2018 Shoemaker NEO Grant Winner - Donald Pray
Donald (Don) Pray, winner of the Planetary Society’s 2018 Shoemaker NEO Grant, has had an interest in anything astronomical dating back to his earliest days of glancing up at the sky. Aware of his wide-eyed curiosity, Don’s parents gifted him an amateur, department store telescope…one that would eventually begin his ongoing expedition through the awe-inspiring complexities of the universe.
It wasn’t until the 1980’s that Don realized astronomy was not only a hobby but a way of life. This realization compelled him to move to a dark sky site and to purchase his first “real” telescope, a Meade DS-16. He spent approximately two years enjoying the ease of visual observing, during which he also began manually guiding a 35mm SLR using a joystick controller.
After mastering the ability to capture images of classic, deep-sky targets, Don’s interest in astronomy intensified. Fueled by his inquisitiveness, he purchased an Optec SSP3 photoelectric photometer and began performing stellar photometry for the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO).
Later, Don built a Cookbook 245 CCD Camera from a kit. Although skeptical of its effectiveness, the Cookbook 245 proved to be effective and as a result led Don to first, discover asteroids, and then produce light-curves, displaying brightness variations with time. Eventually, he upgraded to an SBIG ST-7 CCD camera, and from there worked upward to more capable CCDs.
In 2005, Don joined the ranks of an international effort, led by Dr. Petr Pravec, which involved surveying the asteroid population to discover the prevalence of binary asteroids. Don has since discovered the binary nature of more asteroids than any other amateur observer and has been featured in such journals as Icarus and Nature.
Like many amateurs, Don bought and sold a variety of telescopes, always with the goal of obtaining more aperture and better pointing quality, which led him to two superb mount manufacturers, Astro-Physics and Software Bisque.
Don’s passion and tenacity awarded him a few Gene Shoemaker NEO Grants, and as a result, he is now proudly operating two, 20”, f/4 astrographs, one mounted on a Paramount ME, and the other on an aging AP-1200. With the use of his CCD cameras (SBIG-10XME and a QSI-632) and Optec TCF-2 digital focusers, these observing systems can point at and take sequential images of target asteroids throughout the night. The astrographs are simple reflectors, partially built by Don, himself. He had the mirrors professionally ground, however many of the other components (a mirror cell, an OTA truss, and both spiders) came to life in his basement.
The 2018 Gene Shoemaker Grant awarded to Don will supply funding to purchase a new AP-1600 mount which is more appropriate for handling the weight of a 20” OTA. The new mount will improve image quality and overall pointing and tracking capability, and that, in turn, will improve data capture and photometric accuracy.