Physics & Physical Science Demos, Labs, & Projects for High School Teachers

Astrophotography for Nuthin

Posted on: March 23, 2010

I mentioned this in my previous blog post.  No strings attached, NASA has a number of robotic telescopes out there for real work that is available to the public.  How cool is this?

Essentially there is a network of these things out there for researchers and educators and the public to use.  You just need to know they exist, and now you do.  For non-researchers, these robotic telescopes have their interface simplified to make taking pictures relatively painless and error free.  These robots sit in a field, all alone, with nobody to talk to, just taking orders for pictures.

There is only a small catalog of 36 objects, not all of which will be visible that evening.  Pick one, then the interface asks you for a field of view.  For those of you who have never used a telescope, it is essentially a zoom level.  For the common folk, you only have one choice, but you do have to select it.  Next is the time of exposure.  It gives you several options, but it will tell you if it is too long or too short.  Last is the filter.  Some objects have no filter, others have red, green, and blue.  Click on continue, give them an email address, and you will have your pictures delivered some time the next day.  I’ve tried it twice now, each time the pictures have arrived after lunch the following day.

Harvard Smithsonian Micro-observatory Link

If you aren’t aware of how astronomical photos are made, here is a quick lesson.  Pictures are taken through different color filters.  Through a telescope or the naked eye, everything is just shades of gray.  But if you take it through RGB filters, you end up with three different images.  Now you color each of those images separately and use special software to merge them into a single image.  Ta-da!  A full color image you created.

Okay, there is more.  Astronomy photos are typically in a format called fits.  These images carry tons of information about where, when, settings, etc.  You really need a special package to merge these photos, but you are in luck.  On the same page is free software and a tutorial to do all this.

Imagine how excited your students will be.  You teach them about how light is gathered by a telescope.  You talk about how the filters are needed to show the color.  The color is real, we just can’t see it, there aren’t enough photons for our eyes.  Next up, the students go to the site and select an object to photograph.  Their request goes into the queue.  Multiple requests of the same object will each have individual pictures.  Now you can have them walk through the tutorial and use their own image to combine and create their own astronomical photo.  Once done, I would send the lot off to Walmart or CVS or some other inexpensive photo developer and they get to put their own astronomical photo on the fridge.  Seriously, I get goosebumps thinking about this lesson.

Like I said, this little secret was worth the cost of NSTA.  And I almost stayed home on Saturday.


1 Response to "Astrophotography for Nuthin"

Yes, I am commenting on my own post. I’ve been trying to get some good pictures out of the robotic telescopes. I seem to get a couple good ones but a bunch of bad ones as clouds keep rolling in. If you are going to use this as an assignment, you might want to start taking the pictures a week ahead of when you are going to process them. That way you should have a complete set of RGB filtered shots when you need them.

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