The Lagoon Nebula

What’s it like to do astronomy? For visual observers, it’s relatively easy and it is immediately enjoyable. But when you get down to the actual experience in the field, for an astrophotographer it’s mostly hard work.

After a 2 1/2 hour drive, I reach my camping spot in the San Rafael Swell. Arriving before the North Star is out, which allows me to do some of the work in the daylight, I must find true north with the compass – and I have mixed up even that simple task.

Unload gear. Attach the wedge to the tripod. I lift the heavy telescope from the back of our Jeep and swing it onto the wedge. Crank in the bolts. Set the longitude on the wedge’s scale. Take a breather. Bend low to minutely lengthen or shorten each tripod leg, loosening the connection for the inside tube, hoist the tripod a little, tighten, pop my head up to shine a red flashlight beam on the carpenter’s level resting across the wedge (because night has fallen by now), stoop to repeat the process, do it again many times.

The finder scope must be aligned with the main telescope. I lug the generator as far into the desert as the power lines will reach so the vibration won’t jiggle the scope. I fill the generator from a gas can. Yank and yank the cord and fiddle with the choke to get it running right. I unfold the camp table and set up the laptop on it. I plug in cameras and laptop and connect the scope to its battery. Now it’s essential to go through the laborious task of getting the telescope and cameras balanced.

The main balance squared away, I dribble quarter-inch washers into a sock to tweak the balance, and loop the sock onto one of the telescope handles. Is that enough? No, it still tends to drift when the right ascension knob is loosened. A few more washers — that’s better. I tie the sock to the handles.

All that is prelude. The night’s tasks are to turn on the telescope, get it oriented correctly with the heavens, find a target (often too faint to show in the finder scope), work on collimation, focus, get the guide scope guiding and, finally, take images.

Assuming all is going well — the generator is not cutting out, I haven’t knocked out a wire, the guider isn’t losing its star — I may take a short walk while the cameras and computer do their jobs. It’s a rare moment when I can admire the outdoors. Recently I noticed the false comet in the lower Milky Way, which is really a star cluster called NGC 6231 teaming up with some bright stars. It fooled me once, as I believed it was a comet, but disappeared when I focused binoculars on it. I can crane my neck and find M31, the Andromeda Galaxy, easily visible by naked eyes from this dark location.

Sweeping randomly with the binocs, I’m chilled by cold dark black space and its scatterings of diamond-hard stars. It seems so impersonal. Intellectually I understand that we are part of it all, our familiar sun as much as any other star, our warm Earth a part of it too. We are among the stars, we are made of star-stuff, and our sun is one of billions in our galaxy. But those facts feel fictional.

A comforting realization is that to me, my life is a universe, no more so and no less so than any other creature’s life is to it. From that perspective, no sentient creature, regardless of size of home planet or sophistication or primitiveness of life, is less significant than any other.

Back at the folding table, a monochrome view of the target nebula shows on the computer screen. Each image is saved automatically to await my processing. I check to see that the guider is still locked to a star. The nebula, M8, called the Lagoon, is the birthplace of thousands of stars.

When I look up, I can see little of the Milky Way because the monitor has blown out my night vision. Never mind that I dimmed the screen as much as possible, never mind that at the start of the session I switched the software program, MaxIm DL, to “night vision mode.” The screen remains bright enough to shrink my pupils, making it harder yet to glimpse anything with the finder scope.

New target. Check the time, read my list of what’s highest and most interesting. Aim and focus. Search for the galaxy. Once it appears, use the controller to move the scope in minute steps to center the target on the screen; oops, that was too far, move it back the other way. Figure out which direction the galaxy will move when I push one of the keys. That’s a little too high on the screen; try to get it down. Too far down, jog it upward.

When I’m actually at the telescope I rarely think about the distance to these objects, or anything ethereal. I’m a workman and my task is to aim at different points on a ceiling. The Bubble Nebula isn’t far from the open cluster M52. The Ring Nebula is close to brilliant blue Vega. Slew, focus, search, jog the scope, center, guide, set up an exposure sequence.

Sometimes I admire the intricacies of the view that pops onto the screen when a photo is taken. But that’s not safe, not when it’s dark and everything looks dazzling on the screen; later I will find that stars are blurred or oval, that it’s hopelessly underexposed, or the picture has another of many possible deformations. One exposure down with this galaxy, a dozen to go. Examine it closely to see if the focus is precise. Is the scope off balance, making the galaxy drift? Is it tracking well?

The guider loses its star and beeps with annoyance, ending this session. An hour before sunrise, the brightening sky is washing out the dark. I can see clouds now. Time to rest.

When the morning grows hot enough that I am forced to climb out of the Jeep, I pack up, generally taking about an hour to stow everything. It’s a long haul to Salt Lake City, with a stop in Price for breakfast.

Only after I have returned home, slept, showered, eaten, talked about the trip and napped again, can I discover if I captured anything. Too often the photos aren’t worth the bother of stacking them. But on those occasions when some images are usable, I spend hours assembling them, lining up the overlays, adjusting contrast and color.

[The subtle beauty of the vast Lagoon Nebula is suggested in this photo that I took in the San Rafael Swell on June 19, 2010. The nebula, often called a “stellar nursery” because many stars form in its dust clouds, is far larger than shown in this view.]

And this is my reward. Visual observers rightfully enjoy hopping from star to nebula to comet, from galaxy to galaxy, picking up many views in a night. I might get one or two photos. But I stare at the image, my eyes searching it repeatedly, amazed I was able to collect photons that had flown through the vacuum for eons. For the first time, I can see the color of these mysterious nebulas and galaxies. I get a feeling for their isolation and sense their immense distance. I can show this photograph to others, explain what it is, and expand their understanding of the universe.

The image hints at the intricate beauty of a nebula 5,000 light-years away. This is Nature writ large. My heart fills with awe and respect for what is out there, for the creation that we are part of. I yearn to find out more.

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