October 26, 2021

Lucky Life

Arts Fanatics

Amateur astronomers and astrophotographers take a deep dive into space

11 min read

For John Rummel, it was spotting the rings of Saturn.

Born in 1962, Rummel grew up when the Apollo program was hitting its peak. He remembers staying up late to watch Neil Armstrong take those famous first steps. Soon after, his parents gifted him a long tube refractor telescope from Sears. He was younger than 10 when he set it up in his driveway in the dead of winter one night.

“My parents thought I was nuts,” remembers Rummel. “I didn’t know anything about the sky, and I still remember the excitement when I pointed my telescope at that bright star and I looked through my telescope in focus and saw the rings of Saturn.”

For the first time, he was looking at a planet with his own eyes. That moment sparked Rummel’s longtime passion for stargazing, and he’s been sharing the joys and excitement of staring up at the night sky ever since.

Rummel is a former president and current member of the Madison Astronomical Society, or MAS, and worked for several years assisting Geoff Holt, director of the Madison Metropolitan School District Planetarium. Rummel is one of the many passionate amateur astronomers who live in Madison and beyond.

It’s a hobby as old as human history. We’ve long looked up at the stars to seek answers, feel amazed, put the world into perspective and find peace. And while professionals (and a couple of curious billionaires) are making headlines every day, amateurs continue to help evolve one of humanity’s earliest interests in grassroots ways, in some cases even playing an important role in new discoveries.

“It’s very human for us to look up at the stars. We’ve done it for so long for so many different reasons — some spiritual, some curiosity and some science-based — but it is a natural human thing that we’ve done since our existence,” says Edgewood College adjunct instructor Kylee Martens.

Lucky for us, becoming a stargazer has few requirements. It’s as simple as going into your backyard and looking up.

★★★

Finding Dark Skies
For Rummel it was Saturn’s rings that sparked his decadeslong interest in stargazing. For photographer Amandalynn Jones it was sitting on a blanket in the yard as a kid with her mother to watch meteor showers. Their 80-acre property in northern Wisconsin was in the middle of nowhere, offering dark skies ideal for stargazing. When she was older, Jones moved to New Mexico. “The stargazing down there is even better,” she says. Then she moved to Madison, which doesn’t always offer great conditions, but it’s possible to get away from the city lights that appear as red hot spots on light pollution maps. “There are still plenty of places in Wisconsin where, if you get away from the orange and red sections, you can still have great star viewing,” she says. (See page 68 for a few suggestions on stargazing spots.)

Laurence Mohr, current president of MAS, has traveled to Wyoming and elsewhere in search of darker skies when he’s not looking through one of his telescopes in Madison. “If you’ve got a fairly large aperture, you can attach a light pollution filter that will allow you to see hydrogen nebula and galaxies fairly well,” Mohr says. But it’s best to go to a dark-sky site, like the one MAS owns in Green County. It only takes a short drive out of Madison to cities like Mount Horeb, Dodgeville and Portage to find darker vistas.

Photo by John Seidel

The other factor stargazers need to consider is the weather. A star outing is tentative by nature, because it depends on the cloud cover. Moonlight interference and humidity also hinder stargazing. New moons (less moonlight) are best because skies are darker. “There are just so many variables,” says Jamie Seidel, an astrophotographer from Cross Plains.

When all the stars align, if you will, it makes for a good night of viewing or shooting images.

★★★

The Camera Sees What the Eyes Don’t
Advancements in photography equipment available to the general public have been the biggest factor in transforming the way we observe stars.

“It has been a revolution,” says Rummel. “If you look back at what professional astronomers were doing in the pre-Hubble [Space Telescope] days — that is in the 1970s and ’80s — they could not hold a candle to what a talented amateur could do tonight from his or her own backyard with [the] digital cameras of today.”

Jones, the professional photographer living in the Madison area, usually brings her camera when she goes stargazing now with her own kids. But she notes that anyone can take great night photos. “You don’t have to be a professional photographer to be able to do it, but you do have to kind of know how to use manual settings and be able to compensate for the very dark area that you’re photographing in,” she says.

Your eyes won’t see things like the vivid colors of the northern lights the way the camera does, Jones says. “So when you’re standing there, they’re kind of like milky white, maybe green or blueish,” she says. “And then the camera finishes its exposure and pops up and it’s all pink and purple and yellow.”

