Astronomy

Taking photos of the cosmos from a suburban home

‘A telescope is a time machine. When you look out into space, you're looking back in time’

It was a freezing, windy February night on Sunday. But the sky was clear, and that’s all that mattered to Blair MacDonald.

MacDonald is an astrophotographer. He’s been taking photos of the night sky for 25 years.

“My wife bought me a telescope many, many years ago—I don’t think she’s forgiven herself for that yet,” he said with a laugh.

His current setup cost him about $12,500.

MacDonald takes the 91 kg telescope out of his garage.   Robyn Simon

The first step to taking photos is hauling the 91-kilogram telescope from the safety of his garage to his driveway. MacDonald tries to take photos about three times a month, depending on the weather.

MacDonald uses a headlamp to adjust the telescope in the dark.   Robyn Simon

It used to take him more than an hour to set up his equipment. Now, because of software automation, it takes him 10 minutes.

A keypad controls the telescope’s position. To align it with the sky, MacDonald centres on a star. He repeats this process one more time, then another three times to correct mounting errors.   Robyn Simon

 

MacDonald makes sure everything is plugged in correctly.   Robyn Simon

 

A car battery powers the entire system and a heater for the telescope. When it’s this cold out, the temperature can affect how well the telescope works.   Robyn Simon

Everything is controlled remotely from the comfort of MacDonald’s home. With the click of a mouse, the camera takes a photo of the sky. In this case, the telescope is pointed at the moon.

MacDonald controls the telescope from his living room.   Robyn Simon

 

The moon on Feb. 10.   Blair MacDonald

He then moves the scope over to the next object: the Orion Nebula. The light seen from the Orion Nebula is about 1,400 to 1,500 years old.

The Orion nebula (M42) is only visible in Nova Scotia during the winter. The pink is a cloud of hydrogen gas.   Robyn Simon

“One of the interesting things about a telescope is that a telescope is a time machine. When you look out into space, you’re looking back in time,” said MacDonald.

He said the further things are from earth, the older they are.

Telescopes like the Hubble Space telescope can take pictures of objects 10 billion light years away, which is much more powerful than MacDonald’s “humble” telescope.

But, he said anyone can take photos of the cosmos, even with just a tripod and a camera.

A mosaic composed of nine different photos of the Andromeda Galaxy (M31). It took four and a half hours to capture this image.   Blair MacDonald

“It’s a unique science. You have an archeologist, and they want to know what a dinosaur looked like. All they have is bones,” said MacDonald. “They can’t tell you what the surface of the dinosaur looked like. They can make an educated guess, but we can go and look.”

The North America Nebula is in the Milky Way, part of the constellation Cygnus. Like the Orion Nebula, the pink cloud is hydrogen gas.   Blair MacDonald

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