Adam Block: Astrophotographer

Adam Block: Astrophotographer

Shooting For The Stars

by Lorraine A. DarConte

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,” said Oscar Wilde, who, in his wildest dreams could not have imagined how truly spectacular the universe is. Thanks to “visionaries” like Adam Block—space, the final frontier—though still miraculous and mysterious, is a tad more accessible to the average Earthling. Block is Program Coordinator at the Mount Lemmon Sky Center in Tucson, Arizona. He’s responsible for developing and administering the Steward Observatory’s public astronomy programs and experiences, which include presentations, workshops, and special events. He also manages to find time in his jam-packed schedule to photograph the heavens above.

24-inch Telescope
Block uses this 24” RC Optical Systems telescope and SBIG STL11000 CCD camera to capture his images. In this shot, the constellation of Orion can be seen through the slit. Block used a Canon 40D with a 15mm lens at f/2.8 and ISO 800 with a 30 second exposure to get the shot.
All Photos © 2010, Adam Block, All Rights Reserved

Block is an astrophotographer, which means he takes pictures of the sky, especially astronomical objects such as the moon, the stars, and galaxies. As a child, he loved the night sky, and so his perceptive parents bought him a telescope. “It was a natural thing to want to somehow capture what I was seeing through the telescope,” explains Block, who, of course, attached his camera to the telescope to photograph objects in space. Block, who hasn’t taken a single photography course, says most amateur astronomers that take up astrophotography learn it on their own, as it’s not taught in any school. “Generally,” says Block, “you work it out by reading, looking at other people’s work, or joining a club so more information will come your way. This is a niche not many people are interested in. To be honest,” states Block, “astrophotography really requires a certain personality to get some level of enjoyment out of it. It requires someone that enjoys solving problems, is persistent, and has a great deal of patience. Even today, with all the whiz-bang stuff available to work with, it still requires a huge level of pre-requisite knowledge to get the kind of result many people would be happy with.”

The Flaming Star Nebula
The bright star on the left was ejected from the Orion nebula millions of years ago. It is now traveling through our galaxy and, as seen here, is passing through clouds of gas and dust that have become illuminated and hence, glow. It required seven hours to process and blend the data to produce this image.

Film Versus CCD Cameras
When Block was a teenager, astrophotographers used film, which made the entire process more complicated and time consuming. “Nowadays, everyone is using digital cameras because they’re so much more sensitive and more efficient,” states Block. “Film is actually a fairly lousy medium by comparison; it’s not linear, it’s not clear, and there are all kinds of problems with it. In astrophotography, digital is a quantifiable leap.” There are a handful of companies that make cameras suited for astrophotography. One such company is Santa Barbara Instruments Group ( in California. Block captures images with a large CCD camera called the SBIG STL 11000 attached to a 24” RC Optical Systems telescope (located on Mt. Lemmon and provided by the Schulman Foundation). “The camera, which features a very large and sensitive chip, is just like a D-SLR but without the lens attached. It’s just the body; the telescope serves as the lens. All the electronics that control it are housed in the body itself. It’s a stand-alone instrument, and processing the imaging gives you the result.

Horse Head Nebula
Few other nebulae are more well-known than this equine pillar of dust. This image was featured as a NASA “Astronomy Picture of the Day.”

“In this form,” explains Block, “the astronomical camera serves as a detector. The information must then be downloaded to a computer where the data is stored and subsequently processed. It comes in a raw form and all that information has to be put together, which is another part of the process.”

Block’s goal with his images is to highlight an aspect of an object (in space) that is either intriguing or new. “Each image tells a story and offers an experience for the viewer,” states Block. “I strive for a ‘natural’ appearance for the image. If you can tell what I did to create the image then I didn’t do a very good job. With regards to the data,” he explains, “it’s divided into two parts. One part is calibrating the data, which requires specialized programs that manipulate data. It’s a very technical and fairly rigid mathematical operation that must be done correctly. Once I’ve calibrated and analyzed the data,” he continues, “I become an artist and start combining information to make a ‘pretty picture.’ I can then bring the image into a traditional program like Photoshop and continue to manipulate it in different ways to display or enhance various aspects of the image.”

Whirlpool Galaxy
These two galaxies gravitationally interact and disturb their original shapes. Eventually, over eons, these galaxies will merge to make a single galactic entity. These galaxies tango some 30 million light years away from us.

