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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Skyglow: Capturing the glory of our disappearing skies

By Phil Plait

We here at BA HQ (OK, fine: just me, sitting in my office at home) are big fans of astrophotography. Taking pictures of the sky is a difficult venture. While the advent of digital cameras has been a huge boon to the field, and the number of fantastic photographers out there is constantly growing, there are still a few folks who sit at the top of their game.

Two of them are Harun Mehmedinović and Gavin Heffernan. I’ve featured both their works on the blog many times (look for Harun’s work here, and here’s Gavin’s), because they both have a fine eye and pay attention to the detail not just of what they are photographing in the sky, but also the context in which those things sit.

Both are concerned very much about the problem of light pollution, the excess light humans generate that is thrown into the sky, washing out the stars. This is robbing people all over the world of one of the easiest and best ways to view nature: Going outside and looking up. As fewer stars are seen, as the glow of the Milky Way is diminished, we are losing a profound connection with the world and Universe around us.

Kilauea plume and sky

To raise awareness of this issue and to celebrate the view we still do have, Gavin and Harun have put together a photobook called SKYGLOW. This book is simply lovely, loaded with absolutely gorgeous photography of the skies over North America. The pair traveled over 240,000 kilometers and took over half a million photos in total to create this book.

It’s hardcover, and 192 pages, with each page bringing you another incredible photo. There are also descriptions interspersed about the locations and history of where they shot some of their work, as well as a handful essays written by various people, including me.

They asked me to write some words about light pollution and its effects, and given how much I love their work, I was only too happy to agree. Here is a short sample of my article:

Having an atmosphere is inconvenient.

Well, of course, it’s convenient if you want to breathe. That’s an advantage. And also if you want to live on a planet with liquid water, and prevent 200 degree temperature swings between day and night. Those all go in the plus column.

But when you’re an astronomer, it makes life tougher.

For one thing, it blocks a lot of the electromagnetic spectrum: light. Visible light gets through, but infrared, ultraviolet, and more get absorbed on their way down from space. A lot of very interesting objects emit that kind of light, and our atmosphere makes it impossible to see them doing so (but then, ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma rays are harmful to life, so perhaps there’s also a checkmark in the plus column for that, too).

For another, it moves. Little bits of it, parcels a few centimeters across, fly this way and that. Each one of these cells acts like a lens, distorting light coming from space, bending its path this way and that as well. This distorts the apparent shape of the object, making it hard to see fine details.

But there’s a third problem, and it may be the toughest of all. Our atmosphere isn’t perfectly transparent…

If you want to read the rest, you’ll have to get the book. It’s $49.99 by itself, but they also have various packages which include a digital version, a calendar, and a Blu-ray disk loaded with their time-lapse videos...and let me say their videos are magnificent. Watch this one:

They have more videos on their SKYGLOW page, too.

If you’re a fan of stunning astrophotos and you’re looking for a great gift for yourself or someone who needs more beauty in their lives, then this book is what you’re looking for.