The following is written by Jeff Booth:
IT CAN get creepy, you know, throughout the wee, dark hours of a cold night, when you hear the coyotes.
Mind you, their woofing, yipping, barking, whining and other vocalizations can – eventually – sound remarkably lyrical. As you sit there, alone, wondering, “How close are they, really?”
So too, for the other two bands of coyotes who join in … as if in multi-layered harmony … each band about 120-degrees separate from the other … somewhere “out there” in this dark, rural space … this space itself being somewhere atop the Blue Mountains, at the southern tip of Ontario’s Georgian Bay.
Not that we’re spending a full night in this particular spot – moving little – to commune with this world’s nature, although that point, arguably, can be made. We’re actually staying in this particular spot, moving little, to stay beneath – and open to – night’s eternally-moving cloak of stars, scintillating, beckoning.
The “we” here, is the small, fiercely-dedicated population of amateur astronomers who regularly dwell and work at the E.C. Carr Astronomical Observatory. Known informally as the CAO, this communal, not-for-profit facility is believed to be the only such treasure in Canada.
It is a sprawling, multi-acre site, privately owned by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada – Toronto Centre (“RASC-TC”), where there are nine-going-on-ten functioning astronomical observatories.
There is also space for RVs and for camping. The main residence here sleeps up to about 30 people. Certainly, it can get busy. Which is just the way we like it.
Three of the observatories are owned by RASC-TC, one roughly the size of a six-car garage, and two smaller ones. Six are privately owned. Our latest addition is the University of Toronto observatory, which is owned and operated by the David A. Dunlap Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. It was funded by a grant from the Dunlap Institute. When it goes onstream in early 2024, it will become a teaching facility for a cohort of lucky UofT undergrad and grad students. Also, there is the University of Western Ontario’s Meteor Physics Group, which has some upwardly-pointing instrumentation on the roof of our residence.
Not surprising then, is the fact that one of the cornerstones of our society, which dates to 1868 – one year after Confederation – is education. Consequently, an important part of what we do … from hosting our personal guests to presenting to formal groups of business people, disadvantaged youth, library tours and so on, is all about astro-related education. Especially young people … but it’s great also when you see an octogenarian’s eyes light up, during our always-rewarding teaching moments.
Now, my wife Concetta and I met many years ago, in Physics class. During our first conversation we discovered that we each had department-store telescopes at home.
Long story short: We have been married for 47 years, have kept up this astro stuff, experiencing several solar and lunar eclipses and, in April 2024, we will be at the Texas-Mexico border for the next total solar eclipse. (Even spent some time on a space shuttle, at Cape Kennedy, with our kids. The shuttle was on the ground at the time … as if you hadn’t assumed that point already … ).
It should be stated here that Connie and I are also lucky enough to reveal that we own one of the privately-held observatories at the CAO, where I am also one of the volunteer administrators.
Our “obs” is a roll-off roof design, about the size of a one-car garage and – insert a voice of celebration here – it has a “warm room” – in addition to the open-to-the-sky instrument deck. The warm room allows you to work through any cold night in warm-as-toast comfort … except when you have to go out onto the instrument deck to tend to the equipment, which is part of the normal running of this observatory – and that’s many times each night. This, often to change filters on the optical system, to check that wires aren’t snagging as the instrument rolls, yaws and pitches, following the Right Ascension and Declination values for a given target – staying with it, hours on end, as our Earth rotates toward it and then away from it.
The main focus, if you pardon a bad pun, of this observatory is astrophotography, serious hands-down astrophotography. The observatory itself is named Cassiopeia, after the constellation, which actually figured in our acquisition of this purpose-built structure, but that’s a tale for another astronomical day, (which is actually 23 hours and 56 minutes, by the way). The sizeable instrument is named Caroline, after German-born British astronomer Caroline Herschel, who – on merit – smashed through a host of cultural and academic glass ceilings in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
This level of astrophotography is the kind of highly technical pursuit which blends computers, head-hurting software, obscure devices, a bit of astronomy-specific science … art … and, only a million things can go wrong … to capture breathtaking images, pulled from deep within our dynamic universe.
Such images include mind-blowing views of galaxies … billions and billions of stars (our sun is just a single star) spinning around, locked in a gravitational dance with each other. Often with star-creation regions visible … stellar nurseries, if you will.
And pictures of nebulae too … vast star-light-illuminated regions of dust (which are yet to coalesce to become new stars and new planets). Others, sadly, are associated with stellar corpses. These nebulae often present in shapes that our terrestrial sensibilities regularly try to describe in some recognizable way … the Dumbell Nebula, the Horsehead Nebula, the Witch Head and so on. ( … rather like a sciencey Rorschach inkblot test, eh?)
