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It's cosmic: Photography that is out of this World

Astronomy becomes art in a new book of photographs which takes us to parts of the universe our eyes cannot normally see. The results are out of this world, says Hannah Duguid

In 1609, when Galileo first looked at the universe through a telescope, he was limited by the boundaries of his vision. He could see only what his eye was capable of perceiving. It was not until the birth of photography in the mid-19th century that astronomy was able to progress.

With a camera attached to the telescope lens it became possible to photograph parts of the universe that were previously invisible to us. Photographic plates were more sensitive to light than our eyes and long exposures absorbed faint light from the night sky.

David Malin is a scientist and astronomical photographer. He was born in Britain, but moved to Australia more than 30 years ago to work at the Anglo- Australian telescope, near Coonabarabran in New South Wales. In most of Europe – where the population is high – there is too much light pollution for astronomy. It is best under the dark empty skies of central Australia, Chile or South Africa.

Over the course of his career, Malin has found two new galaxies: Malin Carter and Malin 1, which may be much larger than the Milky Way.

"Photography has been crucial to the advancement of astronomy, it transformed it completely. We were able to see bigger and more interesting things than previously imaginable. Now digital technology reveals an even more mysterious universe that is just as interesting and beautiful," says Malin.

A selection of Malin's work has been put together in a new book titled Ancient Light: a Portrait of the Universe. These photographs were captured using old-fashioned glass plates coated with a super-sensitive chemical emulsion. The photographs were taken in the name of science, but have been selected for their aesthetic appeal.

"The Horsehead nebula, dust and gas adrift in Orion" is an image of a cosmic dust cloud in the shape of a horse's head. The clouds glow and an extra bright star dominates the scene. Malin points out that a dark patch at the base of the cloud is where new stars form. In scientific terms, it's a mass of plasma, hydrogen and dust. Visually, it's sublime.

From wide-angle scenes, Malin crops his images to focus on particularly beautiful phenomena. The Witch Head nebula is another glowing dust cloud, 800 light years away from Earth. The cloud appears more like smoke than dust and were they in colour, the clouds would be blue.

"In astronomical photography, you can't chose the lighting or rearrange the subject matter. Our expression with the images is about cropping and representation and tonality. It's finding a way to present the images in their best light," says Malin.

During long exposures, the stars leave a trail as the Earth rotates. To keep images sharp, the lens must follow the star with precision as it moves across the sky. With digital technology this is achieved automatically: in the old days it required an astronomer to sit for hours looking through an eyepiece and manually keeping the star in focus. Malin's black and white photographs are a homage to this method, as they were taken before the days of digital technology.

There are dust clouds with the texture of fox fur and a spiral galaxy with a striking symmetry of design: two arms curve gracefully across a central bridge. No one knows yet how or why this symmetry was achieved.

The Omega Centauri is a cluster of millions of ancient stars 18,000 light years away. The cluster is so dense that the stars appear almost as a single mass of burning white light. It was first discovered by Edmond Halley in 1677 and, it is, says Malin, one of the finest globular clusters in the southern Milky Way.

A photograph of the Andromeda galaxy appears as a shining orb surrounded by dust. The galaxy was found by the Persian astronomer Al Sufi in AD964 – and it is the galaxy most similar to our own Milky Way.

Many of the names of stars, galaxies and constellations can be traced back to mythology and the dawn of Western civilization. The Greeks believed that the constellation of Andromeda represented the female form. Andromeda's mother, Cassiopeia, is a constellation of stars that loop like a "w" across the sky – they follow the shape of a reclining woman. Sagittarius (the Archer), Ophiuchus (the Serpent Holder) and Scorpius (the Scorpion) are three of 48 constellations listed in Ptolemy's Almagest – from around AD140.

"Since human beings evolved we have been looking at the sky. When the telescope was invented, vision was expanded to see more of the universe and it changed our perspective of our place in it. In 1,000 years' time someone will come along with new technology and they will look at the same universe in a completely different light," says Malin.

The scale of the universe – where 500 million years is considered to be recent history and galaxies are 45 million light years away – leaves little doubt as to our own insignificance. And studying the stars every night has informed Malin's view of his life here on earth. He says: "It does change your personal perception of where you sit in the big scheme of things."

'Ancient Light: a Portrait of the Universe' by David Malin is published by Phaidon (£29.95)