When I moved to the Hudson Valley of New York, it occurred to me that it seemed an odd thing to have spent my early years by the sea, much of my adulthood in a major city and then to find myself in a new environment; the woods. But being in the woods was in many ways reminiscent of my youth in Maine and one of the things I got treated to again in such an environment was the wonders of the night sky, which stirred the composer in me and for which I had always held a great fascination. I decided to learn more and this led to amateur astronomy.
Orion as seen from my driveway - simply snapped by my Canon DSLR without a telescope.
It's not an easy thing to do and I claim no expertise although I have improved greatly since I started. I do it because I am sincerely interested in the topic. I want to see what can be seen. What I came to learn was that in order to see things you really have to photograph them because the eye simply cannot pick up most of the objects out there. You need a telescope, a mount that can track the stars, an autoguider (for precision in one's tracking - necessary) and special cameras connected to a laptop. If you get a large number of exposures, and then through the magic of software, combine those images into one, then... you start to see amazing interstellar things if you're exceedingly lucky. If you're shooting things in the solar system it's actually much easier to do and requires different equipment and techniques.
One of the aspects that I continually find amazing in all of this is that on any clear evening, it's all there... right above us. All we have to do is get some equipment... and look up! If you don't want to take pictures or buy a 'scope, fine. Get yourself some high powered binoculars and a sky app (there are ton of them) and you'll still see... all sorts of cool things. The benefits for your perspective on... everything, is multiple, but one of the things I like so much is that there is really not a lot of room for opinion in an endeavor like this. The universe doesn't care how you feel about it. If you want to see it, you'll need to do it on the universe's terms, not yours.
Below are a variety of things - of varying quality - that I've managed to get over the years.
One of my first successes and an easy first target was the Orion Nebula or M42 (for its number in the Messier Catalog). Considering how little I knew and how much I was guessing, it's amazing the image came out as well as it did. What it told me was that although the process is long and laborious, something I could barely see could be something I could capture. I obsessed about it for a while and eventually I got it.
The nebula is 1,344 light years away and is a stellar nursery. New stars are being born and are sort of dribbling out of this enormous complex of gas. It is one of the few interstellar objects that can be seen with the naked eye.
How can you not love the Moon? It's obviously not tough to get, but it is neverendingly fascinating - you can catch it in various phases, you can catch mountain ranges and the shadows they leave on the surface and you can go even closer and just check out surface features in order to get as close as you can.
For a while, Jupiter became a thing. It started with an accident. I took a snapshot of it through my DSLR and scope at dusk. The planet was overexposed and looked like a star, but that overexposure allowed me to see the four Galilean moons of Jupiter. That was it! I needed to learn more!
I learned that to get the planets you didn't photo them - you took a video of them! To do this required another camera and software, but I was obsessed and I got there. I got a lot of Jupiter but was never happy with the clarity - oh you could see the cloud bands and the Great Red Spot - sometimes moons transited and you could see their shadow on the face of the planet - all sorts of crazy stuff, but never the clarity I wanted. Why? I came to find out the reason. All the planets appear in the southern sky from my yard an hour north of New York City. Thus when I look into the southern sky I am seeing through the teeth of the intense light pollution produced by that island off the coast of America - my former home - Manhattan. It makes the stunning shot I'd like to get of the planets a practical impossibility. It's a bummer... but that's the way it is. It didn't stop me from trying though!
Saturn... Even tougher than Jupiter. Never thrilled with the results and the issue is the same - the southern sky is simply not available to me in any serious way.
The planets became a problem that was impossible to navigate but I discovered something counterintuitive. As I had first noticed when taking Orion, objects much further away - interstellar objects - were coming out much better than more local objects like the planets. As long as I shot in the north, east and west... I didn't have the light pollution issue. Time to go for some crazy stuff! What I really wanted to see was a galaxy! That was the ultimate! So I went hunting for the biggest of those and I got it! Andromeda, or M31, is our closest galactic neighbor at 2.537 million light years away. Big fish! When you're looking at Andromeda you're not checking out a star, you're checking out a trillion stars... The center? That's a super-massive black hole. Yeah, it
s wow stuff.
Getting Andromeda was like getting Orion - it's a big obvious target that everybody wants to get. Now I wanted to see even more distant stuff and I decided I wanted more galaxies!
This is the Whirlpool Galaxy, M51, which is 23.16 million light years away. It's a face-on spiral galaxy that is interacting with another smaller galaxy. I got a bit obsessed with this one too and started trying to get this through various telescopes and cameras to see what would be different. Some came out better than others, but I learned a lot.
I rather like this one for the subject matter and the distance. This is the Leo Triplet: three galaxies (M65, M66 and NGC 3628) that are located approximately 35 million light years away. The fact that you can capture this... in your driveway... still just blows me away.
Here's a bunch of stuff - nothing that I consider particularly spectacular, but they do give you a sense of the sort of things you can try to capture in the depths of the deep sky.
Nebulae, the Milky way... There is so much to see and although it's a very tough thing to do, even in this collection of misses I think you can probably get a sense of why you go back and freeze in the dark during the winter and sleep very little during the short nights of summer because when you do get something it can be so inspiring. Even in the misses you still come away with a degree of satisfaction - finding these things, by itself, is a bear, but seeing these things feels like you went there and it's spectacular.