For those of you waiting for my follow-up post on the Wonder Conference, fear not! It’s coming. After a summer a poor sky conditions, I’ve finally been blessed with some clear skies. Sadly, some of the targets I wanted to shoot this summer are now in a position that doesn’t give me enough time to capture the light I need in one night.
For example, I wanted to experiment with creating a “Hubble Color Pallet” image of the Eagle Nebula. The Hubble Color Palette is a false color edit of deep space objects that scientists use for research. For the amateur astrophotographer, they create amazingly beautiful images. Here’s NASA’s latest James Webb capture and edit of the iconic section of the Eagle Nebula dubbed “The Pillars of Creation.”
A key dimension on how images like this are captured is by imaging narrow bands of the light spectrum and then assigning them a “color channel” to create the false colors for the image. I can’t explain how NASA captures these bands since James Webb is a dedicated infrared telescope. For my hobby rig, I would capture three types of light spectra with a monochrome camera and narrow band filters. Those narrow band filters are Hydrogen (Ha), Oxygen (OIII), and Sulfur (SII).
To do a really nice Hubble Color Palette edit of the Eagle Nebula, I should gather at least three hours of light – One hour of Ha, one hour of OIII and one hour SII. However, the position of the Eagle Nebula right now barely gives me one hour of imaging time before it gets too close to the horizon, causing atmospheric distortion. Therefore, I would need to image the object over multiple nights… Which isn’t an easy task to pull off for a priest hobby astronomy.
Now, it goes without saying there’s no way, even with enough light gathered, that I will ever approach such an image like NASA’s. Nevertheless, I am very proud of the 30 minutes of Ha data I was able to capture last week. Here’s an edit of both the monochrome capture and then a false-colored version of the same image (the crops are slightly different).
Nebulae are often named, similar to constellations, after things that have a shape similar to something we are familiar with on Earth. This connection between the night sky and life on Earth is one of the many things I love about Nebulae – They allow me to experience the joy I had in childhood of looking for animals in the clouds.
I must admit that I’ve never thought the Eagle Nebula actually looked like an Eagle. If I were in charge of naming the Nebula, I probably would have called it the Cormorant Nebula… yeah… Doesn’t really roll off the tongue, does it. Still, its a fun way to develop a playful relationship with the night sky.
As I’ve shared with you in the past, Pope Francis has encouraged us to develop a relationship with the created world in the spirit of the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. For me, imagining and contemplating Eagles or Cormorants in the interstellar clouds becomes a type of contemplative prayer. It takes the awe and wonder of God’s creation and places it in the spiritual heart of a child looking for animals in the clouds.
Of course, there is a “hard science” approach to these images. Ironically, every time I meet a “hard scientist,” they will share their childlike wonder with me of why these objects are important to them. It reaffirms a basic observation of our human nature: We naturally long to be connected with the night sky – We want the story of the night sky to be our story and we want to place our story in the sky above.
Spiritual Exercise: When was the last time you went looking for animal shapes in the clouds? When was the last time you let your heart rest with the childlike wonder we often long to recapture as we get older? Go out and look for Eagles in the sky… Both real ones and ones you need some abstract thought to find. See the world around you anew with wonder. Thank God for the gift of this created world. And revel in the gift of seeing our world with the heart of a child.