NASA Space Place July 2013

Inventing Astrophotography: Capturing Light Over Time

By Dr. Ethan Siegel

We know that it’s a vast Universe out there, with our Milky Way representing just one drop in a cosmic ocean filled with hundreds of billions of galaxies. Yet if you’ve ever looked through a telescope with your own eyes, unless that telescope was many feet in diameter, you’ve probably never seen a galaxy’s spiral structure for yourself. In fact, the very closest large galaxy to usAndromeda, M31wasn’t discovered to be a spiral until 1888, despite being clearly visible to the naked eye! This crucial discovery wasn’t made at one of the world’s great observatories, with a world-class telescope, or even by a professional astronomer; it was made by a humble amateur to whom we all owe a great scientific debt.

Beginning in 1845, with the unveiling of Lord Rosse’s 6-foot (1.8 m) aperture telescope, several of the nebulae catalogued by Messier, Herschel and others were discovered to contain an internal spiral structure. The extreme light-gathering power afforded by this new telescope allowed us, for the first time, to see these hitherto undiscovered cosmic constructions. But there was another possible path to such a discovery: rather than collecting vast amounts of light through a giant aperture, you could collect it over time, through the newly developed technology of photography. During the latter half of the 19th Century, the application of photography to astronomy allowed us to better understand the Sun’s corona, the spectra of stars, and to discover stellar and nebulous features too faint to be seen with the human eye.

Working initially with a 7-inch refractor that was later upgraded to a 20-inch reflector, amateur astronomer Isaac Roberts pioneered a number of astrophotography techniques in the early 1880s, including “piggybacking,” where his camera/lens system was attached to a larger, equatorially-mounted guide scope, allowing for longer exposure times than ever before. By mounting photographic plates directly at the reflector’s prime focus, he was able to completely avoid the light-loss inherent with secondary mirrors. His first photographs were displayed in 1886, showing vast extensions to the known reaches of nebulosity in the Pleiades star cluster and the Orion Nebula.

But his greatest achievement was this 1888 photograph of the Great Nebula in Andromeda, which we now know to be the first-ever photograph of another galaxy, and the first spiral ever discovered that was oriented closer to edge-on (as opposed to face-on) with respect to us. Over a century later, Andromeda looks practically identical, a testament to the tremendous scales involved when considering galaxies. If you can photograph it, you’ll see for yourself!

Astrophotography has come a long way, as apparent in the Space Place collection of NASA stars and galaxies posters at **link** /#stars.

Great Nebula in Andromeda, the first-ever photograph of another galaxy. Image credit: Isaac Roberts, taken December 29, 1888, published in A Selection of Photographs of Stars, Star-clusters and Nebulae, Volume II, The Universal Press, London, 1899.


High-energy Spy

By Dr. Martin C. Weisskopf

The idea for the Chandra X-Ray Observatory was born only one year after Riccardo Giacconi discovered the first celestial X-ray source other than the Sun. In 1962, he used a sounding rocket to place the experiment above the atmosphere for a few minutes. The sounding rocket was necessary because the atmosphere blocks X-rays. If you want to look at X-ray emissions from objects like stars, galaxies, and clusters of galaxies, your instrument must get above the atmosphere.

Giacconi’s idea was to launch a large diameter (about 1 meter) telescope to bring X-rays to a focus. He wanted to investigate the hazy glow of X-rays that could be seen from all directions throughout the sounding rocket flight. He wanted to find out whether this glow was, in fact, made up of many point-like objects. That is, was the glow actually from millions of X-ray sources in the Universe. Except for the brightest sources from nearby neighbors, the rocket instrument could not distinguish objects within the glow.

Giacconi’s vision and the promise and importance of X-ray astronomy was borne out by many sounding rocket flights and, later satellite experiments, all of which provided years-, as opposed to minutes-, worth of data.