Try This At Home
Yes, you can try this at home and get good results using your digital camera. “Beyond the technical specifications, there’s very little difference between the chips that people have in their digital cameras and what I use,” says Block. “Besides efficiency and sensitivity, it’s pretty much the same idea. If people attach their digital camera to any sort of telescope, or even a lens, and point it at the sky, they basically become an astrophotographer. Leaving the shutter open, pointing your camera at the sky and capturing star trails is the simplest kind of picture you can take.”

Block says you can also take short exposures of the sky, each about 10 seconds long, for several hours, with a camera, a fairly wide angle lens and a tripod. Later, on the computer, you can put the images together. When these frames are animated into a short video, the stars will revolve around above the landscape you chose as your foreground. You can take the same sequence of images and combine them (in Photoshop) to produce star trails. By stacking them together, instead of getting individual dots, you get lines.

NGC 891
NGC 891 is a spiral galaxy located beyond the stars of Andromeda some 30 million light years away. Colorful stars in our own galaxy fill the foreground while the thin profile of NGC 891 presents its own glow of stars and dust in the distance.

The aforementioned process, notes Block, is the synonymous way of doing what used to be done with film. “With film, it was easier because you could leave the shutter open for 5 hours and the stars would be drawn onto the film. With a digital camera, you can’t leave the shutter open that long because it’s too sensitive.” You can, of course, simply use film if you haven’t tossed out your old cameras.

Those who want to give it a try will find the biggest obstacle to getting great photos won’t be equipment, but rather the sky itself. “We live in a time now where it’s difficult to get to the kind of sky that permits you to do this. You can’t do it from your backyard if you live in a city. You need to go to a place with a dark sky, otherwise city lights quickly overwhelm the image,” says Block.

The Orion Nebula
The Orion Nebula is the birthplace of stars. At 1500 light years away (from Earth), it is one of the nearest and most well-studied objects of its kind. Gas, dust, and radiation all mix here with captivating results. The four stars in the center, called the Trapezium, are mostly responsible for making the entire scene glow.

For the moment, Block says he’s perfectly happy with what he’s been able to accomplish thus far. “I have been lucky to observe under some of the best conditions on Earth and process the data to reflect it,” says Block. However, if he had the opportunity, he’d like to create images using data put together by a professional observatory using a very large telescope. “Sometimes professionals will take data and put it together to show the public the kind of research they’re doing. These astronomers, however, are adept at science, not producing pretty pictures. I’d love for someone with a large binocular telescope to come to me and say, ‘Adam, here’s some really nice data on such-and-such an object. Please put this together and make a pretty picture for us.’ It’s not very often that pros take that kind of data and make it available to someone like myself. So of course,” he concludes, “that would be pretty cool.”

NGC 6960
(Detail of the Veil Nebula, also a NASA “Astronomy Picture of the Day.”) This is a portion of a violently expanding shell of gas known as a supernova remnant

Adam Block is (to the best of his knowledge) the:
First person to put together a color animation showing the expansion of the Crab Nebula.

Had planetary images of Mars (as well as Hale Bopp images) broadcast on the Today Show.

Discovered many asteroids and named one of them after the astronomer, Dr. Richard Williamon, who inspired Adam at Fernbank Science Center. Dr. Williamon was greatly surprised when honored in 2005 with the asteroid now called 45298 Williamon (2000 AE42).

Honored to have an asteroid named after him called “Adamblock.”

A well defined light curve for the Gamma Ray Burst of March 30th, 2008. These observations received attention in the press.

Block’s images have been published in various books such as: Capturing the Stars: Astrophotography by the Masters; A Year in the Life of the Universe; Cosmic Butterflies; Beyond Earth; National Geographic: Encyclopedia of Amateur Astronomy; The Caldwell Objects; and Night Wonders.

Hundreds of his images have been published in magazines including, Astronomy Magazine, Sky & Telescope, Coleum, Astronomie, Scientific American, Ciel & Espace, and The Practical Astronomer. His images have also appeared in special editions such as Astronomy’s “Atlas of the Stars” and Sky & Telescope’s “Beautiful Universe.”

NGC 6559
In this image, hydrogen gas glows red with some blue highlights where other processes scatter light. In the foreground, great serpentine clouds of dust lazily waft through the field. (Also a NASA “Astronomy Picture of the Day.”)

Santa Barbara Instrument Group
147-A Castillian Drive
Santa Barbara, CA 93117

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