The Horsehead Nebula*, the orange Flame Nebula, the bright star Alnitak and the blue reflection nebula NGC 2023. These are approximately 1,500 light years away and part of a larger nebulous region known as the Orion Molecular cloud. The Horsehead shape on the right of the image is a column of ionized gases combined with dense clouds of dust; the particles are less than a millimetre in size. Despite the small particle size, the cloud’s density is so high the cloud obscures the light shining through from the bright emission nebula behind. It is the column of dust that creates the iconic Horsehead.

From a Galaxy Far, Far Away

6th April 2018

Lisa Botwright meets astro-photographer Chris Baker, whose lifelong passion is capturing and communicating the mysteries of deep space…

Art and science are often seen as mutually exclusive – as if someone can be ‘arty’ or ‘scientific’, rarely both. But when I put that to astronomer and photographer Chris Baker, he looks thoughtful. “Am I an artist or a scientist? I suppose I consider myself the latter, but there are many ways to represent scientific concepts. Some of the notions of space and time and their enormity are so difficult to understand that you can bring these ideas to people’s homes in other ways.”

The ‘other way’ that Chris has created is a stunning collection of deep space images – taken by specialist astro-photography equipment from his observatory high in the mountains of Spain – and available as limited edition wall art, either frameless acrylic or framed and dramatically backlit. They make a spectacular centrepiece in any room, and are particularly well suited to neutral contemporary interiors.

“My love for astronomy, in particular observing and photographing the heavens, stems from my fascination with the vastness, wonder and mystery of the cosmos,” he explains. “It’s so rewarding to see beyond our world, to observe things across enormous distances where the light has taken thousand, millions or even billions of years to reach my telescope on Earth.”

Chris’s interest in the stars emerged as a Chemistry student at York University in the 1970s, when he joined the Astronomy Society as an interested beginner… and ended up running it. ‘Life took over’ after graduating, and a busy career in business and accountancy left him little time to pursue his hobby – until the late 90s when his wife bought him a copy of Astronomy Now. His interest rekindled, he built a small observatory in his garden and began to revisit his former favourite pastime – helped by his discovery that one of the biggest suppliers of specialist observational and photography equipment (Tring Astronomy Centre) is based moments from his home in Berkhamsted. “Of course, it’s all electronic and digital now, which makes the process so much easier.”

I’m not sure that ‘easy’ is the right word. Each image takes hours and hours of patient technical expertise, with a very big element of luck thrown into the mix. “Sometimes I miss an opportunity and have to wait until next year,” says Chris. “Sometimes, I do all the work, but the finished result is just not good enough.”

Firstly, the conditions need to be just right. Chris found the English light pollution quite a challenge and in 2012 moved his equipment to the Sierra Nevada mountains, to a private observatory just above a village called Nerpio, where, according to Chris, “the seeing conditions are exceptional, the light pollution is almost non-existent and the clear nights numerous.” He shows me the secure website that means he can control the equipment remotely from wherever he is in the world. Disappointingly, there’s nothing to see on his real-time camera, of course, as it’s daytime.

Other challenges still persist, however, including the very short window of time available to capture his chosen subjects when they’re overhead (he yearns for another observatory in the southern hemisphere), and the need to avoid nights when the moon is reflecting too much light. Only then can the painstaking process of creating the images begin.

To get a colour image I learn that it’s necessary to photograph through four different filters attached to the telescope, and that Chris needs about three hours of imaging for each kind of red, green, blue and ‘luminance’ filters. But it’s not possible to take one image of three hours through each filter; instead he takes a series of ‘sub frames’ of five minutes or more at a time over several nights. “In fact, I have to take more than this because some are unusable, due to a satellite, plane or a cloud ruining the image. I throw away a lot of non-perfect images – maybe up to a third.”

There are more technical procedures, until he’s ready to combine the results – building-up a series of ‘layers’ – and using his special software to enhance the details. It’s a delicate process of selecting and mixing data, just like a fine artist blending exactly the right shade of oils on a palette. “At first it just looks like a smudge. It’s a real challenge to extract the detail and beauty that’s out there.”

The finished results are utterly beguiling, not just in the beauty of the composition but also in the dizzying stories they tell of the magnitude of nature. “This tiny white plume,” Chris points out in one of his photographs. “That’s a star being born. Those young stars are pumping out energy, and pushing the clouds of gas away.”

And in the universal cycle of birth and death, some of the other most striking images are of supernova remnants. “When stars go bang, they do so in a big way.” Chris explains how the remains of stars create shockwaves of dust and gas that pass through space. “We all contain a percentage of supernova,” Chris observes. “The same matter in stars is the stuff that makes up our bodies.”

What’s also fascinating is the distance and time involved in the enormity of space. For example, as the light was travelling from the Andromeda Galaxy 2.5 million years ago on its journey to Chris’s telescope, here on Earth the Himalayas were still being raised and the North Sea wasn’t yet formed. It makes my head spin.

After three more years of honing his craft Chris was feeling justifiably proud of the quality of his images and, encouraged by friends and colleagues in the scientific community, made the decision to give up his day job and focus full time on astro-photography. In 2015 he launched Galaxy on Glass – a photography business with a difference, offering an edit of three collections of deep space images reproduced as unique wall art. Two of the collections are collaborations: the first with astronaut Col. Al Worden, Command Module pilot of Apollo 15 (July 1971), one of only 24 people to have flown to the Moon; the other with Chris Lintott, Professor of Astrophysics at Oxford University, and presenter of BBC’s The Sky at Night. Chris met both luminaries at conferences, and invited them to select their favourite parts of the cosmos for him to photograph.

By 2016, Chris was ready for his next challenge, and was considering producing a book of images. Serendipitously, he was approached by Pen and Sword publishers. “They’d seen my work on Twitter, and asked me to get in touch if I ever wanted to write a book. I thought the timing was quite spooky!” he laughs. The result is Photographing the Deep Space, a tasteful tome full of beautiful images loosely structured in distance and time order.

With a book about to launch, and a business to run (“I don’t work any more, it’s just fun,” he claims), Chris still finds time to mentor young astronomers. His very first observatory that used to be in his garden is now based at the Astrophysics campus of York University. “I wanted to give something back,” he tells me. He visits the university regularly to meet with the students and to give talks on his work.

Chris’s passion is evident. “Studying the heavens puts our existence into a clearer perspective; how we are a small part of something that is so vast, so complex and contains such beauty,” he reflects. “It’s the opportunity to glimpse and maybe understand just a little more, that drives me on to observe and photograph deep space.”

To find out more visit galaxyonglass.com

*Named after the Latin word for ‘cloud’, nebulae are not only massive clouds of dust, hydrogen and helium gas, and plasma, but are also often ‘stellar nurseries’ – the place where stars are born.

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