Astrophotography is, quite simply, a type of photography that entails capturing images of stars, planets and other celestial objects in space. Google ‘Hubble Telescope’ and you will be rewarded with the most breathtaking and beautiful examples of astrophotography: distant galaxies, far objects, black holes and dying stars have all been captured by NASA’s $2.5 billion camera as it orbits the earth. Some of the world’s most famous astrophotographs have come from Hubble – Pillars of Creation, The Sombrero Galaxy, The Perfect Storm and The Eagle Has Risen to name only a few.
Astrophotography has been around since the 19th century. After the first commercially viable daguerreotypes were produced by the French physicist Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in the 1830s, the process was used by American chemist John William Draper to create a permanent image of the moon in 1840. This was followed by the first recorded daguerreotype of a star in 1850, taken by William Cranch Bond, a director at Harvard College Observatory and American photographer J.A.Whipple. It was during the late 20th century that astrophotography really took off, as scientific advances in photography and light capturing technology enabled extremely powerful and sophisticated telescopes to be built that could probe deeper into space than ever before.
The professional and scientific fields of astronomical research have been revolutionised by astrophotography. The classification of stars and the ability to map the night sky in detail have both been made possible through this type of scientific photography. Countless new stars, star clusters and nebulae, that would have remained forever invisible to the human eye, have been recorded by powerful telescopes in observatories across the world. The Hubble Telescope recently discovered hundreds of galaxies that had existed when the cosmos was only a billion years old. To put that into perspective, consider the fact that the cosmos is now nearly 14 billion years old!
Astrophotography is also extremely popular amongst amateur photographers. And you don’t need to spend megabucks to produce great results; basic camera equipment that is capable of long exposures and a tripod will get you started. Many amateurs also make or modify their own equipment. The technique of ‘Remote Telescope’ astronomy is commonplace now, too, thanks to the Internet. This method allows amateur astronomers to participate in deep sky imaging and astronomical research by enabling them to remotely control a telescope in any participating facility anywhere in the world. Once the observer has captured their desired images through the telescope, the digital data is sent to them via the Internet.
Astrophotography offers those of us who will never have the opportunity to explore space ourselves, the chance to share in the unimaginable beauty and majesty of the night sky. It not only allows us to glimpse the future, but also to explore the past.