More easily defined are passing-through-our-solar-system visitors, such as comets, with their often spectacularly intense emerald green nuclei and vast, sweeping tails. We have them fairly regularly, although often difficult to see without some kind of astro rig. Comet NEOWISE, in recent years, was a spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime comet. If you missed it, don’t worry, its elliptical orbit will bring NEOWISE back to us in about 6,800 years.
You’ve heard of Halley’s Comet? Likely yes. It’s orbital period is much shorter, a mere 76 years. This specific comet, by the way, is embroidered into the Bayeaux Tapestry, that huge work of historical art that depicts the events leading up to the Normal Conquest of England in 1066. If you look up, in 2061, you’ll see this one’s next return.
In addition to being harbingers of doom, comets have also been seen as messengers of the gods. In Alfred Lord Tennyson’s popular ‘The Lady of Shallott’ we have, around when Sir Lancelot shows up …
Below the starry clusters bright,
Some bearded meteor, trailing light,
Moves over green Shalott
I’ll leave it to the reader of this tragic work, of Queen Victoria’s Poet Laureate, to determine if, in this case, the ‘bearded meteor’ is menace or otherwise.
And there is the low-hanging fruit, too, lunar imaging and even planetary, too. Those coloured bands on Jupiter? You’re seeing weather … the tops of clouds … on another planet. Think about that … you’re seeing weather on another planet. Then, just about five hours later, if you look at Jupiter again, you’re now seeing different cloud patterns … actually, the other side of the planet … yeah, it spins that fast. The largest planet in our solar system and its day is the equivalent of just under 10 Earth hours.
Sometimes … once in a very great while, you get to witness a star blowing up … “going supernova”. Have you ever seen a star blow up? Think about it … chances are, it had at least one or two planets, too. Now, think about that … planets, too … gone … was there life?
Earlier this year I was imaging the grand face-on spiral galaxy known as the Pinwheel (aka Messier 101) and, as luck would have it, unknown to me at the time, a giant star in one of its arms had gone supernova just hours earlier. That galaxy image, again with millions of stars, was collected for my daughter, Alexandra, because it was directly above her when she was born. The large, finished image, professionally-framed, was presented to her a few weeks later. In it, there is a spectacularly bright star (Supernova 2023ixf) that had shown up … just for her. What are the chances of that?
But there is also predictability. Given enough time, an engaged mind finds that one easily – and naturally – synchronizes to the individualized rhythms of our Earth, the Moon, the Sun, the planets, the stars. They do all have their individual rhythms, many of these lost to our modern culture – but not to our forebearers.
With the stars, you can never get lost. It takes seconds to find Polaris, the North Star. (And it only takes 60 seconds for us to teach you how to find Polaris. You’ll never be lost again.)
All this might sound a bit unusual. But, within the right group of people and supporting technology … all of this is well, “meh” … normal.
So too, is the normalcy of working throughout the night in red light. Now, this has nothing to do with loose morals, but it does have everything to do with white light ruining your night vision, something that red light does not do.
With respect to so-called ‘deep-sky imaging’ in general, the average finished image is made up of several hours’ of exposure, sometimes using only unique frequencies of light (such as given off by certain ionizing elements like Hyrogen-alpha, Oxygen III and Sulphur II) … and using a camera that has a refrigeration system on its sensor (to reduce static-like ‘noise’). And this, too, sometimes over multiple nights (in one case for me, over four years). And all this time, your telescope and camera must stay, or return – with exquisite precision – on target EXACTLY!
So, this is crazy hard? Definitely.
Then, why do it?
Well, it may have something to do with that first ‘Wow” moment in astronomy, where you might have visually observed Jupiter and seen the four large Galilean moons orbiting this gas giant, too … Ganymede, Europa, Io and Callisto … the moment you actually “saw” what looked like a mini version of our solar system and your brain exploded. Ditto for Saturn …. and his breathtaking rings … his biggest moon, Titan (which at the same time is also larger than the planet Mercury).
Each “wow” moment can leave you chasing the next one … (because the last one was so amazing) … and often, it seems, that next moment will be a higher-level challenge. Fundamental to our human condition, this seems.
Perhaps, too, it is from the satisfaction a teacher gets from seeing an engaged mind, regardless of age, “get” a hitherto unknown concept … one that fundamentally changes their understanding of their universe. You get to see them connect the dots in their mind … and then their face lights up, often saying “Wow” … literally.
