For the record, I am a lousy astrophotographer. I'm sure I'd get better with practice, but frankly I'm happy just eyeballing the universe instead of trying to focus ancient photons onto a light-sensitive chip. Besides, the world is full of great astro-imagers.
My first encounter with a world-class astrophotographer was Hans Vehrenberg, who by the 1970s had become renowned for his exquisite black-and-white portraits of celestial objects in the northern and southern sky. His Atlas of Deep-Sky Splendors still has a favored location on my bookshelf. Later came David Malin, who dazzled us with incredible color views of the southern-sky showpieces. (No wonder: his "camera" was the 3.9-m Anglo-Australian Telescope.)
This week I was blown away again, by a little-known astrophotographer named Nick Risinger. A Seattle-based marketing director by day, Risinger began his photon-driven quest by asking the simple question, "What do you see at night?"
Now he knows, having captured the entire celestial sphere in a way that attempts to convey the night sky's grandeur at scales big and small. His Photopic Sky Survey was a mind-boggling undertaking: 37,440 digital exposures, taken over the course of a year from sites in North America and South Africa, that he painstakingly stitched together to create a single, 5-gigapixel image.
It wasn't easy. Risinger ended up quitting his job and, with the aid of his father and brother, traveled 60,000 miles with his unique photography setup. It consisted of six Finger Lakes ML-8300 monochrome cameras with 85-mm f/2.8 lenses bolted onto a Takahashi EM-11 Temma 2 mount. To ensure complete coverage, Risinger subdivided the sky into 624 fields, each just 12° across. He estimates that he's captured some 20 million stars in all.
This isn't the most comprehensive all-sky photography undertaken (the Digitized Sky Survey, released in 1994, wins that prize). So don't expect any scientific breakthroughs from it.
Nor is this the first all-sky effort by an amateur: among others, there's Desktop Universe, completed in 2002 and later incorporated into the popular Starry Night software, and Axel Mellinger's two efforts (one accomplished on film, another wholly digital).
But what sets Risinger's work apart is its depth — revealing, he explains, "glowing factories of newborn [stars] and a rich tapestry of dust all floating on a stage of unimaginable proportions." It affords you the chance to float leisurely across the sky at your leisure and then stop and zoom in for some in-depth sightseeing.°