Seeing the larger picture: Inspiring images of space

An exhibition explores images how photography has shaped astronomy
  • @Paul_Bignell

They are images which have the capacity to make us feel insignificant and empowered in equal measure: from startling close-ups which reveal the malevolent fury of the Sun, to the serene majesty of the Earth viewed from the International Space Station. Since the advent of photography in the mid-19th century, the medium has forged a unique alliance with astronomy, not only enabling us to peer into mysterious black holes and the furthest galaxies – but better to understand them. 

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Now, a major new exhibition will chart our role in the universe and how we see it, by displaying over 100 images of space and the cosmos. This is not a purely modern art: they have been captured over the last two centuries.

The images range from the very first picture of the Moon in 1839 to the latest Nasa pictures which have taken advantage of highly complex techniques such as infrared and gamma rays to steal glimpses of distant planets, will go on show at the Royal Museums Greenwich in London next month.

The collection, thought to be one of the most comprehensive of its kind exploring telescopy and photography, will include a 13 metre curved wall on to which the latest real-time images of Mars will be beamed back from Nasa’s Mars Curiosity rover, some 30-odd million miles away. The images, viewed by visitors through a giant window, will give the surreal impression of looking straight on to the alien, Martian landscape, according to the museum’s curators.  

Man’s quest to chart the universe dates back to the 17th century when it was down to astronomers and physicists like Galileo to draw images of space seen through their telescopes. These early reproductions were prone to human error and lacked detail. Nevertheless, once published they were considered ground-breaking for introducing the masses to what telescopes were revealing about space.

Real advancement didn’t arrive until the advent of photography in the mid-19th century when the Frenchman Louis Daguerre took his famous image of the Moon in 1839, though the technology was still extremely primitive and the image fuzzy.

“Photography transformed astronomy,” said Dr Marek Kukula, public astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. “Suddenly it becomes something whereby you can get very precise measurements in a way you can’t when you’re just looking and drawing what you see.”

Far more sensitive than the human eye, the marriage of photography and astronomy also, more often than not, throws up new questions.

“You have this lovely synergy between astronomy and photography where the astronomers are continually pushing at what the technology can do,” said Dr Kukula. “As they push it, new phenomena are revealed for astronomers to study. One of the big advances was coming up with technology where cameras and telescopes could see light beyond the visible spectrum, so going beyond infrared and microwave radio. They can show us the universe in types of light our eyes can never ever see.” 

The quality and relative affordability of digital photography has made it possible for amateur photographers to take it up as a hobby, with images of the night sky obtained using the most basic film and cameras.

“One of the cool things about astrophotography and the digital photography revolution is there is a lot of stuff in the sky you can take pictures of – despite the light pollution,” added Dr Kukula. “Some of our amateur photographers have even made a feature of the light pollution.”

Visions of the Universe, 7 June to 15 September at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich