For as long as humankind has existed, people have marveled at the nighttime wonder of a star-filled sky. Even when they had nothing but cave walls to scrawl upon, ancient humans strove to capture those starry skies in a permanent image. Is there any view more consistently compelling and humbling than the universe opened up overhead?
Which brings us to the question: What is astrophotograpghy? The simple answer is to provide the mere definition: Astrophotography is the photography of stars and other celestial objects. To take it a step further, advances in astrophotography have enabled us to finally capture better, high-clarity records of the universe, just as our ancestors already wanted to.
Really, anyone with a camera can engage in astrophotography. Just aim skyward and let the shutter fly, right? Well, sure, but it can be difficult to find an ideal area without much light pollution, in order to at least get a decent view of lots of stars. Otherwise, though, in order to actually photograph planets, or get close-ups of the moon, etc., a little more ingenuity in order.
Nowadays, many telescopes are equipped with a built-in digital camera. This makes a lot of sense, since a telescope is basically just a big lens anyway; alternately, the lens of a camera can be thought of as a weak telescope, especially when zooming. There is a wide range of options available, though: From the basic backyard children's models that can give them computer-uploadable photos of their favorite celestial objects, to the enormous research-grade observatory models used both in land-based platforms and mounted on satellites in Earth orbit.
People participate in astrophotography as a hobbyist pursuit, with many free online galleries available to view their efforts in photo form. Additionally, the especially high-powered telescopes occasionally awe us by contributing newsworthy and/or noteworthy images to the public consciousness, such as when the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet struck Jupiter in 1994. Technically, the images beamed back to our planet by the Mars rover can be classified as astrophotography as well; since, to us, Mars is certainly a celestial object.
Entire galaxy clusters can now be captured by a photographic telescope, with decent models even available at an affordable price. As technology continues to advance, astrophotography will continue to be more accessible, and soon even the average person will be able to capture our visible universe with the clarity of high-definition images. The final frontier, indeed.