Then again, there is the perspective where you struggle, sometimes for years to get enough data to create one of these images … and you realize what you have imaged is tens of thousands of light years across … and that the light you have been working with took 21 million years just to reach you, as it did with my daughter’s image of the Pinwheel Galaxy with its supernova.
Where were humans, 21 million years ago? Well, here’s a clue: even the ancestors of modern humans didn’t show up until millions and millions of years later. Mind you, apes, back then, when that galaxy’s light first left on its voyage to my daughter’s astrophotograph, were evolving and doing some interesting things. Earth’s land masses would have looked somewhat familiar but, also, lots would not be what we moderns are used to seeing.
When those deeply profound perceptions manifest, you start to appreciate that, despite the annoying fact that you just cracked the screen on your cell phone, despite the roar your car’s muffler has just started making, or despite that toilet that now likes to run on every once in a while … that there really are ‘bigger’ things out there.
Sometimes, not infrequently … sitting there through cold nights, in communion with those stars, being privileged to watch these remarkable sights reveal themselves … the overall experience can be caressed with a spiritual sensibility. I hear this from others, too.
As one British astronomer recently opined, it’s the kind of connection with our cosmos that can turn scientists into poets and poets into scientists.
Below are photos I (and/or Connie) have taken:
COMET NEOWISE – a once-in-a-lifetime view of this spectacular visitor to our solar system, imaged in 2020 near Sudbury in a very dark sky. It’s previous visit into our solar system, about 6,800 years ago, was when farming was spreading from the Middle East through Turkey and Egypt, with some evidence of domestication of sheep and cattle.
CRESCENT NEBULA with smaller SOAP BUBBLE NEBULA – the Crescent is a star that blew up a long time ago. It’s brain-like detail results from shock waves moving through space. The recently discovered Soap Bubble Nebula is to the lower left. 6-hour exposure.
ELEPHANT TRUNK NEBULA – a concentration of interstellar gas and dust, about 2,400 light years from us. 6-hour exposure.
HORSEHEAD and FLAME NEBULAE – Winter favourites. A 4.5-hour exposure. That’s the Flame to the left and the Horsehead to the right. If you are familiar with the winter constellation Orion, the leftmost star in his belt is the bright star here, just left of centre.
LUNAR ECLIPSE – during a lunar eclipse, where the Moon goes into the Earth’s shadow, light refracts through our atmosphere to create a huge spectrum of light …. And the red of this is just at the right distance to bathe the Moon in it. Hence, such events are also called “Blood Moons”.
MOON – IN TRUE COLOUR – almost every Moon photo is bright grey or whitish. There is a technique, however, to bring out the colour of this rocky satellite. In this case, a total of the best 109 of 218 Moon images were “stacked” (blended together with special software), to bring out the tiny bit of colour that was in each image to end up with this final, colour image of the lunar landscape.
PINWHEEL GALAXY & SUPERNOVA – a stunning grand spiral galaxy, with a huge supernova. This is a 10.5-hour exposure, imaged over several nights. The data collection was started within hours of the supernova erupting (which I was NOT aware of at the time). This galaxy was imaged because it was directly above my daughter when she was born. This image of “her” galaxy, now hangs in her home.
SOLAR ECLIPSE NEAR TOTALITY – Imaged in 2017 in Sparta, Tennessee. The Sun is experiencing a near total eclipse here … and it does moments later. But this image is interesting because it presents a “crescent” Sun … something that most people will never experience in their lifetime. Note the sunspots, still visible in the fast-extinguishing limb of our nearest star.
SOLAR ECLIPSE TOTALITY WITH CORONA – a few minutes later … the Sun disappears from the sky above you … and you get to see the eerie, gas-lamp filaments of the solar corona.
THE GREAT ANDROMEDA GALAXY – Billions and billions of stars, all spinning around in a grand spiral structure. This image represents a 10.5-hour exposure, over 5 different nights, spread over two months.
THE PLEIADES – THE SEVEN SISTERS – an easily recognizable cluster of stars visible from late fall through winter. Our eyes are unable to see this brilliant region of blue reflection nebulosity … but it’s there. 4.5-hour exposure.
X – CONNIE AND CASSIOPEIA – Connie (we met in Physics class) and our observatory, atop the Blue Mountains of Ontario. You can see the “warm room” through the open door. This personal observatory is named after the small constellation Cassiopeia, which actually figured in us acquiring this purpose-built structure.
X – JEFF AND CAROLINE – yours truly with our instrument, out on the instrument deck.
X – OBSERVATORY INSTRUMENT DECK – hard at work – pardon the clutter … it’s not normally that cluttered. But you can definitely see the red light we work under, as it preserves our night vision.