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Amazing what you can see on a clear night around here

Amazing what you can see on a clear night around here
Photo: Dr. Dale Ireland.

When you look up on a clear night around here, you can, of course, see stars and the occasional planet. But I'd have never thought the skies were ever clear enough around Seattle to view images in space that rival what you get from the Hubble Telescope.

On Dec. 30, Dr. Dale Ireland in Silverdale captured this stunning photo of the Horsehead Nebula in the Orion constellation.

From his backyard.

In Silverdale.

Here is a larger version:

Now, this wasn't just point a camera and shoot, or even point a telescope and shoot. There is a complex process you have to go through to pull off a shot like this, but Dale helped explain in case you ever wanted to try this yourself.

I asked him if it's something you can see in a telescope.

"Actually, you can't 'see' it," he told me. "These things are so dim they are barely visible to the eye even in big telescopes."

Ireland says he takes a series of photos and then they get combined into one photo.

"Even in my photos you can't see it until I stack them all together digitally to bring out the details. I have to take a few test shots to make sure the telescope is really pointing at the desired object because you can't see them with your eye."

He says the telescope is on a mount with a drive that turns it at the same rate the Earth turns, keeping the scope pointed at the same object for hours at a time.

"However, it needs to stay perfectly pointed so it has a second small telescope, the guide scope, with it's own little camera that takes a picture of a bright star in the field of view about once every second and detects if there has been any little shift in position and sends a signal to the telescope motor to re-center the star."

He says he can take images of something for an hour "and it will not move 1 pixel in the field of view."

"For various reasons you can get a better picture by taking 60 images of one minute rather than one single hour long image. The software does this and stacks them all together. All the wires go to the cameras and various control motors and heat strips to prevent dew forming on the lenses," he said.

He said on the main photo, you can see a line on the left side-- that's where a satellite went through his line of vision.

"Astrophotography is getting more popular now with sensitive CCD cameras," he said.

You can find more information on Astrophotography here. And here are links to other photos Ireland has captured through the years.