The first camera Cross Plains’ Seidel bought was a $500 Canon. “I’ve always been into night photography,” he says. “I grew up in some pretty dark skies in Viroqua.”

He soon learned about time-lapse photography, a style where photos or videos taken over a long period of time are stitched together to show movement. Similarly, star trail photos catch the movement of stars as the Earth rotates. He started a Facebook group in 2014 called “Stars, Star Trails and Timelapses” to find other people shooting the same photos. He found what he was looking for, and today there are 23,000 members in the Facebook group from all over the world.

timelapse photograph

Photo by Jamie Seidel

He’s since upgraded from that Canon. He guesses his current camera equipment likely totals $10,000 and 35 to 40 pounds.

“I’ve sold plenty of my images,” Seidel says. “But it literally helps pay me for my gear and time and gas and food to take more pictures.”

While some of the “Stars, Star Trails and Timelapses” members speak different languages, most know how to communicate a different way — via camera settings. Seidel encourages members to include details of how they captured each shot, because it’s an often-asked question and he wants his page to be helpful to beginners. “But the settings kind of almost don’t matter,” he says. One person might not have the exact same kind of gear as the person who took the picture, or the weather conditions are different. And there’s the editing part. “I’ve always told people you have two sides of photography,” Seidel says. “You have the taking the picture side … and you have the editing side of it, and you kind of need to be able to do both.”

The astrophotography process is, in a word, long.

The final images Mark Hanson creates take, on average, 36 hours to shoot. Then the editing process of layering sometimes up to 400 images in photo-editing software often matches or exceeds that amount of time. But it results in breathtaking images that are galactic works of art. Hanson is a Madison amateur astrophotographer taking deep sky images, but the “amateur” part isn’t as amateur as you might assume. He partners with professional astronomers and has been named in several research papers for his assistance via his astrophotography.

“Amateurs have made contributions and still make contributions to professional ranks because the number of professional telescopes is limited and they can’t watch the whole sky,” says Rummel.

The pros have to apply for time on the big telescopes, and they often don’t have hours on end to take pictures or collect information. That’s where tens of thousands of amateurs can help. Hanson says astronomers will send him things they want him to look at, and he’ll go out and shoot them for free. “I just do it. It’s really cool to see things that nobody’s seen,” he says. Hanson was the recipient of a first-place award in the robotic telescope category of 2014’s Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition. He accepted his award at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, Germany. He owns his own business manufacturing aquarium products, but he also works for a company for which he travels the U.S. to help set up or take down telescopes. He’s also a longtime member of MAS, having joined when he first started getting into astronomy.

★★★

Sharing Science With Others
MAS is one of three legs in the stool that makes up the Madison area’s most substantial astronomy education and outreach initiatives, Rummel says. The second is director Jim Lattis’ UW Space Place, and the third is the MMSD Planetarium run by Geoff Holt.

MAS is nearing 90 years as a local club. “It’s just your typical club of interested geeks and nerds,” Rummel says. “We have people who have literally never looked through a telescope and are just interested in astronomy, up to people who are almost, by virtue of their passion, professional level.” MAS hosts monthly meetings with guest speakers and gives observing members a chance to use the Yanna Research Station in nearby Green County. Membership went up during the pandemic (it’s now 132 members after hovering between 90 and 100 over the last decade), which Rummel partly attributes to making their monthly meetings virtual. “We’re going to be working a lot harder to make that digital option available to members,” says Rummel, who plans the meetings.

UW Space Place is part science education center, part museum of space technology. Located in the Villager Mall on South Park Street, the center is part of the UW–Madison Department of Astronomy and acts as its primary public outreach arm. “The sell for astronomy is fairly easy,” says Lattis, a historian of astronomy. “Everybody’s interested in what’s happening in the sky.” The UW Space Place is in the process of ramping its programming back up after pausing in-person events, exhibits and talks.

Then there’s MMSD’s planetarium and the man who runs it. “Geoff is one of the best educators you will ever find, whether it’s under the planetarium sky or under the real night sky,” says Rummel, who worked as Holt’s assistant for five or six years. It would be safe to assume Holt has introduced astronomy to tens of thousands of people. “He does heroic work,” says Rummel. MAS reach is significant, Rummel says, but Holt reaches so many more potential stargazers with his work with school kids and their teachers.

