— Anthony Hsieh, Postdoctoral Fellow University of Oxford

Exploring Alien Worlds with Astrophotography (and Pathology!)

In this article, I try to explain why I like astrophotography and include three pictures taken through my telescope.

One of my most traumatic childhood experiences took place at Disney World. My parents took my sister and me to an attraction based on the 1989 timeless classic "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," starring Canada’s own Rick Moranis. The ride started innocently enough. We sat in a movie theatre on seats that would jostle you a bit to create the sensation of movement. At one point during the ride, we were “shrunk down” and hundreds of mice charged toward us (a spectacle greatly enhanced by our 3D glasses). Before I could recover from the initial shock, I felt the hoard of mice brushing by my bare shins, and I screamed. The gimmick turned out to be puffs of air, but nevertheless, my unbridled terror had been amplified by the state of uneasiness that came with perceiving the world as a tiny thing. My undeveloped and adrenaline-addled mind couldn’t cope with just how strange the world looks when I’ve been shrunk.

Ultimately, I did get over my fear of mice, but I never got over how strange nature is when perceived at a different scale. There’s an indelible quality to the size of things that can’t be faked. If someone put a mouse inside an impossibly realistic dollhouse and filmed it, the viewer would always see a small house rather than a giant mouse. The illusion would be broken by the quick skittish movements of the mouse, or the swift fall of a cup off the table. Gravity on Earth accelerates both a miniature cup and a regular one at 9.8 m/s2, and movements of large animals are limited by similar nerve conduction velocities as those of smaller animals. A mouse darts across the ground, while an elephant trundles along.

The dollhouse trick doesn’t work because it conflicts with my internal model of how objects or animals should behave given their size. This model, whether learned or remembered genetically, approximates the immutable physical laws of the universe. But the model fails for things that are much larger or much smaller than me. I can mentally grasp how grains of sand come together to form a sandcastle or how stone blocks can support the weight of a real one, but I have no concept of how a virus particle would latch on to a cell or a black hole would swallow a star. Those occurrences transpire at scales too far removed from my everyday experiences. If I were shrunk to the size of a cell, I may as well exist on an alien world.

Fortunately, I have wonderful toys that can bridge the gap between intuition and reality, delivering me to these alien worlds. Although microscopes and telescopes describe the physical world, the objects they reveal don’t belong in my conceptual world, being so foreign as to be apparently governed by different laws of nature. Nothing that I can see with the naked eye looks like bacteria wriggling around or wisps of the Orion Nebula. Certainly, for me, part of the joy in looking through a telescope is the feeling of stepping foot on an alien world. The same is true when looking through a microscope in the lab. When experiments work, I feel the satisfaction of gradually comprehending the strangeness of these worlds. When experiments give unexpected results, well, sometimes it’s just noise and it’s infuriating, but other times it represents the wonder of exploration. At those times, I believe I’m experiencing the same neural pathways that pioneers of the ancient world must’ve experienced, venturing into lands no one had imagined before.

Sometimes when I daydream at work, I wonder what it would feel like to drift in intergalactic space and gaze upon our galaxy in its entirety, or float inside a cell watching proteins come and go. These experiences will remain unattainable of course, but for now, I eagerly await Rick Moranis' return in the "Honey I Shrunk the Kids" reboot scheduled to begin filming this year, poised to traumatize kids and inspire a new generation of scientists.

The moon is about four times smaller than Earth in diameter (the distance between Vancouver and Toronto). Because the moon is so big and bright, in angular diameter and apparent magnitude, respectively, taking the picture was as simple as attaching a camera to the telescope and pressing the shutter button. To me, looking at the moon through a telescope creates an immense sense of kinetic energy, and I imagine its enormous mass hurtling through space at a kilometer per second when it crawls slowly across the eyepiece. Even large planets, such as Jupiter, don’t produce the same feeling. Perhaps it’s because the moon fills up more of the eyepiece, or perhaps it's my intuitive mind telling me that a ball of rock is heavier than a ball of gas.

Jupiter and Saturn are 40 and 34 times wider than the moon but look 60 and 100 times smaller, respectively. Because their angular diameters are so small from such a great distance, the view is affected to a larger extent by atmospheric turbulence. To compensate for this, I filmed a video of each planet and took the average of ~10,000 frames to create the final images. It helped to have a motorized mount for the telescope that adjusted for the rotation of the Earth to keep the planets in view for the duration of each video. This is a composite of two images to represent what would’ve been visible during the conjunction in December 2020. The last time these planets passed so close to each other could’ve been seen through Galileo’s telescope 400 years ago.

The “Cigar” galaxy is 1014 times larger than the moon, which is approximately as big relative to the moon as the moon is relative to a virus particle. It’s only four times smaller than the moon in angular diameter, but very dim. To gather enough light, the camera shutter needed to be exposed for several minutes, meaning that the telescope had to stay exactly on target the whole time to avoid a blurry picture. To help with this, a smaller telescope with a webcam was attached to the main telescope. When the stars in the webcam image moved, it fed information back to the motorized mount, which countered this movement to keep the telescope pointed in the same direction. Again, several images were averaged to minimize errors. This picture captured a supernova, visible as the white dot halfway from the center to the upper-right edge of the galaxy. The explosion occurred 12 million years ago, but it took that long for the light to reach us and was only visible from my telescope for several months.