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View from a Scope | July 25, 2021

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Advances in Astrophotography – Early deep-sky images

Advances in Astrophotography – Early deep-sky images

In the early years, not everyone was convinced of the merits of astrophotography and many astronomers still preferred to sketch what they saw. Early photography was difficult and unreliable. As these problems were overcome, the next generation of astronomers came of age.

The 30th of September 1880 marked one of the greatest milestones in the history of Astrophotography. On that date, Dr. Henry Draper (1837-1882), the son of the ‘First Astrophotographer’, John William Draper (1811-1882), using an 11.25-inch Alvan Clark photographic refractor obtained the very first photograph of a ‘Deep Space Object’, when he imaged the ‘Great Orion’ Nebula (M42). His photograph taken with a ‘dry’ photographic plate and an exposure of 51 minutes became that night one of the most famous ever; and marked the beginning of Deep Space Astrophotography.


Isaac Roberts was among the first to embrace photography. Roberts was an engineer and businessman, but also an amateur astronomer with his own observatory. He began dabbling in astrophotography in 1883.. His technique was to mount his camera onto an equatorially mounted telescope that had a guide scope so that the camera could follow the stars during the exposure, which lasted around an hour. The result was a picture that contained more detail than was possible to see with the naked eye.

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The techniques pioneered by Roberts and Draper pushed astrophotography to the forefront of astronomy. For the first time real detail could be seen and studied on these distant objects.

Information and image courtesy of The Catchers of Light website.

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