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Interview with an expert in astrophotography

Al Kelly has great experience as an amateur astronomer and in astrophotography in particular. We have featured some of his deep sky images on our CCD imaging section. More can be found on his own website. Lydia Lousteaux interviewed Al Kelly to find out his astronomy story ...

Al Kelly:
"I was born in 1946 and grew up in rural Indiana. The night sky was very dark and I became curious enough about the real universe at the age of ten to ask my father for a telescope. The views through that 40mm refractor were wonderful, but I had to see more, so at the age of twelve, I built a 115mm Newtonian reflector.

"Since that time I have built or helped build dozens of telescopes, up to 815mm in diameter, and have also built a CCD camera. It has all been in the same pursuit I started at the age of twelve: to see deeper and better into that dark night and to capture part of it. I think this is the primary common pursuit of astronomers, particularly amateur astronomers, who are involved for the simple love of the subject."

CCD image of the Ring Nebula Ring Nebula
Taken by Al Kelly with a CB245 CCD camera.

What did your parents think of you pursuing astronomy?

Al Kelly:
"My parents knew nothing about astronomy, but were certainly not put off by my interest in it. I'm sure, though, that Mom thought I was nuts on those cold winter nights when I would brush away a patch of snow in the middle of the yard, get all bundled up, and hunker down on the ground with my homemade scope in my lap, since at first it had no mount! I had my first good look at the rings of Saturn this way and practically froze to the ground staring at them ...

"CCD imaging has now become a mainstay for many of us who are continuing the pursuits of our youth. It is delightful in its concatenation of the most modern technology with the ancient and simple principles of capturing part of the night sky for closer inspection.

"Those principles have always been to use a dark, clear, steady sky; to keep your eyes as sensitive as possible; to look carefully and effectively at an area of interest; and to record what has been seen as faithfully as possible. For millennia, astronomers used their eyes, their memories and their stones or papyrus.

Over a few short decades, our eyes have become gigantic slabs of delicately hewn glass, our attention has become riveted by intricate guiding mechanisms, and our memories have been etched on fine-grain films and computer hardware. Only the cosmos is essentially unchanged."

Mr. Kelly moved from Indiana to work for NASA in Texas. What took you from corn to beef?

Al Kelly:
"I was hired by NASA as a management intern in 1973. I had just completed a degree in Political Science after serving in the Army (those were very different times) and was made an offer I couldn't refuse ... a job! I completed a master's degree after moving here and have stuck around, making NASA my career."

CCD image of the Sombrero Galaxy Sombrero Galaxy
Taken by Al Kelly using an Apogee AP7P camera and 17.5" Newtonian.

And how did you become involved with the fine folks at Johnson Space Center Astronomical Society (JSCAS)? Do they all work at either NASA or Johnson Space Center?

Al Kelly:
"The JSCAS was started at JSC in the late 60s and I became a member in 1973. We revitalized the group in the late 80s and it remains a very active, vital astronomy club today. It serves the entire community of people interested in astronomy, from NASA employees to anyone else in the JSC/Houston area, or anywhere in the world, for that matter, since we have folks who participate only through our website and JSCAS mailing list.

"As a member, my interests grew in the early 1980s to the construction and use of large Newtonian reflectors on Dobsonian mounts. I had also been active in film astrophotography since the late 1970s, using a Celestron 8, and was interested in ways of imaging through the larger telescopes. From about 1983 to 1987 I experimented with video imaging, sometimes using image intensifiers.

"Finally, sometime in 1988, I had my first experience with an astronomical CCD imaging system, a Photometrics Star I, and became an instant convert. I was fortunate enough to be able to borrow and use several other CCD cameras over the ensuing years, including the SBIG ST-4 and ST-6 systems."

How difficult is astrophotography for the average amateur astronomer?

Al Kelly:
"Making CCD images can be very simple or very complex, depending on the type of imaging (deep-sky, planetary, color composite, 'snapshot', etc.) and the desired results. If one simply wants to extend what the eye can see with 15-30 second snapshots of deep-sky objects, the work can be easy and quick, yet still very rewarding; but, as higher quality results for esthetic and scientific purposes are desired, then the effort required can be much more demanding. There is always something new to be learned ...

"With the publication of the CCD Camera Cookbook in 1994, the avenue was open for me to build and own my own CCD camera. Since I am not an electrical engineer or electronics technician, I needed a book which could tell me in simple terms every step necessary to build such a sophisticated device. I completed a CB245 in August of 1994 which I use today coupled to either my Celestron 8 (f10/f5.6) or one of my two large Newtonian reflectors.

"Until recently, the reflectors had been mounted on equatorial platforms for tracking purposes (see the December 1991 issue of Sky and Telescope for an article on one of these platforms). At present, my Newtonians use altitude-azimuth-focal plane (Alt-Az-FP) drive systems designed by Andy Saulietis, a close friend and also extremely talented member of JSCAS and the Texas/New Mexico amateur astronomy world."

CCD image of M13 M13
Imaged by Al Kelly using a Starlight Express MX916 and an 8 inch SCT.

Mr. Kelly you've had CCD images of yours published in Sky and Telescope?

Al Kelly:
"Yes. Over the years I have had many images published in S&T, Astronomy, and the more popular German and Japanese astronomy magazines. I also authored a chapter on building a CCD camera in a book entitled Amateur Telescope Making. I have given permission many times for my images to be used in CD-ROM compilations, children's books, and other places. Sometimes I see one of my images and recognize it before I even see the credit. CCD imaging takes you to a lot of interesting places! I think I was happiest the first time I saw one of my images pop up on Astronomy Picture of the Day."

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Author: Lydia Lousteaux

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