The Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium will debut a new exhibit on January 21st entitled “Capturing Starlight: The Art and Science of Astrophotography.”
Astrophotography is the photography of objects in space, using specialized equipment to capture light from faraway objects. Even with the use of a powerful telescope and long exposure times, technical post-processing is most often required to view celestial objects in their full grandeur. This process allows us to view interesting features in the universe in ways that our eyes cannot perceive on their own.
The images on exhibit were taken and processed by local high school students from St. Johnsbury Academy, White Mountain School, and from the Governor’s Institutes of Vermont on Astronomy, at the Northern Skies Observatory in Peacham, Vermont. The observatory is a state-of-the-art facility that is uniquely located to be free from interference by city lights or suburban light pollution.
Students used planetarium programs to identify and locate celestial objects including nebulas, or clouds of gases and dust that will eventually form stars and planets. Observatory educator Brad Vietje worked with students on the photographs included in the new museum exhibit. He explained that students took turns capturing images, which involved target selection, tracking celestial movements, using coordinate systems, operating the computer-controlled telescope, and using imaging software. “Once the monochrome images are captured, they then learn about astronomical image processing… Squeezing detail out of a set of almost black images, they combine three or more filtered grayscale images into a color composite.”
Although filtering images means that their colors might not display the same as they would to the naked eye, it allows for the creation of the most perceptible and informative view of an object in space, especially when multiple images are layered together. Just as a filter on a home camera changes the way light and color are viewed, filters such as “Hydrogen Alpha” and “Sulphur II” can make a nebula in space appear magnificent, even amongst the competing light from nearby stars.
Along with the new astrophotography display, the Museum will boast new exhibits on the history of the Museum in St. Johnsbury and the form and function of specialized birds, as well as updates to many other exhibits throughout the Museum. Come see for yourself!