Photographing the Heavens

A photo of me (circa 1998) at the Clinton Ford Observatory.

My first encounter with digital photography came in 1998, when as an undergraduate an Ithaca College, I helped to commission the Clinton Ford Observatory. Using a 16″ Cassegrain telescope with an SBIG charge-coupled device (CCD), I had the opportunity to image the moon, planets, nebulae and galaxies. (Unfortunately the bulk of those first images were lost when the hard drive at the observatory got fried sitting in the warm room all summer. Always back up your data!). The professor for whom I was working wrote all the software to control the telescope while I worked on software to analyze images. Specifically I worked on algorithms for astrometry and photometry. Astrometry refers to measuring the positions of stars and other celestial coordinates. There exists a coordinate system used to locate celestial bodies in the sky and the idea is that if you know the positions of 3 or 4 well known objects in your image (from readily available astronomical data), then in principle you can determine the position of any other object in your image. Photometry, on the other hand, refers to measuring the brightness of a particular celestial body.

By the time the summer of 1999 came around, we had a good understanding of how the observatory operated and could begin to do some research. During that time we focused on tracking asteroids. I had the chance to apply the software I developed to real data. The end result was an animated GIF showing a portion of the sky with fixed stars and with an asteroid streaking across the image. For each one of those frames, my program calculated the coordinates of the asteroid. We then submitted the data to the Minor Planet Center (MPC). The MPC checked our coordinates and found them to be satisfactory (i.e. they were consistent with other measured data for the asteroid) and assigned us a code (number 845) recognizing the observatory as being capable of producing accurate astrometric data.

The two years I spent doing research at the observatory were great fun and a wonderful introduction into the world of scientific research – in spite of the fact that we were attempting to do astronomy in one of the most heavily overcast regions of the country!

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