Photographing the universe

Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, tells the story of astrophotography.

  • The surface of the moon including a large crater

    Blue Tycho

    Credit: László Francsics (via Royal Observatory Greenwich)

The camera and the telescope have been intimately connected almost from the beginning of photography itself. As a visual science, astronomy has always been dependent on looking but in the nineteenth century photography provided a way, not just to look, but to accurately record the light being gathered and focused by the telescope. 

Since then, photography has helped to make many amazing new discoveries in astronomy. Arthur Eddington’s famous test of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity was carried out using photographs of a solar eclipse in 1919, while Edwin Hubble’s 1923 observation that the Andromeda Nebula was in fact a separate galaxy outside our own Milky Way was also made with the help of photographs.

The collaboration has worked both ways, with astronomers also driving important advances in photographic technology. Indeed, one of the earliest pioneers in the field was John Herschel, whose father William had discovered the planet Uranus in 1781, and who was himself one of the best-known astronomers of the nineteenth century. John was fascinated by the potential of photography and took what is perhaps the first ever photograph made on a glass plate: an image of his father’s great Forty-Foot Telescope in the family garden in Slough. He is even credited with coining the English word ‘photography’, as well as the term ‘snapshot’.

In the twentieth century astronomers played a significant role in helping develop a new technology: the digital camera chip. More sensitive than traditional photographic films and emulsions and able to produce information directly into a digital format suitable for analysis on a computer, these chips became standard issue on telescopes and space missions from the 1980s onwards, ushering in the current age of eye-popping astronomical images from the likes of the Hubble Space Telescope and ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft. This digital revolution had another beneficiary in the form of amateur astrophotograpghers, who were now able to take amazing photos of objects in the night sky - and to share their digital images online.

  • Rho Ophicuhi cloud

    "The Rho Ophiuchi Cloud" overall winner of Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition

    Credit: Artem Mironov (via Royal Observatory Greenwich)

In 2009 the Royal Observatory Greenwich decided to engage with this popular activity and showcase the achievements of amateur astrophotographers to a wider audience by establishing the Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition.

The annual event has grown year on year. In 2017 there were over 3800 entries from around 80 countries, along with a touring exhibition, an illustrated book and a planetarium show that was seen around the world.

As one of the judges on the competition I’m constantly impressed by both the beauty of the images and the technical skill that lies behind them. Each photo also comes with its own set of stories - the scientific story of the objects in the image and the human story of the person who took it – and this combination of science, artistry and personality has proved to be a very powerful tool for engaging audiences with the wonders of the night sky. 

The entries span a huge range of astronomical phenomena, from scenes of the night sky juxtaposed with the landscapes of Planet Earth, to the Sun, Moon and other objects of our solar system and on to stars, nebulae and distant galaxies beyond the Milky Way. You can see a few of my personal favourites in this blog and all of the winning images are on display in a free exhibition at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, as well as on the Observatory’s website.

  • green aurora borealis photographed in Iceland

    Ghost World

    Credit: Mikkel Beiter (via Royal Observatory Greenwich)

  • the sun

    Mercury Rising

    Credit: Alexandra Hart (via Royal Observatory Greenwich)

  • M63 galaxy timelapse composite image

    M63: Star Streams and the Sunflower Galaxy

    Credit: Oleg Bryzgalov

Entries for the 2018 competition are now open, please visit the competition page to enter. 

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