A good friend of mine has an observatory in Malta. Well, I probably make that sound more grand than he would feel comfortable with. It is not Mount Palomar or the Hubble space telescope. There are no huge white domes here with massive mirrors and lenses. This is on a much smaller scale – basically a reflector telescope on a rooftop. Not a colossal structure but nevertheless, in the sense it has a telescope trained on the night skies, it is an observatory. Keep that in mind whilst I tell you more of where this telescope has taken him.
JR would be quick to tell you that he is an amateur not a professional astronomer. Astronomy is many things to many people but for JR and myself it is mostly about staring in gaping awe at the majesty of the heavens rather than computing, calculating and correcting the orbits of objects so terminally uninteresting as to leave even the theoreticians cold. JR is all about the beauty of the heavens and their visibility.
Astronomy is not about numbers (well it is but we will come to that in a minute). It is a paean to beauty and, if you are of that leaning, doubtless speaks to you of creation.
Over the last several years JR has taken a series of breathtaking photographs of what we astronomers call deep sky objects – deep sky in the sense of being way beyond our own solar system. Galaxies, globular clusters of stars, nebulae, supernova remnants, the fragmented graveyards of red giants and the blue nurseries of infant suns. These are the places where stars are born. Elsewhere stars at the end of their celestial journey fade into darkness in a final ruddy glow.
I was quick to dismiss numbers earlier but of course there are necessary to find your way round the heavens. Every astronomical object has a location in right ascension and declination, in essence it’s postcode. And whilst you can locate each nebulae or galaxy with little more than that, the faintest nebulae will still be darker than the most penetrating eyesight. So rather than stare into the darkness itself, why not use technology to one’s advantage? A laptop, some software and a motor drive on the telescope allows one to find and photograph things you cannot even see. And of course you don’t even need to enter the coordinates on the scope. You can do it through the Internet.
All of which is rather long preamble to last Saturday night when JR invited me, through the power of the World Wide Web, to take a photograph of a deep sky object of my choice. I think partly it was an exercise on software compatibility, to see whether one could take pictures remotely. But I didn’t need to be asked twice. I jumped at the chance.
But which object should I photograph? The Horsehead nebula? Perhaps the globular cluster in Hercules? Or how about the Ring nebula in Lyra? Or the Sombrero Galaxy? It was like a chocolate box with all your favourite soft fondant centres and no nut clusters.
I chose the Dumbbell Nebula (Messier catalogue M27), a planetary nebula discovered in 1764, in the tiny faint constellation of Vulpecula (the little fox). An elegant little nebula – not perhaps a premiership object but pleasant nonetheless with a white dwarf star at its centre surrounded by a gaseous veil.
We linked the two computers – in Kent and Malta and, before I knew it almost, I was giving the scope its coordinates and watching as it revolved into position. It would take several long exposures but as it did so we watched the image build on the screen.
I would like to say that it was my photograph based on less than an hour of learned expertise but the truth was that it was a collaboration between myself the neophyte and JR the expert. Not to mention a pricey telescope, software, camera and more. It was by no means my solo!