Personal Essay

A Fraction of the Universe

Photo credit: Prathamesh Jaju

More than 13 billion years ago, this universe sprung into existence with a big bang. Some of the energy generated by this phenomenon was condensed into Hydrogen atoms. Those atoms underwent innumerable transformations — star explosions, nuclear fusion reactions, and more — until they reached a state when they could be photographed. And that’s just what astrophotography is, capturing celestial moments in time through a lens.

As descendants of those primordial Hydrogen atoms, it’s surreal to think that we are all made of stardust, making supernovas, planets, nebulae and galaxies distant cousins. In many ways, astrophotography helps us create family albums, wondrous repositories of distant memories and colossal changes that span aeons.

Looking at the night sky and observing the infinite vastness over our heads gives us all a sense of perspective. Given the improbability of the universe and our own existences, capturing it all with a small camera sensor and a telescope? It’s a special brand of cosmic magic.

Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup
They slither wildly as they slip away across the universe
Pools of sorrow, waves of joy are drifting through my opened mind
Possessing and caressing me

– Across the Universe, The Beatles

Photo credit: Prathamesh Jaju

A Glimpse of the Stars

I first became enraptured by the wonders of our universe when I was 8 years old. I used to spend hours watching movies and TV shows that gave me a glimpse of space. In 2017, to learn more about astronomy and astrophotography, I joined an astronomy club. Jyotirvidya Parisanstha or JVP, Pune, is India’s oldest association of amateur astronomers. It was here that I was first introduced to astrophotography while participating in a stargazing session with some other volunteers.

If you want to get technical, astrophotography is the art of capturing long exposure images of different astronomical objects like planets, nebulae, galaxies, star clusters and other celestial bodies. I learnt that astrophotographers all over the world used basic equipment like DSLR cameras, tracking mounts and telescopes to capture images. I had access to this equipment at JVP and decided to try my hand at taking pictures of the night sky. This was 4 years ago, I was 13 at the time, and I’ve been taking photographs of celestial objects ever since.

Over the years, I’ve been working on improving my processing skills and learning new techniques to perfect my photographs. The more I explore astrophotography, the clearer it becomes that we can’t truly comprehend how enormous the universe really is. I’d be satisfied if I could understand even a small fraction of it through the images I capture.

Travelling Through Time

We now know that the light cast by stars is ancient. Distant galaxies reveal themselves to us as they once were, not as they exist in the present. In his book Ancient Light, John Banville says, “Even here, at this table, the light that is the image of my eyes takes time, a tiny time, infinitesimal, yet time, to reach your eyes, and so it is that everywhere we look, everywhere, we are looking into the past.”

Light, the fastest phenomenon known to humans, takes over hundreds and thousands of years to reach Earth from astronomical objects like the Moon, planets and nebulae. The Moon is one light second away from Earth, though the actual physical distance is approximately 3,00,000 km. The Sun is 8.2 light minutes away, and the Pole star 430 light-years. So when we capture an image of the Pole star and other celestial bodies, we are seeing them as they appeared centuries ago. The telescope is, in its own way, a time machine and astrophotography is a singular way to time travel.

It’s also worth remembering that when everything that we perceive through our senses comes from the past, and when no observer lives in the now, the distinction between the past and future begins to crumble.

Images of broken light which dance before me like a million eyes
They call me on and on across the universe
Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letterbox they
They tumble blindly as they make their way across the universe

– Across the Universe, The Beatles

Through a (Magnified) Lens

I’ve been taking photographs of the Moon for three years. I read about moon mosaics on the internet and decided to try my hand at making one. To create a moon mosaic, you stitch multiple magnified views of the moon together to form one large panoramic shot. My first attempt wasn’t terrible, but it did teach me a lot about processing techniques. I knew I could do better, so I kept at it.

Photo credit: Prathamesh Jaju

My most detailed shot was of the last quarter mineral moon, taken on 4th May 2021, a week after the full moon and a week before the new moon. Images that we look at on our mobile phones and laptops often become blurred or pixelated when you zoom in. I wanted to avoid that so I captured 38 videos at a higher magnification. Because they were so magnified, each video caught only a small surface area of the moon, and not the entire half-moon phase. Next, I decided to stitch these images together. However, I didn’t have straightforward images — I had videos. Each one had to be condensed into photographs by stacking individual photo frames together. Each video generated one image, which I then had to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. The whole process generated 186 gigabytes of data!

