Future aligned in the stars: a business venture of astronomical proportions.
It has often been said, after all, that a person is happiest when they can turn a hobby into a way to make a living. The 38-year-old, an avid amateur astronomer, is currently in the early development phase of turning his Thunder Bay observatory into a viable business.
"This is something that has been in the books for me since about 1989," says McAllister. "Over the years, I've made a number of lifestyle changes in order to accommodate this, including things like moving out to the country and putting myself in a financial position to be able to afford to do this.
"There are literally hundreds of thousands of amateur astronomers out there, but only a handful of people paid for it," he says. "I'm trying to bridge that gap."
McAllister, who is an information technology (IT) professional working with the Ontario government, is working on the business venture with the aim of having Thunder Bay become a centre for astronomical research for astronomy enthusiasts, students and professionals worldwide.
"Right now, the few observatories that are available (remotely) are in the southern United States and are geared to educational institutions. And the ones that are privately owned are commercially available, but not readily available. They're just booked solid by three or four to one," he says.
The Thunder Bay Observatory currently consists of a single dome he built that houses a 14-inch aperture telescope, but may eventually be replaced by a 30-inch aperture telescope. The observatory sits on his property on Candy Mountain, about 20 minutes south of Thunder Bay.
"It's a great sight because it is away from interfering light pollution, and because our winters are very cold, we have optimal viewing conditions," says McAllister. "For someone to go outside with their telescope at home when it's 40 below is impractical, so I've tried to make that step for accessing the telescope without going outside. If I'm going through that step, making it available by remote control, my next step is to make it available through the Internet."
McAllister's interest in astronomy dates back as far as he can remember. His first telescope was given to him by his parents so that he could watch the 1986 return of Halley's Comet. Since then, the idea of developing the hobby as a way to make a living has slowly progressed.
"The whole idea was to develop it with a smaller scope and go through the (development) process first so I'm not putting out a large outlay of cash at first," he says. "This is at the point of studying the feasibility of it in terms of the site, the community involvement and the technology. There are a number of benchmarks I'm trying to achieve in the first two years before I start going to a revenue generating activity."
Over the next three years, McAllister says he plans on developing the observatory to be accessible to astronomers of every level, from amateurs interested in doing a bit of imaging, to students and professionals who find it difficult to book time on institutionally-owned telescopes. Internet technology makes it possible to access the observatory from the warmth and comfort of home, wherever in the world home is.
Access would be through a Web site where people could download his own software that would enable people to control the telescope and obtain whatever images or data they required. The development process has also allowed McAllister to identify a number of other potential revenue streams, including the actual use and imaging from the telescope, plans for the observatory that he designed himself, as well as participation in using the telescope.
He is also looking at options such as selling the data from the telescope and being available for presentations to schools or other groups.
"My No. 1 goal is to establish some community presence," he says. That has included "batting" the idea around to test how much interest there is in the program, as well as testing the idea on an international scale to see how many, if any, similar facilities are out there.
Eventually, McAllister foresees a time when there will be more than one telescope on the site, as well as radio telescopes. This would permit astronomers to obtain information on single subjects at a variety of wavelengths.
For now, his main effort is getting the observatory up and running, the Web site and software developed and high-speed Internet access to the site.
"My final plan is to be operational within a year, generating revenue within three years and in full-blown operation within seven years," he says. "I'm not rushing it. With responsibilities like job, mortgage, etc., it seems a fairly reasonable expectation."
By ANDREW WAREING
Northern Ontario Business
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|Publication:||Northern Ontario Business|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2004|
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