Thought You Needed a Telescope to Study Deep Space and Neighbouring Galaxies?

Photograph by Y. Beletsky (LCO), D. Martinez-Delgado/ESO

Photograph by Y. Beletsky (LCO), D. Martinez-Delgado/ESO

By Andrew Richard Malcolm

The title of this picture — Deep View of the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds — refers to the two clusters of neighbouring galaxies that look like blue burn holes in the grey, dark spotted background. Even though the picture was taken with a low cost telephoto lens, the stellar arcs and spiral arms in the clouds have features that are more distinct than those observed through large telescopes.

Despite the portability of the set-up, a typical backyard and DSLR wouldn’t yield the same results. Deep View was taken with a CCD camera, applying a technology that is widely used in the sciences for digital imaging. The difference, however, between the quality produced by a CCD camera and a camera that uses the far more common active pixel sensor is narrowing every year; the crucial factors for capturing pictures of neighbouring galaxies are location and technique.

Noise (light and other signals that interfere with the observed image) is the biggest obstacle faced when trying to see into space, but amateurs have a powerful technique, exhibited in Deep View, called LRGB. Black and white photographs of galactic images like the Magellanic Clouds have far less noise than colour photographs. By combining black and white photographs with information from lower quality colour photographs, a small camera and inexpensive lens can create beautiful and informative images like Deep View. But the best way to escape noise is, of course, to take a picture in the same place Deep View was taken: 2400 meters above sea level at La Silla in Chile, one of the ESO’s observation sites.

Observatories like the ESO’s are in constant demand by researchers, so amateur techniques like LRGB, which are often developed by amateur photographers and astronomers, can help expand our exploration into deep space.

Photograph by José Francisco Salgado

Photograph by José Francisco Salgado

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