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Former strongman Michael Sidonio discovers new galaxy

As captain of the Australian strongman team Michael Sidonio conquered the physical world, but his past achievements pale beside the astronomical find he helped uncover.

With a paper in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Mr Sidonio, a security controller at the ACT's Legislative Assembly, and his co-authors announced the existence of NGC 253-dw2, a new galaxy.

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Amateur astronomer discovers dwarf galaxy

Michael Sidonio's amateur observatory on the outskirts of Canberra has revealed a small secret of the universe.

One clear night, from his tiny observatory on the outskirts of Canberra, Mr Sidonio captured what he thought was a beautiful photograph of a galaxy about 11.5 million light years from the Milky Way.

A tiny, barely perceptible smudge on the edge of the image caught the attention of astrophysicists.

Amateur astronomer and former strongman Michael Sidonio has discovered a new galaxy named NGC 253-dw2.
Amateur astronomer and former strongman Michael Sidonio has discovered a new galaxy named NGC 253-dw2. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

Mr Sidonio had noticed the same smudge, but brushed it off as a galaxy that someone else, surely, had already seen. Bigger telescopes and further investigations by a team of professional astronomers confirmed it was a new find.

"It seemed grand in one scheme, when you say, 'I discovered a galaxy', and then you see a little smudge on a photograph, near a beautiful, pretty picture of another galaxy," Mr Sidonio said.

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In a suburb of Newcastle, a 15-year-old Michael Sidonio purchased a telescope to point across the valley before realising he could turn it to the sky.

His now mostly electronic telescope still points upwards, where it sits at his Terroux Observatory, at a high point on a horse-raising property in the Yass Valley.

Astronomical images of the new galaxy (circled).
Astronomical images of the new galaxy (circled). Photo: Michael Sidonio

"When you're out here at midnight, it's a perfectly clear night, there's not a breath of wind and the telescope's chugging away and it's getting really good data on amazing objects, I make a cup of coffee, sit on the chair and go, 'How good's this?'," Mr Sidonio said.

Mr Sidonio, whose success as a strongman put him on the Weet-Bix box twice, is humbled by the company he keeps as co-author on an astrophysics scientific paper. But he believes there is a role for backyard astronomers to play in peeling back the mysteries of the universe.

Michael Sidonio competing in the "farmer's walk".
Michael Sidonio competing in the "farmer's walk". Photo: Supplied

"I'm just a little amateur who happened to get lucky, and was able to provide a bit of information so we could discover a little bit more about the universe, so that is pretty cool."

He says the scientific community is now realising there are many amateur telescopes out there, and "they're scanning the universe all the time, and every now and then, they see things".

Science cares very little where the information it uses comes from, Australia's most renowned astrophysicist, the Nobel prize-winning Brian Schmidt said.

"The great thing about discoveries is they're often surprises," Professor Schmidt said.

"One of the things that most people don't realise is that a little telescope, when you take a big broad picture, can see faint things, but faint fuzzy things, equally as well as the largest telescopes in the world."

The new discovery is "remarkable" for what it could reveal about the fundamental problem in explaining the universe, which is the role of dark matter, Professor Schmidt said.

"[Mr Sidonio] went out and took this beautiful picture, and on it was a little galaxy, one of these little galaxies, that we didn't know was there, but might be related to the mysteries of dark matter."

Back on Earth, the challenge the universe puts to Mr Sidonio is a little different to the ones faced as a strongman – to lift more, throw heavier things and drag them further.

"It's more a case of the wonder, what's there, and being able to produce beautiful pieces of art."