The Pomfret Observatory Team Learns from the Pros

by Josh Lake

Last week, I traveled with three students to Suffern, NY, to attend the Northeast Advanced Imaging Conference (NEAIC). It’s an annual meeting of professional and amateur astronomers who specialize in taking pictures of galaxies, planets, nebulae, and other objects in the Universe. The conference was two solid days of presentations about techniques, equipment, and discoveries, all of which will help us improve our work in Pomfret’s Olmsted Observatory.

On the ride home, I asked Ben Rathjen ’12, Remy Hatfield ’13, and Ian Buckley ’15, what their favorite or most meaningful sessions were. Here they tell you in their own words.

Ben: There were many talks about how to better utilize the software and hardware that is already present in our observatory. One of the most interesting talks to me was given by Swiss astronomer Fabian Neyer on the topic of stellar mosaic imaging. He simplified the mosaic process by using PixInsight, a program I am already familiar with. Neyer taught Mr. Lake and me that we needed to increase the exposure times so that our final images yield more detail for an overall better picture. Also, the creator of the automated observatory system we use was there, and he explained to me that not only are mosaics like this possible, but our software could easily attain these images for us. The conference was very useful in learning new processing tools, and it taught me how to better utilize what we already have while giving me ideas for many new projects.

Remy: I witnessed a wide variety of expertise and experience in astrophotography. One imaging expert named Neil Fleming went into some detail as to how we can shoot through narrow band filters, looking at only certain wavelengths of starlight. He emphasized how we should take longer exposures through each filter. Narrowband imaging, especially, is good for long exposures because it does not allow the local light pollution through and focuses just on specific elements illuminated from the nebulae. Through the narrow band filters and longer exposures, as well as some detailed processing tips, our final pictures will be more intricate and beautiful.

Ian: At the conference, we had a large selection of different speakers about astrophotography. These lectures ranged from beginner to expert level presentations on how to take and process your images. Dr. Frank Summers, an ecstatic and charismatic speaker, as well as an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, spoke to us about taking images from the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) archive, and using these pictures for an IMAX production. He described all the details that need to be included in an IMAX movie, like the accurate colorings, editing of the images, and of course the animation to give its 360 degree view. Summers, along with Neil Tyson and other planetary astronomers, was also responsible for demoting Pluto from its title of being a planet.

For my part, I greatly enjoyed seeing our students actively participate in these high level discussions about advanced techniques. The Pomfret students were among the youngest attendees, and they were attentive and curious about all the aspects of capturing and processing images. I took the opportunity to practice my own processing skills as part of the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures contest, running until the end of May. The HST team encouraged members of the public to download and process raw Hubble data to bring new views of the Universe, that were buried in the archives, to light. I performed a set of new techniques on an image of a massive spiral galaxy and experimented with making specific color adjustments on zoomed-in fields of a dusty glowing nebula. In the end, it was time well spent for our growing Pomfret observatory team, and the next round of images that we take from Pomfret should be the best yet! We’re indebted to Pomfret’s professional development funding and the support of the science department for making this trip possible.

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About Pomfret School

Founded in 1894, Pomfret is an independent co-educational college preparatory boarding and day school for 350 students in grades 9 through 12 and postgraduate, located on a scenic 500 acre campus in Northeastern Connecticut.
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