A Shot in the Dark

Andromeda Galaxy, M31 (my first attempt with the new rig)

I imagine that there are dozens, if not hundreds of amateur astronomy blogs; why start another? Especially when the author is a fledgling astrophotographer, stumbling and groping through the night with his red headlamp, trying to get a reasonable shot of the famous Andromeda Galaxy. There are thousands of excellent views of this colossal galaxy, a mere 2.5 million light-years away, so why add one more marginal attempt?

the “Olympic Gold” version of the same galaxy

Here’s my answer. When you jog through your neighborhood or mount your treadmill you’re not doing it to win Olympic gold. You are doing it for body and mind. The process itself is good for you and also enjoyable, even though the result may be modest. It’s the same for me when I take my small rig out at night and aim it heavenward. I’m not trying to replace the Hubble Telescope.

Orion, rising in the east. Note the belt and sword including the gaseous nebula, M42

Also, I just like to write. It has become a significant part of my retirement and resulted in a somewhat successful birding and bird photography blog. I also spent the pandemic lockdown writing a family history book, chronicling the European origins and migration to the New World of my wife’s and my ancestors. Writing forces one to organize one’s thoughts, relive some anecdotes, and leave a record for future generations.

I also think it may be helpful for others, new to astronomy, to share my attempts at resurrecting this hobby of childhood. I cut neighbors’ grass all summer to save up for my first telescope, a 2.4 inch Unitron refractor. I still have this scope sixty years later and still marvel at its quality. I learned a lot about the night sky in our dark yard in rural Penn Yan, New York. I’ll never forget the excitement my urban-raised father displayed when he saw his first meteor with me at the ripe old age of fifty. For the rest of the summer he vowed to see at least one shooting star every night before bed.

My first telescope, 60 some years of age.

Although I have been a hot and cold observer of the heavens for years, the photography side of the hobby has always seemed like a bridge-too-far. I took a similar path with birding; a lifetime of observation that finally led, with an assist from a friend, to the added joy of photography. DSLR photography is not nearly as formidable as I once thought. You can visit my efforts in this regard at the birding site, http://www.brighamstephen.wordpress.com.

The Pleiades or Seven Sisters

In recent years when my hours were consumed with birding adventures, some affordable tracking mounts have come on the market. These precision devices, which exactly match the earth’s rotation, allow you to take long exposures of the stars and nebulae. Without this you could only obtain very short exposures, unless you desired to see star trails. Also, with the tracking device you do not need a telescope, but instead can attach your own camera and birding telephoto lens to the tracker and fire away. This seemed to satisfy my frugal streak, at least for now, and opened up this new world and other worlds above.

Star Trails; this is what a 45 second exposure looks like when one forgets to turn on the tracking mount. Note the airplane with flashing lights.

But why take a photograph? Why not be content with observing the moon, planets, stars, and nebulae? Why not trace the constellations, just as our ancestors did for eons, or satisfy yourself with the view through the old telescope or birding binoculars? As great as the human eye is, it simply cannot match the camera sensor. Your eye cannot record and accumulate the faint starlight, but can only give you an instantaneous view of the heavens. First with film, and now with the digital camera sensor, one can add the light of long exposures while computers even allow you to stack multiple exposures, one on the other, to further build the final picture. You can photograph much more than you can see.

My current rig. It changes daily.

My belated awareness of these things this summer has rekindled the hobby for me. A few small purchases of equipment, a couple of new magazine subscriptions, a dusting off of the old books and star atlases, and also the commiseration of a friend who is attempting the same tasks, have led to many dark and damp nights outside and to this new blog.

6D Canon camera with their 70-200mm L lens. The tracker is the Ioptron SkyGuide Pro and the monitor is by Lilliput.

Just as with the birding blog, I’m going to attempt to write “Night Skies” for a wide audience, even for those with little or no knowledge of the heavens. I hope to include some posts about the history of astronomy, recount some of the milestones, their discoverers, as well as give anecdotes from my own nights of stargazing. I’ll add a few technical posts regarding photographic issues and equipment, but my level of expertise in these areas will mandate simplicity. Throughout, I will sprinkle some of my photos; I hope you’ll see some gradual improvement as I learn the skills. And most of all, I hope you’ll enjoy reading the posts.