If you are interested in astronomy, there will be some excellent opportunities for viewing and photographing the night sky in the coming months. Spring (March – May) is known as “galaxy season” to amateur astronomers, with a greater number of galaxies visible in the night sky than any other time of year.
Many amateur astronomers take advantage of this time to observe and photograph these amazing objects.
Galaxies are huge swirling masses of stars, cosmic gas and dust held together by gravity. With the recent deployment of the James Webb telescope, we are learning much more about their age and origins. There are estimated to be billions of galaxies in the universe, each containing billions of stars. They are present in a variety of shapes and sizes, and typically span light years across. The galaxies we can observe are millions of light years away, and it is really amazing that we can see them at all at that distance, even with a telescope.
The Andromeda Galaxy is the closest galaxy to our Milky Way, at a distance of 2.5 million light years away.
Most of us have seen the amazing photographs of galaxies taken with the James Webb telescope, either in the news, on-line or in astronomy magazines. However, you may not know that a photograph taken from your own back yard with only amateur equipment can also reveal some excellent detail of deep sky objects, including the glowing stars present within the massive spiral arms of galaxies, and the regions of new star formation or “nebulosity” interwoven between them.
Unlike other forms of photography, astrophotography involves taking a series of long exposures or videos, and then processing them digitally afterward with a technique known as image “stacking.” This results in a much brighter composite final image with greater detail than would otherwise be possible. After capturing and saving the desired images on a laptop computer, image stacking can be done with a variety of different astronomy-specific software applications, and additional software can be used to give the photos their final touches.
When taking photos of galaxies or any other deep sky objects, selection of the right equipment is key. As far as the telescope itself is concerned, telescopes with shorter focal lengths and a wider field of view (such as a small refractor or reflector telescope) are best for beginners to learn on. As you gain expertise, telescopes with bigger apertures, longer focal lengths and a narrower field of view can also be used.
Cameras used for astrophotography have extremely sensitive optical sensors, specialized to gather dim light from distant objects, and are usually electronically cooled to reduce optical noise. A standard 35mm camera can also be used instead of an astronomy camera, but modifications may need to be made to achieve good results. The camera is typically connected to the back of a telescope and to a laptop computer, where images can be downloaded and viewed on the computer screen while capturing them. In addition, one of the most important pieces of equipment needed for astrophotography is a sturdy equatorial telescope mount, which automatically tracks the movement of the stars to allow in-focus images without star trails.
What is the best way to learn astrophotography? The most important thing you can do is to join a local amateur astronomy club, where you can go to observing events (aka “star parties”) and meet other like-minded amateur astronomers. Most clubs have members with a wide range of expertise and interests, and you can learn a lot in a very short time. I belong to the Thames Amateur Astronomical Society in southeast Connecticut, but there are also others in the state including the Astronomical Society of Greater Hartford and the Astronomical Society of New Haven. No matter where you are located, there is likely to be an amateur astronomy club in your area.
When learning this hobby there is also a lot of information available from various on-line forums such as the “Cloudy Nights” forum, where you can find others with the same equipment you have and post your questions. Other on-line resources that I have found useful for learning this hobby include web sites or you-tube channels for Heavenly Backyard Astronomy, Astroforum, Star Stuff, Martin’s Astrophotography, AstroBackyard and Late Night Astronomy. Last, I have found Astronomy Magazine to be a great source of information as it provides equipment reviews, good articles, and tips on what to look for in the night sky each month.
Whether you are an experienced or beginning amateur astronomer, I encourage you to try your hand at astrophotography, and galaxy season is a great time for that. Starting out in this hobby can be expensive, and can have a large learning curve, especially for those with little or no background in photography or astronomy. However, if you if you have the time and patience to learn, it can be a very rewarding and enjoyable hobby.
John Natale is an amateur astronomer and resident of East Haddam. For additional information on amateur astronomy or astrophotography, he can be contacted at [email protected].