Friday, July 4, 2014

Recapturing E.E. Barnard's Legacy

The Father of Milky Way photography, Edward Emerson Barnard systematically photographed the Milky Way on what was the yet to be developed Mount Wilson in 1905.  The images taken that year were to be published in A Photographic Atlas of Selected Regions of The Milky Way.  This seminal work was a reference for decades and still provides inspiration to wide-field astrophotographers today.

Barnard recalls how the project got started.

"Through the interest and courtesy of Professor George E. Hale and the generosity of Mr. John D.
Hooker, of Los Angeles, I spent the spring and summer of 1905 in photographic work at the Solar Observatory of the Carnegie Institution on Mount Wilson, California. Mr. Hooker’s generous grant
made it possible to transport the Bruce telescope to Mount Wilson, where it was installed from
February until September, 1905, in a temporary wooden structure, from which the roof could be slid
off, giving an unbroken view of the sky. The altitude of the station was about 5,900 feet, above the
sea, and its latitude 34°13 .  The main object of this expedition to Mount Wilson wasto secure
the best possible photographs of the Milky Way as far south as the latitude would permit."

The Bruce Observatory with roll-off roof  featuring the 10" Photographic Telescope in 1905.

University of Chicago Photographic Archive, [ apf6-01621r], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

The photographic instrument was four instruments in one.  The 10-inch and 6.25-inch photographic telescopes, and a 3.5 -inch doublet and lantern lens as well as a guiding telescope. First exposures began on January 27th and ended in September of that same year, 1905.  Barnard spent almost the whole period on the mountain, except on one occasion to go into town to obtain the services of a notary and barber.   Barnard was famous for being a workaholic at the telescope, possibly due to his drive to be the second to none in his capabilities.  Long gone were his childhood days of poverty and the opportunity to be the best was not wasted.

Barnard at the helm of the Bruce instrument.

University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf6-04469r, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Plate 27- The Great Sagittarius Star Cloud 

July 6.815 1905
3 Hour 58 Minute exposure
Barnard's exposures of the Milky Way typically lasted 4 to 5 hours.  Barnard would correct the instruments guiding as the cameras panned across the open landscape counteracting the earth's motion.  The long hours of photography "Would have horrified any medical man" Walter S. Adams recalled in his recollection of Barnard's sleepless nights, "Sleep he considered a sheer waste of time, and for long intervals would forget it altogether. After observing until midnight, he would drink a large quantity of coffee, work the remainder of the night, develop his photographs, and then join the solar observers at breakfast. The morning he would spend in washing his plates, which was done by successive changes of water, since running water was not yet available. On rare occasions he would take a nap in the afternoon, but usually he would spend the time around his telescope. He liked to sing, although far from gifted in the art, but reserved his singing for times when he was feeling particularly cheerful. Accordingly, when we at the Monastery heard various doleful sounds coming down the slope from the direction of the Bruce telescope, we knew that everything was going well and that the seeing was good."

My admiration of Barnard's work hearkens back to my younger days when I was starting out in astrophotography.  Those then famous black and white images of the Milky Way were the stuff of dreams to a young astronomer wanting to explore the night sky.  It seemed any photographic reference to the Milky Way's structure turned to Barnard's work as they were still the standard reference on the subject, in spite of other surveys such as POSS and POSS-II being more recent but much narrower photographic fields.

Fast forward to 2014.  How was I to symbolically and in a very real way reproduce some of Barnard's efforts?  In 2011, I performed some tests with Fuji Acros, a black and white negative film that has the best reciprocity characteristics of any film in history.  It showed itself to be very capable of long exposure work, but lacked the red sensitivity often desired for astronomical use.  The lack of red sensitivity does not hinder star cloud and dark nebulae photography however.  I performed many successful exposures with various focal length lenses, with the 200mm and 300mm focal length lens coming close to the Barnard photos in field size and depth, but I would get much closer and a similar field size with a 400mm lens.

Guiding analog cameras under a dark sky and monitoring the guide star in a double cross-hair reticle eyepiece, making small corrections in the clock drive and for atmospherics reflects similarly what Barnard used for techniques.  Manual guiding is something that adds to the experience as the pioneers such as Barnard used this laborious technique to get the job done.  Making these images is so much more than shooting film to replicate the historical work, but the experiences under the night using very basic technology.

Further testing in 2012 revealed remarkable image capability of medium format film and camera system.

Messier 8 Region @ 200mm

Southern Ophiuchus @ 200mm

The Scutum Star Cloud @ 200mm

The 400mm f/4 medium format lens produces a similar field size (8x10 degrees) to Mount Wilson's Bruce Photographic Telescope.  I was not to use glass plates 14x18 inches like the Bruce instrument used, but a relatively small piece of photographic film 2.25 x 2.75 inches in size.

In June of 2014, I had acquired and mounted such a lens for the project.  The 400mm f/4 Super-Multi-Coated TAKUMAR for the Pentax 67 was dubbed, the "Mini-Bruce". 

The 400mm f/4 "Mini-Bruce" Astrograph rides atop my classic 8" Meade

I built a personal observatory, much like Barnard's 1905 Mount Wilson setup in 2003.  It has good exposure to the southern sky, despite my 44.5 degree north Latitude. This gives me access to most of the sky Barnard had.  Flanders Pond Observatory has been a useful photo-visual laboratory.  Its showing its age and will be needing maintenance of replacement soon.  If I can get just a few more years out of it!

Inside the roll off roof, the "Mini-Bruce" ready for action on a clear dark night.

The summer weather will determine just how successful this project turns out to be.  I am hopeful.  To fall in the footsteps of the master is a privilege.  I would so love to have met Mr. Barnard.  His story and images have been an inspiration for many but, I consider myself to be the number one fan of the man from Tennessee.

Permissions for reproduction of images of Plate 27 as follows: 

Georgia Institute of Technology Library and Information Center, Great Star Clouds in Sagittarius - 2, Plate 27, Edward Emerson Barnard's Photographic Atlas of Selected Regions of the Milky Way, June 2004, Georgia Institute of Technology, June 14, 2014

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