There’s a skill in taking photos of space.
A lot of this skill comes from preparation, a lot in knowledge, even more in the equipment and a great deal of it is in luck. I don’t have any of that.
In fact, I’m not sure I have much in the way of skill, full stop.
What I do have is an unguided, unaligned 8″ Newtonian telescope, a cameraphone, and a lot of patience. For the uninitiated, the basic method is quite simple. You take the telescope outdoors (at night), point it at what it is you want to take photos of, stick the camera in the end, and click away. If it’s something faint, you leave the shutter open for a while, letting your camera gobble up all those delicious photons your telescope has kindly harvested for it. Because the world spins and therefore the sky, you keep what you want to photograph in the viewfinder by mounting your telescope on a digital tripod, which quietly whirrs away as it tracks your target.
Ah, yeah. I haven’t got one of those.
Instead of a digital fancy tripod, I have a pair of simple nylon bearings which allows the telescope to freely spin in the technical directions known as lefty-righty and uppy-downy. You put a hand on both ends of the telescope and spin it round until it points at what it is you want to see. No, really. No fancy wheels and tracking things by the arc-second, making impossibly fancy measurements. It’s more a “Ech, it’s near Rigel on the chart, so if I go left a bit, up about twice as far, it should be… hang on… no…”. Unfortunately, if you want to track something, the sky rotates around a point which is dependent on your latitude on the Earth’s surface, which in my case is about 52 degrees. This direction is neither lefty-righty nor upppy-downy, it’s more a sort of diagonally-where’s-the-bugger-gone-I-had-it-twenty-seconds-ago sort of direction, which is not optimal for taking photos of things because the more you magnify a patch of sky, the more it feels like you’re staring down a drinking straw at something which doesn’t really want to be stared at.
Then there’s the actual photography bit. I am not a photographer; I do not own a camera. I spent all the money on telescopes.
When you want to take a photo of something, this is actually a bit of a hindrance.
People who actually do this seriously have proper cameras, with special camera adaptors for their telescopes. If you want to make a telescope zoom in, you actually have to take the eyepiece out and swap it for another one, a bit like your grandfather swapping reading glasses. What you can get hold of is a digital camera the same size and shape as the slot you put the eyepieces in (a circular hole about two to three cm across) which allows you to take photos of whatever your telescope is pointed at.
I don’t have one of those, either.
What I do have is a cameraphone and an eyepiece. It’s simple: you take the camera lens, hold it up to the eyepiece lens, and click. Simple as that. Except, of course, it’s not. The bloody thing you’re trying to look at has moved. And the more you magnify, due to the peculiarities of optics, the tinier the eyepiece lens has to be.
Have you ever tried lining up a cameraphone to something 6 mm wide in the pitch blackness? It’s bloody impossible.
First off, as soon as you unlock your phone, it’s bright. Normally, this is a good thing, but when you’ve just spent the last 45 minutes allowing your eyes to become accustomed to the darkness, it’s a total pain. Then you have to realign the telescope, because the Earth has moved, and then get the camera app – check the eyepiece again – and now try to align the camera lens with the – ah, nearly got it, there it was – it’s still in the middle of the eyepiece, if I’m quick it’ll still be there – click – no, that’s no good, it’s fuzzy, let’s just try that aga- oh, for goodness sake, you’ve knocked the telescope, you need to find it the damn object again…
Couple that with the fact that you can have sharp pictures, or you can have big pictures, but not both. Changing lenses to make everything bigger has the effect of… well, making everything bigger, but at the expense of sharpness. The more you magnify, the fuzzier everything gets,here’s only so sharp you can make it, no matter how much you focus, and everything appears dimmer.
For most things, all of this is a problem, except for the moon. When you’re looking at the mountains on the moon, it doesn’t matter a damn how fuzzy they are, because they’re magnificent.
No matter how bad you are at astrophotography, the moon is always brilliant. You can see features which defy the imagination. The collection of three big prominent craters in the middle are (from top to bottom) Theophilus, Cyrillus & Catharina, (or TCC). They’re a good navigational feature, and make looking for things easier. I like Theophilus because it’s got this bloody great rebound mountain in the middle of it – you can almost imagine the impact required to wallop the surface enough to make a mountain rebound. Then you pause, think about it, and decide you can’t imagine it after all; such events defy the imagination. And the Moon is covered with such craters.
I love the Moon at this time of month. The craters near the terminator line – the bit where it turns to night, where the shadows are longest – are a fantastic contrast of night and day, shimmering whites and silvers against the inky black of the night side and the dark bottoms of the craters. I love the names of the craters and magma flats; to the right of the three large conjoining craters near the top of the image is the dark grey Mare Nectaris. Early astronomers fancied they were seas, and named them accordingly, whereas they are actually the cooled remains of volcanic seas. Just to the top left of the TCC triple crater feature and (just!) coming into daylight is the landing site for Apollo 16; these were the stomping grounds for John Young and Charlie Duke when they conducted their sojourn into the Lunar highlands, collecting samples which would be used to prove the Moon’s origins in one of the most scientifically productive of the Apollo missions.
In contrast to the rugged Lunar highlands, the Mares of the North East limb are a mottled patchwork of greys and silvers, flat with bright white ejecta from later asteroid impacts. Look up and left from the large three crater feature towards the large dark grey expanse; that is Mare Tranquillitatis, or the Sea of Tranquillity. This was where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their famous first steps on the surface of the moon; I’m staggered every time I look at that bit of real estate and think someone I have met has walked there. (Yes, that was a total name drop and I’m not ashamed).
Apollo 17 (Cernan and Schmitt) walked just up and right of the lowest large crater you can see; they were the last men to set foot there. Apollo 15 (Scott and Irwin) landed about three quarters of the way up towards the pole at the top left, near the perfectly formed little round crater. I met Gene Cernan at the age of 8 and it had a profound impact on me – hell, he was responsible, more than anybody else, for inspiring me to look at the stars. He showed pictures from the newly operational Hubble Space Telescope, the Orion nebula glowing in vivid hues of red and scarlet. He wore a space suit on stage, and spoke about what it was like to walk on the moon wearing it – “every time I clench my fist, it was like squeezing a tennis ball”. It was an impossibly vivid image that he described, and one I will always remember. As I look at this image from my telescope – the heat of the evening making the North Pole of the moon shimmer through the atmosphere, slightly fuzzy, I think about the men who have been there before… And the fact that in this photo is the North Pole of the Moon, where deep in craters which never see the sun, there is ice which will one day support a permanent human presence there.
It is a photo of our past, and of our future.
The USGS has a series of fantastic maps of the moon, collated from data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter which you can explore here. I recommend the low res versions, otherwise you’ll be there all night.