Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Nostalgia - a childhood of looking up to the heavens

I still get a chill down my spine when I see the dark blue sky after sunset, with bright stars, planets, and the moon decorating the view. As a youngster, I would spend hours staring at the sky, wondering what treasured lay hidden just out of view. In my junior year of high school, I finally got a respectable 6" telescope for gazing at the heavens.

The article on “Meteors in the Telescope” by Allan M. MacRobert in the July 2005 issue of Sky and telescope jogged a memory that I may have had taken a photograph of a meteor through my 6” reflector about 30 years prior. This got me frantically looking through piles and piles of family photos that were randomly tossed in several shoe boxes. After an evening of searching (and of course, pausing occasionally to marvel at pictures of me with hair or being awed by the incredible cuteness of my children), I finally found it! I was disappointed to see that the 3” by 4” photo showed signs of heavy abuse.

This had been my very first attempt at taking a photograph through a telescope, and Saturn was my target. It took me quite some time to center the planet in the telescope. Then I faced the frustration of mounting my camera and aligning it with the eyepiece. To make matters worse, the telescope was incredibly wobbly. However, nothing was worse than trying to focus the image through the finder of my 35mm camera. Finally, my brand new 6” reflector from Edmund Scientific was ready to go, so I pulled the trigger release. It took me all evening to get one shot, and I was mighty tired in school the next day from sleep deprivation.

After getting my pictures developed, I found an out-of-focus and overexposed image of the planet. However, I was proud of having caught what looked like a meteor. So, I taped the photo to the refrigerator. The years of re-taping the photo after falling under the fridge many times led to the fingerprints, tape marks, and sticky areas. Years of exposure to sunlight caused the colors to fade into a magenta hue with splashes of purple.

I recall having seen a flash of light in the camera’s finder on taking the shot. This could have been a memory that I conveniently added later upon getting the photo. For posterity, I scanned the legendary photo it into my computer at high resolution and carefully inspected it for clues. Could this have been an artifact?

Upon casual inspection, I believe that I indeed had caught a meteor. The head is clearly round, so it’s not a ghost image of Saturn. Furthermore, the small dim ghost of Saturn just below the image is clear evidence that the telescope jittered during the shot. Similarly, there is a small ghost of the meteor, just below and to the left of it - implying that it was not an artifact added at the film lab. The fact that the meteor’s ghost is displaced to the left implies that the meteor had moved after the ghost image was recorded. Though the image of the meteor looks suspiciously like a comet, I do not recall seeing one at the eyepiece. Given its brightness, I am sure that I would not have missed it. And the ghost image suggests that the object recorded was moving pretty quickly.

So, I believe that in my first attempt at astro-photography through a telescope, I nabbed a meteor in its tracks. I have never seen such a marvelously delicate tail in any meteor photographs (note that I did no processing after scanning the image aside from adjusting the color slightly to match the original print). Has anyone ever seen a similar image? I would be interested in hearing from anyone with similar pictures, or anyone with insights that support or refute my claim.

Almost a decade ago, I got back into astro imaging, though for the last few years, I have been too busy to use any of my telescopes. The advantage of being older is having the capital to buy decent equipment. For reference, I include a more recent shot (from 2004) that I took with a webcam coupled to my telescope. Telescopes have come of long way, not to mention the ubiquitous use of CCD cameras rather than film. I should get out more often!

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