Star Feature6

The MMSD Planetarium at James Madison Memorial High School is a theater with a 30-foot dome illuminated by a Digistar 6 simulation system that recreates the day or night sky. Photo by John Rummel

It’s actually lucky that James Madison Memorial High School has a planetarium in the first place, Rummel notes. In the early 1960s, when Memorial was being built, the U.S. was pumping millions of dollars into education and science, especially astronomy. “The United States suffered a serious black eye with Sputnik in 1957 when the perception, whether it’s right or wrong, was that the Americans were losing the space race,” Rummel says. Some companies were building planetariums, and the Madison school district prioritized it. About 150 to 170 schools constructed planetariums around that time.

While the three-legged stool is as stable as ever these days, especially as star party gatherings get back on the calendar, Edgewood’s Martens might be adding a fourth leg with Edgewood Astronomy Outreach. With help from a few others, Martens moved Edgewood College’s unused telescope to Ernest Hüpeden’s Painted Forest in Sauk County. “It’s way too big for the city,” says Martens, who founded Edgewood Astronomy Outreach in 2019. “You actually get worse viewing than if you were to use a smaller telescope because of all the light pollution.” Through the outreach initiative, Martens is now hosting events at Painted Forest in an effort to bridge the rural/urban divide through science outreach. “Offering that sort of access to something as great as this telescope to people in that area is going to be fantastic for science outreach in that area,” she says.

Her involvement in building community around astronomy is also unique because she doesn’t look like your typical astronomy enthusiast. She’s a 27-year-old astrophysicist who first started doing observational astronomy in 2014. “I saw it as a reason to continue doing the outreach that I’m doing, because it is important that people see a physicist like myself and not just the old white guys,” she says. “You can have a young female physicist. We exist.”

All four entities make efforts to share the stars above with as many people as they can reach, and the events they host are many (see page 69 for a few upcoming options). It also helps that stargazing is undoubtedly accessible in three big ways: You can do it from your own yard, most of the events are free to attend and it’s for all ages.

★★★

Space Gives You Headspace
Scientific discoveries, incredible photos and socializing aside, for many people it’s the peaceful experience they’re after when stargazing. Some are simply in it to sit under the stars on a beautiful night and take a deep breath.

Chris Zeltner, a MAS member for more than 20 years, says she stargazes for the “fun” of it. She uses minimal technology besides her 15-inch Dobsonian telescope and some eyepieces; there’s no camera or other bells and whistles. “I like science, but I’m not into the heavy math kind of thing,” says Zeltner, 70. “I’m very much the member of the club who tracks something down and goes, ‘Oh, my gosh, you’ve got to see this!’ ”

But with the calm comes a test of patience, too.

“The interesting thing about looking at a planet like Mars, with the atmosphere constantly moving, you just have to sit and wait and be patient,” MAS President Mohr says. “Maybe in a brief moment you’ll see the ice caps on Mars or in a brief moment you’ll see the red spot on Jupiter. But it kind of takes time and patience. You’ll see details like the whirlpool galaxy or the Orion Nebula.”

tent set up under the stars along with a table full of treats and drinks

We’re not sure what’s more gorgeous — this stargazing picnic scene created by Ash + Arrow Events, or the star-dotted sky captured by photographer Amandalynn Jones at Indian Lake County Park. We set out to create the most idyllic set-up for a night of spotting constellations, marveling at the moon or witnessing a celestial event. We highly recommend bringing along some charcuterie from Lazy Suzen and a few Heirloom Cocktails, canned by Plain Spoke Cocktail Co. Photo by Amandalynn Jones

Jones says stargazing can help get you away from your phone or whatever distraction is in front of you and allows you to just stand in awe of the world. It changes you, she says. “I’m not a religious person, I wasn’t raised in a religious household, but I feel like being under the stars is about as close to a religious experience as I’ve ever had.”

Rummel, who experiences that sense of awe on a regular basis, admits he doesn’t set up the telescope very often anymore. He considers himself a wide-field terrestrial astrophotographer and really enjoys shooting photos when he goes out nowadays. It offers the same headspace.

When he does set up his telescope, it’s usually in his driveway to let his neighbors take a look. He estimates he’s introduced hundreds of friends and family members to stargazing.

He most often shows them Saturn’s rings.

“Everyone becomes a 7-year-old kid, and the first word out of their mouth is ‘wow.’ Because they just can’t believe you can really see that,” Rummel says. “It’s amazing; it’s still amazing to me today.”

Read more about Madison stargazing here.

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