By 1980, we knew that X-ray sources exist within all classes of astronomical objects. In many cases, this discovery was completely unexpected. For example, that first source turned out to be a very small star in a binary system with a more normal star. The vast amount of energy needed to produce the X-rays was provided by gravity, which, because of the small star’s mass (about equal to the Sun’s) and compactness (about 10 km in diameter) would accelerate particles transferred from the normal star to X-ray emitting energies. In 1962, who knew such compact stars (in this case a neutron star) even existed, much less this energy transfer mechanism?

X-ray astronomy grew in importance to the fields of astronomy and astrophysics. The National Academy of Sciences, as part of its “Decadal Survey” released in 1981, recommended as its number one priority for large missions an X-ray observatory along the lines that Giacconi outlined in 1963. This observatory was eventually realized as the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, which launched in 1999.

The Chandra Project is built around a high-resolution X-ray telescope capable of sharply focusing X-rays onto two different X-ray-sensitive cameras. The focusing ability is of the caliber such that one could resolve an X-ray emitting dime at a distance of about 5 kilometers!
The building of this major scientific observatory has many stories.

Learn more about Chandra at **link** . Take kids on a “Trip to the Land of the Magic Windows” and see the universe in X-rays and other invisible wavelengths of light at

Dr. Weisskopf is project scientist for NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Composite image of DEM L50, a so-called superbubble found in the Large Magellanic Cloud. X-ray data from Chandra is pink, while optical data is red, green, and blue. Superbubbles are created by winds from massive stars and the shock waves produced when the stars explode as supernovas.

NASA Space Place May 2013

By Dr. Ethan Siegel

Triple Treat

The solar system is a busy place, with five wandering planets visible to the naked eye alone. When any two pass close by each other from our point of view, we see an astronomical conjunction, but on very rare occasions, three planets will find themselves grouped together: a triple conjunction. Towards the end of May, Mercury, Venus and Jupiter will treat us to the best triple conjunction in years.

On May 25th, Mercury will pass within 1.4° of Venus, then two days later Mercury comes within 2.4° of Jupiter, and finally on the 28th, Jupiter and Venus approach within 1° of one another. If it weren’t for the slight orbital tilt of our solar system’s planetary orbits, these conjunctions would all be occultations instead. During the nights of May 26th-27th, all three planets are visible immediately after sunset within the same 3° field of view, with the triple conjunction peaking in a triangular shape on the 26th. (For scale, the full Moon subtends about 1/2°.) The three planets appear close together for a few days more, making a line in the sky on the 30th/31st.

How does this happen? Mercury and Venus race around the Sun far faster than Earth, with Mercury completing more than four revolutions around the Sun for each one that Earth makes. At the same time, Jupiter is far slower, taking 12 years to orbit just once around the Sun. Jupiter’s been high in the sky during the early parts of the night, but steadily lowers throughout May as Earth continues to move away from it, approaching its maximum distance from Earth. Mercury and Venus, meanwhile, begin to move out from behind the Sun during May: Venus at the beginning of the month and Mercury in the middle.

Thus, during this triple conjunction, all three planets will be on the far side of the Sun, something that happens just 25% of the time in triple conjunctions involving Mercury and Venus! If you telescopically resolve these planets into disks, you’ll see our inner worlds in a nearly-full gibbous phase. Jupiter will appear largest in terms of angular diameter, followed by Venus and lastly by Mercury. Just a year ago, during its now-famous transit, Venus took up more than a full arc-minute in the sky; during this conjunction, it will just one-sixth that angular size and less than a third the apparent diameter of Jupiter. Nevertheless, Venus will still be more than six times as bright as Jupiter during this time, outshining all night-sky objects other than the Moon. Closer conjunctions of two naked-eye planets are frequent, but getting three or more like this happens just once or twice per decade, so don’t miss your chance to see it.

And speaking of occultations, The Space Place has a great kid-friendly explanation of the Venus transit and solar eclipses of 2012 at

Dr. Ethan Siegel, a theoretical astrophysicist, is a professor at the University of Portland (OR) and Lewis & Clark College

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