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The comet that brought a Chinese astronomer to Canberra

Man standing in front of two telescopes on the top of a mountain.
Dr Fuyan Bian standing in front of the Keck telescopes he uses for his research, at the Mauna Kea Observatories in Hawaii.

Supplied: Fuyan Bian

The last time Halley's Comet travelled near Earth it also set a small boy on the path to an astronomy career which has taken him to Beijing, Arizona, and now Canberra.

When Halley's Comet last came near the Earth in 1986, people around the world went outside to see if they could spot it in the night sky.

One of them was a little boy growing up in the small city of Benxi, in Liaoning province in north-eastern China.

Halley's Comet
A photo of Halley's Comet from it's near-Earth visit in 1986.

Credit: NASA

"My uncle and my father, they go outside and use a small binocular [to] try to search for that comet," says Dr Fuyan Bian, now an astronomer at Mount Stromlo Observatory, part of the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra. "Some nights I also go out with them."

While the trio did not successfully find the comet, Dr Bian's first taste of astronomy was a memorable one.

"I was impressed by… all the stars in the sky," he says.

Dr Bian's father was a science fan and read a Chinese journal called Amateur Astronomer every month. When Dr Bian was in junior high school he started to read it too, and got hooked on astronomy.

"[It was] one of my dreams that I can own my own telescope."

"At that time my family is not very rich so the telescope is basically a very expensive thing for them," he says.

There were also no stores that sold telescopes in the small city where they lived.

It wasn't until Dr Bian was 16 that his father was able to buy him his first telescope.

"I really appreciated my dad for that," he says.

While most parents in China were keen for their children to focus all their energies on their classwork, Dr Bian's father was more open-minded and encouraged his son's interest in astronomy.

He had been a teenager during the Cultural Revolution in China and so couldn't finish his schooling and had to work as a driver for a factory instead.

"I think he regretted that he had not finished that," Dr Bian says. "He put everything on me and basically I am making his dream come true."

Pursuing a career in astronomy

But Dr Bian's desire to pursue further studies in astronomy faced a hurdle when he couldn't find a university astronomy program that would take him.

"In China at that time, there are only four universities [that] offer this astronomy major," he says, "and… they only recruit like 20 or 30 students."

In the year Dr Bian was applying they didn't want to recruit any students from his province.

"So the story is that I know there is no hope for me at that year to go to any astronomy department."

On the advice of an astronomer he knew, he started a Bachelor of Science in Physics at Tsinghua University in Beijing instead.

Two years later the university set up the Tsinghua Centre for Astrophysics, and Dr Bian was able to study there.

Supernova G1.9+0.3
A supernova is an exploding star.

Credit: NASA/CXC/CfA/S. Chakraborti et al.

"I [was] involved in both theoretical and observational projects, and it turns out I like the observational better than theoretical."

He stayed at Tsinghua to do his masters degree.

"Actually I was... the first student based in university to find a supernova in China, that's basically big news at that time."

Probing the edge of the universe

Dr Bian really likes galaxies, in particular he studies very distant galaxies.

Due to the time it takes for the light from those galaxies to reach us, he is looking back in time to when these galaxies were infants, one to two billion years after the Big Bang (which took place about 13.8 billion years ago).

"Basically I want to probe the edge of the universe," Dr Bian says, which is why he went to the University of Arizona in 2007 to undertake his PhD because they have a very strong program doing that type of observational research.

He says by studying how these very, very distant galaxies form we can get a better understanding of how galaxies form in general, like our own Milky Way, and how they evolve with cosmic time .

There are two reasons such research is important.

"I think one thing is the curiosity because we all want to know… why this universe looks like this."

And we have to push the technology - our telescopes and our cameras - to the limit in order to see these distant galaxies, Dr Bian says.

These galaxies are a billion times fainter than the faintest star in the sky we can see with the naked eye.

Surveying the southern skies

Man standing in front of an observatory
Dr Fuyan Bian at Mount Stromlo Observatory where he now works.

Supplied: Fuyan Bian

After he finished his PhD in the United States in 2013 Dr Bian was applying for different jobs. He chose to become a Stromlo fellow at the ANU partly because the university was getting time on the two Keck telescopes in Hawaii - the world's largest optical and infrared telescopes - which he heavily uses for his research.

But the southern sky has taken some getting used to.

"It's quite different. Basically everything is upside down," he says, although it isn't without its perks.

"When I moved to Australia, the first few weeks I spend my time actually on the mountain, they offer me a little house there.

"My daughter and I sometimes went outside to search for the Magellanic Clouds and in time we do successfully [find them]."

It sounds like the love of astronomy is being passed on to another generation.

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