Friday, June 25, 2010

Thoughts on astrophotography.

Things haven't been too busy around here, but they have been happening. I've just been too lazy recently to write about them. Rather than write one big block post, I'll space it out over a few days. It's taken me this long to get around to writing about it, but Saturday I went on a summit tour to Mauna Kea, during which I decided to stick around for stargazing as well. That's 10 and a half hours above 9,000 feet, which can take a bit of a toll on your energy levels.

The summit tour was nice, although once again -- as it has been 4 out of 5 of the times I've gone -- there were some scattered clouds around the summit (strangely, the one time it wasn't cloudy is when I forgot my camera, although they assure me that such cloudy days are rare up there. Apparently I am a cloud magnet). We stopped at the Very Large Baseline Array telescope on the way up to the summit, which allowed me to get this great picture of the first-quarter moon over the telescope:

Moon over VLBA.
For comparison, this telescope is 82 feet (25 m) in diameter, nearly 10 stories tall when pointed straight up, and weighs over 200 tons (I had to cut off the base so you could see the moon easily).

Stargazing in the evening went well too, although the first-quarter moon washed out most of the Milky Way, so I couldn't get a picture of it. There were a lot of people there; two different school groups, a group of Women in Engineering, plus the usual assorted tourists. Probably close to a hundred for a good part of the night.

I spent some hands-on time with one of the larger Dobsonian-mounted Newtonian telescopes, observing Saturn, Mars, the Moon (blindingly bright!), the beautiful double star Albireo (two similar brightness stars, one yellow, one blue), and the tiny but iconic Ring Nebula in Lyra. As an astronomer, I feel it's important to do some visual observing once in a while. Most of the things I observe in the telescope I have already seen in photographs, often very good ones, perhaps even by the Hubble Space Telescope. Compared to those pictures, what I see in the telescope is somewhat akin to watching a High-Definition made-for-widescreen movie on a 5-inch black-and-white screen. And yet the visual experiences are what leave me overawed and grasping for words to describe, every time. I have a special fondness for Saturn, and have seen a good many amazing pictures from the Cassini space probe currently orbiting it, but the most immediate reactions I have to it are when I'm seeing it as a tiny dot that I can just make out the rings on, with Titan and perhaps another moon or two hanging off to the side in its gravitational embrace. A picture is worth a thousand words, so they say; but a good visual observation is worth a thousand pictures any day (or night) in my book.

(of course, sometimes pictures are all you can have, which is why I will continue to keep taking them for those who don't have the privilege of seeing these things for themselves)

Next time I'll post some pictures of silverswords in bloom, along with a surprising fact I learned about them on Saturday...

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