The moon is usually photographed in shades of grey, but in this new enhanced image, we catch a glimpse of the mineral-rich surface with veins of blue, orange and purple. These tones aren’t visible to the naked eye, but with the help of a powerful camera and colour enhancements, we can now see more than ever before. The blues indicate areas that are rich in ilmenite, rich in iron, titanium and oxygen. Orange and purple are indicative that certain areas lack those minerals. It reveals so much about the moon’s surface that we had theorised, but have never been able to capture visually.

Luck and Light

Cloudy skies, bad weather and light pollution are the biggest banes of any astrophotographer. In Pune, India, where I live, it rains 5-6 months of the year. It’s also subject to heavy light pollution, which is a giant hindrance. So when I can, I search for clear skies in remote or dark locations. There’s less light pollution and I can capture much more than in an urban setting.

Photo credit: Prathamesh Jaju

In 2019, along with my astronomy club, I travelled over 1000 km to observe a rare astronomical phenomenon — the annular solar eclipse. A rare occurrence, the annular solar eclipse is when the sun, moon and earth are aligned perfectly. To the naked eye here on earth, the moon covers the sun almost completely save for the outer edges, creating a ‘ring of fire’ or annulus. This kind of eclipse only happens once in 150-200 years. So, we made the journey to Coimbatore in South India to catch a glimpse of it. We set up all our telescopes and waited patiently, but all we saw were clouds. It’s the first harsh lesson of astronomy and astrophotography — you aren’t always going to be lucky. Thankfully, not every expedition is disappointing. Six months later, I had a front-row seat to another solar eclipse in Pune. It wasn’t the annular solar eclipse but a partial one.

Waiting, Watching and Wonderment

Astrophotography has become more accessible. You can use any camera and telescope to capture the stars. In fact, you can even use your smartphone. But perhaps the best starting point is a basic DSLR camera with a few lenses. Once you have that, invest in a tracking mount like the Skywatcher Star Adventurer and a tripod. With this equipment in hand, you can begin capturing amazing images of the night sky. If you’d like to take it a step further, you can incorporate a telescope and a better equatorial tracking mount. This will allow you to capture more distant astronomical objects.

Photo credit: Prathamesh Jaju

Truthfully, while good equipment does help, it’s the person behind the lens that really determines a good astrophoto. If astrophotography is a vehicle, then its fuel is patience. Results aren’t immediate. You often have to settle in for long waits, practice until your skills improve, and remain optimistic despite cloudy skies.

The first time I ever snapped a picture of the Milky Way, I was sitting in a dark, cold location with a DSLR camera. It wasn’t comfortable, but for the first time, I captured an image of light coming from the galaxy above. It blew my mind! Now when I look back, it’s not the best photo I’ve ever taken, but it changed the way I saw the world.

We’re living in a world that might be smaller than a speck of dust in the context of the humongous universe we exist in. The fact that we humans have evolved so much in the past few centuries is mind-boggling. My hope is that I can contribute in some small way towards understanding this fraction of the universe that we inhabit.

Sounds of laughter shades of life are ringing
Through my open ears inciting and inviting me
Limitless undying love which shines around me like a million suns
It calls me on and on across the universe

– Across the Universe, The Beatles

Photo credit: Prathamesh Jaju

About the author

Prathamesh Jaju is a 16-year-old amateur Astronomer and Astrophotographer from Pune, India. He gained recognition for his work in Astrophotography and the photographs he took of the Last Quarter Mineral Moon. Using huge magnifications, Jaju has captured multiple videos of the moon. He then used these videos to create over 50,000 images of the moon and pieced them together to create a detailed photograph of the earth’s only natural satellite. The image is so clear that one can zoom in extensively without losing the details. The image created by Jaju also holds scientific value, as different colours are seen in the picture and indicate that there are mineral deposits on the lunar surface.

 

You can follow him on instagram @prathameshjaju and visit his website www.prathameshjaju.com