Since the invention of the telescope in the 17th Century, an astronomer’s limit of what can be viewed through the eyepiece has always come down to the sensitivity of the eye peering through the lens. With the invention of photography in the early 19th century and the digital revolution of the late 20th century, the limits of what can now be viewed depend much more on the image sensors, exposure times and tracking systems being used by the observer. As far as we have come in amateur astronomy and digital photography, astrophotography continues to be a complex and expensive extension of this hobby.
Thankfully, the technology to begin experimenting with this process has become embedded in devices used on a regular basis. Late in 2014, I bought the iPhone 6, which among many of its improvements, boasted of an enhanced camera. To test this and try out my hand at astrophotography, I took a couple shots of some of the night sky’s most well known targets.
Starting with Orion Nebula, I had little expectation for success. As I slowly adjusted the iPhone 6 over the eyepiece, the image came into auto focus, and I was surprised to see the brightest parts of the nebula appearing on the screen. I snapped a handful of images and video, with the one shown above being the most impressive in terms of the gray cloud-like detail of the nebula and sharpness of the Trapezium Star Cluster, located at its center. To my eye, the Orion Nebula appears as a soft bluish-green cloud, but to achieve that through a camera, a longer exposure would be needed.
Pleiades Star Cluster
Moving the scope over to one of my favorite star clusters, the Pleiades Star Cluster revealed the most prominent of the Seven Sisters in sharp detail.
Jupiter and the Galilean Moons
Jupiter along with its moons Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto proved to be a difficult set of objects to accurately capture together. The aperture was a difficult thing to adjust while holding the camera lens over the eyepiece. While it is nice to be able to see the four major moons of Jupiter in this image, collecting enough light to capture them, leads to an over exposure of Jupiter itself. While the major cloud belts are perfectly viewable through the eyepiece, they are washed out in the image.
Astrophotography has been one of those things that I have dabbled in from time to time, but never taken seriously due to a lack of proper equipment. These examples, however, show that with a bit of patience and a smart phone, you can begin to explore the world of astrophotography.