Stars align at museum as astronomy photo exhibit returns

Holding Due North © Jake Mosher

It’s back. The Royal Observatory Greenwich’s Astronomy Photographer of the Year exhibition is once again installed in the Vero Beach Museum of Art’s Holmes Gallery, where it will be on view through Sept. 29. If you liked last year’s show, be prepared for a repeat of the science-based exhibition’s delights and drawbacks. The delights are the 50 space-related amateur photographs that were selected from 4,200 submissions to the Royal Observatory’s 2018 Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition.

The drawbacks are the same as last year. The images in the show were printed for display as light box transparencies and framed (opaque substrate) prints; so far, so good. Unfortunately, the wan-looking transparencies are not dense enough to capture the absolute blacks, vivid colors and wide tonal range of the images. And again, the doubling-up of often unrelated photos in a single frame has the potential for visitor confusion.

Overall, the “wow” factor could be greater, but this long-running show is, perhaps, the VBMA’s way of allowing the gallery to lie economically fallow for a few months. Despite all that, the show presents out-of-this-world images taken by photographers around the globe, a concept that is sure to appeal to families who wish to take children to an educational exhibition this summer.

The images on display span the following categories: Aurorae, Galaxies, Our Moon, Our Sun, People and Space, Planets, Comets and Asteroids, Skyscapes, Stars and Nebulae, and Robotic Scope (photos taken via a computerized telescope programmed by the photographer). Images from the Young Competition for astrophotographers aged 15 and under are also included here.

On a recent afternoon Jon Bell, planetarium director and associate professor of Astronomy at Indian River Community College, was at the VBMA for a pre-opening look at the exhibition.

You may be familiar with Bell’s voice from listening to Skywatch, his daily series on the science, history and folklore of the heavens, broadcast by IRSC’s WQCS FM. If so, you will be pleased to know that Bell’s voice is just as dulcet off-air as on, and his love of space just as ardent as you knew it would be.

About the exhibition, Bell is just as enthusiastic.

“The photographs are amateur only in the sense that the photographers don’t get paid. They aren’t on the staff of an observatory, but their work is first rate,” he says. “There’s a picture here that was taken by an 8-year-old kid!”

The child, Casper Kentish of the U.K., held his iPad next to the eyepiece on his brand-new telescope, a present for his eighth birthday, “and he went, ‘click,’” says Bell.

As a quote from Casper in the image’s text panel explains, “It was my first proper look at the moon … I saw this amazing sight, it was so awesome and bright I had to get my iPad and put it up to the bit you look through and take some pictures.”

Titled “First Impressions,” the photo, Bell explains, “shows the lunar terminator, which is called that because it is the edge between night and day on the moon. Sunrise happens across here,” he says, passing his hand from right to left in front of the image, “so this is a waxing crescent moon.”

Figuratively speaking, the moon is a star of the show, with several fine images devoted to it.

These include a close-up of the moon titled “Inverted Colours of the Boundary between Mare Serenitatis and Mare Tranquilitatis” by Jordi Delpeix Borrell of Spain. The colors in the image have been inverted to better show the shared border of two of the moon’s “seas,” Tranquility and Serenity. These, says Bell, are smooth fields of basalt that issued from cracks in the surface from the moon’s molten core. The seas’ shapes were determined by the borders of impact depressions made by giant asteroids billions of years ago. Craters that pock the flow were formed later by smaller objects striking the moon.

A picture of the crescent moon, titled “From the Dark Side” by Hungarian László Francsics, is mounted in the same frame with “The Grace of Venus” by Martin Lewis of the U.K. The single frame display of the two prints momentarily confuses Bell, who at first glance mistakes them both for views of Venus.

Quickly recovering, he says, “Both exhibit crescents and phases. When Galileo made this discovery in the Sixteen-teens, he was so excited he wrote it down as an anagram, in Latin. When you decipher it correctly it says that Venus exhibits phases like the moon. That means that Venus, like the moon, goes around the sun.

As much as Bell appreciates pictures of our solar system, it seems that his heart is really in deep space. One of the prints he stops to enjoy is “Rigel and the Witch Head Nebula,” an image by Mario Cogo of Italy. That image, a runner-up in the competition, is framed as one with another image by Cogo, “Corona Australis Dust Complex,” which won the Stars and Nebulae category.

Looking like the upside-down profile of a crone (her conical cap points toward the lower right corner of the picture), Bell describes The Witch’s Head Nebula, known to astronomers as IC 2118, as “an active region in space – a ‘happening place,’ if you will – because stars are being made or fashioned out of these nebulas. A nebula can be an indicator of where a star has died, or is dying, or where a star is being born.”

The bluish glow of the Witch’s Head is light reflected by the nebula’s dust particles from nearby Rigel, one of the stars in the constellation Orion. The hazy cloud of hot pink throughout the photo, says Bell, “is an emission nebula, where hydrogen gas is being lit up by the star and making its own light.”

In Cogo’s “Corona Australis Dust Complex,” Bell points to the dark nebula in the picture’s foreground.

“There are probably stars forming in there, but we can’t see them, because their light has not had a chance to turn on. When a star does turn on, it will light up the cloud and make it glow like a bright neon sign. But it is not neon, it is hydrogen gas.”

For earthlings who like pictures with a little of their home planet on view, there are plenty of those to satisfy. They include earth-bound landscapes; their natural or human-made features set against (among other phenomena) the Milky Way, a solar eclipse, or a meteor shower.

One such picture is by Matthew James Turner of the U.K., whose “Castlerigg Stone Circle” was designated a Runner Up in the Aurorae Category.

Stonehenge is not the only ancient stone circle in the British Isles. There are 1,300 of them, and Castlerigg, located in northwest England’s Lake District National Park, is considered to be among the oldest and most picturesquely situated. Turner’s photo of it shows the stones illuminated by the moon; behind them, the brilliant spikes of an aurora borealis transfix a starry sky. The image is that poetic, and then some.

For Bell, “there’s not too much astronomy in this one. It’s got a basic astronomical layout, and that’s about it,” he says, as he points out the Big Dipper.

“The middle star in the handle is called Mizar, and its fainter companion is called Alcor. They are a double star. There is a gravitational connection between them, despite their distance from one another.”

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