On a brisk fall evening in rural Boone County, John Essex walks up a hill inside a small church cemetery. With a backpack and camping chair, he weaves through dilapidated grave markers to a round patch of grass where he places his belongings.
As the sun sets, hidden just behind a barn off to the west, the sky fills with the warmest of colors. Though, the painting-like sunset barely catches Essex’s attention as he unpacks his things.
From atop the hill, he can see for miles. Winding country roads sit nestled between freshly harvested cornfields. There’s far less light pollution and a big open sky ready to show off its stars. It’s quiet and it’s dark, and for this hobbyist astrophotographer it’s exactly what he needs.
In the past from his backyard, Essex simply enjoyed star gazing with his flea market telescope, sometimes attempting to use his mobile phone to snap a picture of his find.
With typical rigs being expensive and cumbersome, astrophotography has had its issues. But Essex says with the help of a new tool, that’s not the case anymore.
On the crowdfunding site Kickstarter in October 2020, Essex backed French-owned company Vaonis which calls its Vespera device “the perfect combination of telescope and camera.” The camera arrived at Essex’s doorstep earlier in 2022, at the price tag of $1500.
“I liked the idea you can get galaxies, and nebula, and the moon,” Essex said. “And I thought this would be great to do with Jack, my son.”
Through GPS, the new camera auto-tracks to find various far-off photogenic galaxies lightyears away. Slowly the camera turns as it scans the sky. This is when Essex says you can explore the universe.
“I was so blown away,” he said of his first photo. “It was just mindblowing.”
Because of the distance and lack of light, photos can take hours to expose. Essex says he fills the time listening to podcasts.
“I listen to pop culture stuff about movies, comics and TV shows,” he said with a laugh. “It’s just nice to hear people talking, you know, being out here.”
To Essex, the 19 different cosmic objects he’s been able to photograph are “magical” but he says Jack’s renewed interest in space and science has been the most stellar.