‘A whole new world of possibility for viewing the stars and planets’

'A whole new world of possibility for viewing the stars and planets'

My interest in astronomy began in grade school, when I first looked at the moon with my grandfather through his telescope. This interest stayed with me throughout my life, and after retiring a few years ago following a career in the Coast Guard and the state Department of Energy & Environmental Protection, I finally made the decision to buy a telescope and pursue the hobby. Recently, with a desire to see more in the night sky, I began learning astrophotography, which opened up a whole new world of possibility for viewing the stars and planets. 

When I first got my telescope, it took a while to learn how to find objects in the night sky, but soon I got the hang of it. I joined the Thames Amateur Astronomical Society, based in southeastern Connecticut, where I went to observing events (aka “star parties”) to learn more about astronomy. It was a fun way to learn the hobby, and club members were tremendously helpful in giving me pointers on how to find things in the night sky and tips on using my new telescope. 

After a while, I started taking pictures of the planets through the telescope’s eyepiece with my cellphone. I can remember how satisfying it was to find Mars for the first time, which appeared as just a tiny red dot in the evening sky. I snapped a picture of it, and though it was not much of a photo, it was a real milestone for me, being able to find and photograph something using my telescope. That led to more and more photos of heavenly bodies, including the moon, Saturn and Jupiter.

Then one day everything changed; it was like a light switch had been turned on. I came across Pat Prokop’s Heavenly Backyard Astronomy YouTube channel, and he was giving a tutorial on how to photograph Saturn. During the tutorial, he started with Saturn’s small, bright disc on his computer screen, taken with his telescope and camera, and began processing it using specialized software to bring out the details. As he scrolled through the program’s menus and clicked on the different settings, the planet’s details truly began to emerge. He finished by producing a full-color image of Saturn with its expansive, sharply defined rings circling the planet and multi-colored, banded atmosphere. The transformation was fascinating, and it was amazing that he was able to produce a spectacular image with only amateur equipment. I was inspired, and my astrophotography adventure began.

Learning astrophotography wasn’t easy for me, since I had very little experience with either astronomy or photography. I looked for websites and YouTube channels for tutorials to learn enough to get the basics. Before long I was totally immersed in the hobby, and upgraded my equipment to take more detailed digital photos. Though it was challenging to learn, it also provided satisfaction when I achieved good results, so I continued on with it. It was well worth it.

Astronomy is a blend of the hard sciences of math, physics and chemistry, and astrophotography adds an element of art to it. When you are able to capture the glowing colors of a nebula or the expansive spiral arms of a distant galaxy, it can also have an element of spirituality. Recently, after someone had seen one of my photos of the Whirlpool Galaxy, he commented “Wow, you’re an artist.” After thinking about that for a minute, I replied, “God is the artist. I’m just the messenger.”

It is easy to see the allure of this hobby. Astrophotography takes astronomy to another level, allowing you to see things you can’t normally see just by looking through a telescope. Astro cameras have specialized sensors that amplify dim light, making it possible to capture a lot more detail. Taking photos of deep-sky objects such as galaxies, nebulae and star clusters is fascinating, and it is amazing these objects are visible to us at all with their great distance from Earth. Just within our own solar system there is enough to keep any astrophotographer busy for a lifetime, capturing details of the sun, moon and planets. I never get tired of taking photos of Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s great red spot and moons, and the red deserts of Mars. And the details of the moon, with its vast lava fields, bright mountain peaks and harsh cratered landscape come to life when captured by a camera. 

When I set up my telescope, a new world opens up. When it is dark, you can look up at the night sky and see the wonders of the heavens. While we are consumed with our daily routines and worries, up above, the universe awaits. You can see galaxies that are light-years away, with their massive spiral arms extending from their center, and clouds of stars and cosmic dust interwoven within the spiral mass. And here we are on our tiny planet Earth, within our Milky Way Galaxy, just one of billions of galaxies in the universe. It gives you a sense of smallness, but at the same time a sense of order and belonging in the grand scheme of things. It somehow makes our daily troubles seem insignificant, and reminds you of our place in the universe. Being able to capture the night sky in greater detail through astrophotography makes the experience all the more meaningful. 

John Natale lives in East Haddam. Aspiring astronomers and astrophotographers who would like more information can email him at jsnatale@att.net.