Spending Quarantine Amongst the Stars

Gordon Tuomikoski, Features and Photography Editor

While staying up until 5 a.m. to most people is foolish behavior, to someone like me, it’s pretty common. Over the past month and a half, I’ve been spending my time at home doing astrophotography, or photographing the night sky. From galaxies to nebulae, the most peculiar to the faint, seeing space for yourself is a satisfying and wonderful feeling.

Sure, you can find absolutely incredible photos captured by NASA or the ESA using billion dollar technology, but there is something so personal about seeing these objects for yourself. Knowing that, what you’re seeing is something so far away, yet so utterly beautiful that it’s impossible to comprehend something really existing. Astrophotography is not a simple hobby. For most telescopes, you need to worry about many different parts when creating a telescope. From a proper mount to a guiding scope, a dedicated camera, there are so many parts to a true astrophotography setup, which is why I’m so happy with my telescope. 

In February I purchased the Vaonis Stellina, a smart telescope. You connect to it with your cell phone and you can choose from an ever expanding catalog of over 200 hundred outer space objects, or manually put in coordinates. It wasn’t cheap either, and at first I felt a bit of buyers remorse, but overtime I developed new methods of post-processing to bring out the beauty and wonder hidden in these faint objects. This telescope is so simple and easy to use, and, with enough manual effort, produces fantastic photos. Normally it exports compressed, low resolution JPEG images, but if you take the raw files off of the scope and manually stack them, it can produce wonderful images. Which brings me to my next point.

If you’ve ever look through the eyepiece of a telescope, you may have noticed just how dim and faint space really is. Other than stars, things like galaxies and nebulae really aren’t that bright. This is what astrophotography accomplishes. By taking hundreds of pictures of the same object and merging them all into one, called stacking, it brightens up the object and brings out color and detail. This is where the Stellina really shines. It does this all automatically without the need for a hefty complicated setup with dozens of parts. It’s a tiny, portable scope that’s so elegantly designed.

So far in my adventures, I have captured over thirty objects. The Beehive Cluster, the Black Eye Galaxy, the Knife Edge Galaxy, the Leo Triplet (M65 and M66), the Cat’s Eye Galaxy (M94), the Cocoon Galaxy (NGC 4490), the Virgo Cluster (M86 and several others), the Whale and Crowbar Galaxies (NGC 4631 and NGC 4656), M3, M13, M21, M24, M51, M63, M83, M96, M101, M106, the Moon, the Crab Nebula (M1), the Eagle Nebula (M16), the Elephant Trunk Nebula (IC 1396), the Lagoon Nebula (M8), the Trifid Nebula (M20), the Dumbbell Nebula (M27), the North America Nebula (NGC 7000), the Orion Nebula (M42), and the Tulip Nebula. 

For a little explanation on what these names mean, the ‘M’ is short for the Messier catalog, a catalog of 110 space objects created by astronomer Charles Messier between 1771 and 1781 while in search of comets. Funnily enough, this is a catalog of objects that angered him, as they interrupted his search of comets, it was his catalog of objects to avoid. ‘NGC’ is short for New General Catalog, a catalog of over 7,840 objects. It was created by astronomer John Louis Emil Dreyer in 1888 and errors were fixed in the 20th and 21st centuries. For example, the Cocoon Galaxy has the designation NGC 4490, but it is not in the Messier catalog. Many deep-sky objects, and even Messier objects, have an alternate ‘NGC’ tag. Nebulae and galaxies are considered deep-sky objects. There are other catalogs, like the Sharpless catalog, which the Tulip Nebula belongs to, with the designation Sh2-101. There are so many objects in space that not every object can have a common name, which is why they are categorized with designated names in different catalogs.

I hope to photograph many more objects in my quest of seeing the night-sky. It is a fascinating, wondrous hobby that anybody can enjoy just by sitting outside and looking at the stars. With my companion that looks like TARS from the movie ‘Interstellar,’ the Vaonis Stellina, quarantine feels like an escape from reality, not imprisonment.