviously, this required the third dome to house this setup.

Leonard’s three roof observatories

One telescope which has produced fantastic solar images for me is the Coronado PST 40 with a 40mm Solarmax Double Stack. I have had this telescope for the last 10 years and it is still a telescope I treasure because the images taken with it are breathtaking.

As time went by, my imaging capabilities improved and I am pleased to state that my images have been appreciated by many including very experienced international imagers, some of whom have been of great help to me to reach such a standard.

As Astrophotography was my main hobby at that time, I also did my best to inspire others to start this fantastic hobby.

Moon for all Mankind

The year 2009 was an important one for me. It was the International Year of Astronomy (IYA) and the 40th anniversary of the Moon landing in 1969. As a member of the IYA Committee, we wanted to come up with some projects to commemorate the year. With the assistance of Gordon Caruana Dingli, we came up with the idea to take an image of the full Moon, which I imaged, divide it into 40 sections and invite 40 countries to photograph that section of the Moon. It was a painstaking process and obtaining all 40 images took quite some time. When all the participating countries had sent their images, I created a mosaic which I called “The Moon for all Mankind”.

The Moon for all Mankind project was a very big success and appeared in over 140 participating countries. In fact, Puerto Rico contacted me to have a live interview with me on their local radio station via telephone.

Link to the official site of Moon for all Mankind: https://iya2009malta.page.tl/the-moon-for-all-mankind.htm
Also featured on Universe Today: https://www.universetoday.com/34939/moon-for-all-mankind/

But this was not the end of the Man for all Mankind project. My friend, Gordon Caruana Dingli, suggested that I create a video with background music by a local composer. This was a big feat for me but I accepted. After having finished the video, I asked the singer and composer Lynn Faure Chircop to compose a nice piece of music to accompany the video. I am very pleased to say that she composed a great piece of music which she played and recorded herself. The video was shown at the theatre of St James Cavalier one evening organized by the IYA Committee with the support of the American Embassy.

Malta International Symposium on Near Earth Hazardous Asteroids

In October 2009, a very important symposium took place in Malta. This was the Malta International Symposium on Near-Earth Hazardous Asteroids, which was attended by the crème de la crème: scientists, astronomers, spaceship builders, representatives of ESA, NASA, Institute of Astronomy of France, and Universities of USA, Europe, Russia (Tomsk State University in Siberia), Ukraine and Saudi Arabia.  Being the only Maltese attending, apart from my friend Gordon Caruana Dingli who was present for the opening day,  I was invited to give a short speech at the beginning of the symposium and it was then that the “Moon for All Mankind” video was shown to the participants who appreciated the concept which brings all nations together, irrespective of their politics or creed. On a negative note, it was a pity that the symposium was not given much importance on the local media and it was only through my intervention that PBS produced a 2-minute feature in the evening news bulletin. I was also very surprised that no one from the University of Malta attended.

Link to an article in the Malta Independent newspaper featuring the Malta International Symposium: https://www.independent.com.mt/articles/2009-10-13/news/malta-international-symposium-on-near-earth-hazardous-asteroids-264724/

Exhibitions

Also in 2009, I exhibited my astrophotography images at the Italian Culture Centre at the Palace Square, Valletta. This exhibition was open for an entire month. I also exhibited my images at the Chinese Culture Centre in Valletta, the University of Malta, and other places like schools. The exhibition was all my own work, including the printing of the photos using my printer.

This is place where the exhibition took place at the Italian Culture Centre:

And here I am addressing those invited from various foreign embassies and consulates for the opening of the IYA 2009 at the Phoenicia Hotel. The invitees were shown a video of mine called “Moon Encounter” and which is composed of my own lunar images. A copy of this video was given to astronaut Harrison Schmidt of Apollo 17, during his visit to Malta in 2010, who gladly signed a copy of this video for me.

Leonard at the opening of the International Year of Astronomy 2009

During 2009, I did a lot of outreach through my astrophotography and I produced many videos with my images. During that same year, I visited around 40 schools and colleges, including the Junior College, and gave talks and presentations relating to astronomy. At one of these talks, given to very young students at the Conference Centre, there must have been at least 300 students who enjoyed the talk and presentation, and I believe they must have learnt something about the beauty of the night sky.

Through this great hobby of mine, I managed to meet some very important people in the field of Astronomy. To mention a few, I had the honour to meet the famous Alex Fillipenko (A Discovery Ch. Personality) and Br. Guy Consolmango, the Pope’s main Astronomer, both of who visited my observatories and setups.

Another personality who I had the honour to meet was Brian May CBE, the lead guitarist for the band Queen and also an astrophysicist. I had a nice conversation backstage with him before his great concert about four years ago at the Palace Square, Valletta.

Leonard with Brain May

TV Work

In 2006, I was invited on the Educational Channel 22 TV station to appear on a weekly basis and talk about Astronomy with the help of some beautiful images I found on the web and also some of my first images. These 20-minute TV slots – which ran from October 2006 till the end of June 2006 – were very popular and generated a lot of interest from the viewers. At the time, a computerized go-to mount was a novel thing and it was impressive to watch the telescope slew to any object via a hand control with a database of 40,000 objects.

In 2008, I produced a series of seven Astronomy programs called “Inharsu l’Fuq” which were shown on PBS Educational Channel 22 on a two-weekly basis. It was intended for the public with little knowledge about the subject.  I touched all the important parts of astronomy, being planets, galaxies, nebulae, constellations, the moon, famous astronomers, etc. Part of this series was also devoted to telescopes for observation of the Night Sky and also cameras for astrophotography. It was very well received by the viewers. My intention was always to promote Astronomy in a way that everyone would understand without my being too technical.

My latest TV work was series of talks and presentations on the popular daily programme “Kikkra Te” on NET Tv. The programme ran from Christmas eve 2020 until May 2021, on a two-week basis, using my images and animated videos. The feedback from the viewers was excellent. So I am pleased that I managed to teach something about the beauties of the heavens to the public, many of whom knew nothing about the subject.

To conclude, my great satisfaction is that I managed to inspire a good number of ASM members to start imaging, and today I am pleased to note that a good number of them are obtaining good results, as well.

Leonard

If you want to see more astrophotography images taken by Leonard over the years please visit his Flickr page: https://www.flickr.com/photos/32733026@N08