From Liverpool: “Shooting for the stars: capturing the beauty of science through astrophotography”

Liverpool John Moores University

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Thor’s Helmet is a planetary nebula. Nothing to do with planets, it is actually a shell of gas being thrown off from an old star towards the end of its life cycle. Planetary nebulae are wonderfully varied in shape and colour. This image was originally obtained with the Liverpool Telescope for BBC Sky At Night.

2-metre Liverpool Telescope at La Palma in the Canary Islands

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Castell Alun High School captured the Messier 27 through the NSO.

National Solar Observatory at Kitt Peak in Arizona

One of the best planetary nebulae to observe on the NSO, it almost fills the field of view, providing a spectacular image with vast detail. The image was produced by combining observations in the blue, visual and red filters using NSO’s 3-colour image tool.

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The Crab Nebula is a supernova remnant, the expanding cloud of gas and dust from a catastrophically exploding star. Chinese astronomers witnessed this explosion in 1054 and we still see the remnant cloud now. To the human eye, it would be faint pink. Scientific instruments do not necessarily ‘see’ colours the same way as our eyes and allow astronomers to bring out details that a true colour image might not reveal.

When thinking about the types of photographs that capture the beauty of science, a stunning landscape or an animal in its natural habitat might come to mind. But when it comes to images from telescopes, we might not immediately consider these as anything more than the collection of scientific data. Beyond their significance in helping us to discover more about our universe, the images of galaxies, planets and stars are also appreciated purely for aesthetic reasons. For many amateur and professional astrophotographers capturing the shapes and colours of the universe is just as important as capturing scientific data. In fact, most astronomical images for general viewing have been modified from their original form. An astrophotographer’s goal in this case is to bring out the best of the image – to find the art within the science.

Robert Smith, creator of the “Iridis” image which won the Robotic Scope Special Prize at the Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition, sums up the concept of science as art/art as science:

“We often hear about the idea of representing scientific data in an appealing way as an expression of art, but why not look at it the other way around; ‘art as science’? Astrophotography is not just a matter of making science look pretty, it shows us that beauty actually is science. The winners of this competition were obviously selected because they were beautiful, striking or interesting, but each and every one is also an expression of astrophysical processes and could be the basis of a science seminar in their own right. It is physics that creates that beauty. Looking at the swirling gas in a nebula or the aurorae, you are literally seeing maths and physics.”

Robert is an astronomer at the Astrophysics Research Institute (ARI) at LJMU and captured the award-winning image from ARI’s very own Liverpool Telescope. As the world’s largest fully robotic telescope, the Liverpool Telescope is responsible for a wide range of images which, in addition to their obvious importance scientifically, are also interesting and beautiful as pieces of art in their own right.

Astronomers were among the first to embrace photography, with the first images of the sun captured on daguerreotypes, an early photographic imaging process, in the 1840s.

Users of the Liverpool Telescope not only include researchers at LJMU but because it is remotely operated, it is available to astronomers from around the world. Schools and colleges across the UK and Ireland also get involved in capturing astronomical images. As a part of ARI’s educational outreach programmes, the National Schools’ Observatory (NSO) makes it possible for schoolchildren to study the night sky for themselves via the Telescope. Almost 4,000 schools have already participated with students making well over 100,000 astronomical observations from the classroom. A couple examples of the photos from NSO can be found on this page, but feel free to take a look at more on the NSO website.

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How do you photograph a night sky?

Make sure it’s a clear night and find a place as far away from light pollution as you can. With a manual camera, try setting 25 second exposure, f/2.8, ISO 1600 (you can experiment with these settings). You’ll need a tripod to keep your camera stable during the exposure. Modern smartphones can produce impressive results as well. There are free apps available to download that automatically take a series of short exposures for you and add them together to create a long night-time photo.

If you have access to a telescope, you can hold your smartphone up to the eyepiece of the telescope and take your shot, this is known as afocal photography – where the lens takes the place of the human eye.

There are plenty of tips for getting started in astrophotography, just do a search online and you’ll be exposed to a wealth of information.
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Liverpool John Moores University is a public research university[6] in the city of Liverpool, England. It has 21,875 students, of which 18,375 are undergraduate students and 3,500 are postgraduate, making it the 33rd largest university in the UK by total student population.

The university can trace its origins to the Liverpool Mechanics’ School of Arts, established in 1823 making it a contestant as the third-oldest university in England; this later merged to become Liverpool Polytechnic. In 1992, following an Act of Parliament the Liverpool Polytechnic became what is now Liverpool John Moores University.

It is a member of the University Alliance, a mission group of British universities which was established in 2007.[9] and the European University Association.

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