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

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)

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