Tuesday 6 December 2016

The stars look very different today

There's a growing number of astronomers keeping an eye on the sky through a telescope

Published 27/01/2016 | 02:30

From left: Astronomers Samuel Bleyen, Michael O’Connell, John Dolan and Deirdre Kelleghan. Photo: Fergal Phillips.
From left: Astronomers Samuel Bleyen, Michael O’Connell, John Dolan and Deirdre Kelleghan. Photo: Fergal Phillips.

At the end of John Dolan's suburban garden stands a most extraordinary shed. The roof is retractable, the floor reinforced with concrete. Inside a telescope worth several thousand euro points to the stars. The 68-year-old former FAS employee has constructed a small but perfectly formed observatory in the leafy depths of Glasnevin, Dublin.

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"I've always been interested in astronomy," says Dolan. "Coming up to retirement, I thought it would be a good hobby to get into seriously. The problem is that the city is full of light pollution so that it's hard to see the stars. I discovered that a camera properly set up can 'see' through the light. You can take stunning photographs."

This is how Dolan came to join Ireland's fast-growing 'astrophotography' community. On a clear night, dozens of enthusiasts around the country can be found training their telescopes and cameras at deep space, in the hope of photographing an intergalactic vista perhaps never before seen by human eyes.

Some are motivated by a desire to advance human understanding of the cosmos; many are simply fascinated by the vastness of the universe and the perspective it offers on the human condition.

"When I was 12-years-old, I was allowed stay up and watch the moon landing on television," says Deirdre Kelleghan, a Bray-based astronomical sketcher.

She differs from Dolan and other photographers in that her work is composed not with an expensive camera but using just a telescope and artist's pad.

"I'm drawing directly onto a page. That is how astronomers used to do it before photography was invented in the 1800s. The other way would drive me insane - fiddling with all that software and camera gear."

Kelleghan's youthful fascination with the moon has endured and nowadays it is the heavenly body which she most frequently draws (she is co-author of a guide to sketching the moon and teaches courses on the subject to school children).

"I remember as a little girl buying a copy of National Geographic in which they had mapped the planned landing sites for the Apollo missions. I used to stare at it and think, 'wow, one day the moon landing is going to happen'. I have always drawn too. It was only after my children were grown up that I combined the two. "

Though she isn't a photographer, several of her pieces will be on display at an exhibition organised by the Irish Astronomical Society. 'Images of Starlight' runs at the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin from February 2 to 21 and is open to the public.

Also on show will be some of the photographs of which John Dolan is proudest (he is promotions officer for the society). Serious astrophotographers will, he says, invest thousands in camera and telescopes and auxiliary equipment linking the two together.

However, a beginner can get started using a standard entry-level camera and telescope (plus auxiliary cables and software). For enthusiastic amateurs, cost need not be a barrier he says.

"You can dip your toe at the lower end of the budget and then work you way up," says Dolan. "Cameras are quite expensive. The one I am using at a the moment was about €2,000. A lot of amateurs would get in with your basic [digital] Canon or Nikon. A serious telescope would cost a couple of hundred euro... you will achieve great wide-field shots of the Milky Way."

As with Deirdre Kelleghan, Dolan's passion for space was forged in childhood. "I remember Sputnik [the first ever satellite] going up in 1957 and my father rushing out to the backyard with me. I thought I could see it although I'm sure I didn't."

With literally the entire universe to photograph, astrophotographers don't lack for choice. However, many are specialists like Deirdre Kelleghan.

Belgian-born IT manager Samuel Bleyen, for instance, almost exclusively photographs the sun - one of the most dramatic natural features in our astronomical neighbourhood but one we nonetheless take for granted.

"You need very special equipment because you obviously cannot look at the sun," says the 37-year-old, who is studying part time for a degree in physics and astronomy.

"For a beginner one option is to use a small telescope and pair of binoculars, which you combine to project the image of the sun onto a white sheet of paper. That way you can see sun-spots."

His photographs are far more complex and are taken using high-end telescopes and cameras plus filters that remove the sun's blinding glare to reveal the fascinating astronomical phenomenon beyond.

"We take the sun for granted. A lot of people don't realise how complex it is. When I show it to friends and family through the telescope they're surprised that the organic ball with all the squiggly filaments which they see is the sun."

The best astrophotography demands a mix of skill and application, says Michael O'Connell, another who will also be showing his work at the Botanic Gardens.

"Half the battle is getting the equipment, getting everything set up and taking the photo," says Monasterevin Co Kildare-based design engineer.

"And then the other half is processing the detail out of it. It would be akin to a photographer going into a studio photographing a model, and then the various techniques that are needed - the air-brushing and processing.

"It isn't as if you have good lighting. Our lighting is extremely poor in reality - these objects are very faint. We are pushing our cameras to the limit… You can combine images together… it might be the equivalent of several hours just to form one image. It is a lot of processing time, trying to get the very faint details - so that you get a nice clean, sharp-looking image."

Images Of Starlight runs at the National Botanic Gardens, Dublin February 2 - 21

Irish Independent

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