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When a physics professor and a digital media master gather students at the River and Field Campus to learn the fundamentals of astrophotography, the sky is literally the limit.
In a dimly lit classroom, students are examining a photo of the night sky that Brian Palmer has just brought up on a big screen. Everyone’s faces are aglow in the weird projected light.
“There are three streaks here in the sky,” says Palmer, director of Digital Media Services, which oversees IDEAWORKS, a multimedia resource for students. “Do you know what they are?”
Planes, answers one student, and he’s right, at least partly. When Palmer zooms in on one of the streaks, the repetitive blips of white, green, and red stitched across the sky reveal the navigation lights of a plane that the camera’s open shutter captured. But when Palmer zooms in on the other two, the colors and patterns definitely aren’t coming from anything that took off from planet Earth. They are meteors, scorching a luminous furrow across the black field of space.
“Why is the color different?” asks Charlie Kehm, chair of the Department of Physics and a physics and environmental science and studies professor. “It’s in the ice, or the minerals. Potentially different materials burn in different colors.” The stars, too, have different colors, he says, and when Palmer zooms in some more, what were once little white dots become clear individuals of blue, red, yellow. “Oh, yeah!” says another student.
The night sky, always wondrous, starts to reveal its mysteries in this collaboration between Kehm and Palmer, who introduce students in Kehm’s beginning level astronomy class to astrophotography. The students and teachers spent several hours one night this fall at the College’s River and Field Campus (RAFC), using cameras and gear provided by IDEAWORKS, shooting the night sky. Tonight, they’re in a lab learning how to use Camera Raw and Photoshop to process their images and, while doing so, get a closer look at the objects of their class’s study.
“It was the first time I had ever seen so many stars in one place,” says Kate Voynow ’20, an American studies major and history minor, who’s taking the class because she’s always been intrigued by astronomy, and it fulfilled a distribution requirement. “It was surreal. There was something really magical about it.”
The class surveys the universe, starting with Earth and moving through space and time to galactic clusters, supernovae, and black holes. Kehm says this is the second time that he and Palmer have collaborated to bring the art of photography into the science of astronomy.
“For students, this is one of the most enjoyable experiences of the semester,” Kehm says. “Most students already have an affinity for photography. Very quickly Brian can bring them up to speed in the use of SLR cameras and techniques for night photography. The lab gives us an opportunity to spend some time with the night sky, view constellations, observe the Milky Way, and sometimes see some planets. We even get to see some evidence of stellar colors in our long-duration exposures.”
Indeed, as the students processed their images back on campus, they found galaxies—including Andromeda, a swirl of gauzy white—meteors, and star clusters as they tweaked color, contrast, clarity, and other options to create scientifically publishable photos— what Kehm calls “an honest portrayal of the sky”—as well as versions that pushed into art photography.
“What I like most about the lab is the way it inspires the students,” he says. “There’s something about that pursuit of the aesthetic and the immersion under the starry sky that activates imagination and gets students excited about the subject. And even after doing this for many, many years, I’m still in awe every time I go out.”
For Voynow, who says she’s “not that good at STEM,” the class has been fun, if challenging at times. But the astrophotography lab and the night sky at RAFC were a revelation.
“As a history student, it’s kind of interesting because we learn about societies and we learn about the rise and fall of empires or how the United States began, all the things you learn about in history classes,” she says. “This is like Big History. Uber History. It’s fun to look at it that way. ‘Now, let’s look at the history of everything.’ And it kind of makes what I’m learning, it puts it into perspective. Look at all this fighting, look at all this war. What’s the point? It’s not Big History. The universe is so big, and how small we are compared to it. I take comfort in that. There’s something nice about it.”
Kehm says RAFC “offers some of the darkest skies in the region, and it’s only minutes from campus. It is an absolutely fantastic resource for us. One of my long-term goals is to develop a permanent observing platform at the River and Field Campus, which would make it easier for us to use telescopes more routinely at the site. The property offers a lot of promise for astronomy at the College. We’re only starting to realize that potential.”
Palmer says the lab is fun for him because it lets him teach students how to use cameras and technologies supplied by IDEAWORKS that help them imagine new possibilities for their work.
“I love to see the students light up when they explore the power of these newly acquired skills,” he says. “Whether it be centered around discovery, expression, or problem solving, I think programming we can offer the students through IDEAWORKS is truly a unique and valuable addition to their undergraduate experience.”