Take a look at this incredible video taken by London amateur astronomer Roger Hutchinson on 4th April 2014!
On 7th March 2009 I was at Merritt Island to watch the launch of NASA's groundbreaking exoplanet-hunting spacecraft Kepler. In the hours running up to the night time launch, I'd decided to fish in the Banana River where I could keep an eye on the distant pad to ensure I didn't miss the exciting event, while relaxing with commentary from NASA floating from the car radio. On this occasion, to my surprise and amusement, all I caught was pufferfish after pufferfish. One of the local Floridians, also waiting for the launch, leaned over and said "Bad luck dude. Cockroaches of the river".
Having never caught pufferfish before, I was quite happy to catch and release these 'cockroaches' one after another - despite the locals seeing them as ever-present pests to the angling purists of Florida.
In amateur astronomy, anything that gets in the way of crisp clear views or images can be just as annoying to those who spend night after night in pursuit of that perfect line of sight to a targetted crater of the moon or nebulosity around a faint deep sky object. That pest can be unwanted dust on a lens, thick air pollution stripping the view of sharp focus or heavily undulating atmosphere, caused by thermal air currents, that create an unwanted shimmer that distorts anything in the night sky.
One man-made object that, perhaps, uniquely makes a pest of itself in both regards is the common aeroplane. The large body of the aircraft can, albeit temporarily, block the view to the object an amateur astronomer hopes to photograph and the heat from the jet engines act as a stream of shimmering thermal currents that make the seeing far worse than normal.
But, far from seeing these occasional obstacles to observing as 'cockroaches of the sky', a few amateur astronomers embrace the passage of aircraft across their field of view as a cause for deliberate photography. A chance to let their patience, skill with a camera and timing give rise to a rare form of astrophotography that also relies on fortuitous alignments of flight trajectories, excellent focus and split second accuracy.
Roger Hutchinson, who uses a Celestron Nexstar 8SE telescope on a Celestron AVX mount to take his impressive night sky images, says, "Imaging from South West London means that light pollution is a big problem but doesn’t affect lunar, solar and planetary imaging which I tend to concentrate on – apart from dodgy seeing at times!"
And concentrating on the brighter and bigger objects from a city location increases the likelihood of a plane from a busy airport straying into the field of view, whether intentionally or not.
Roger says, "The movie was taken using a Skyris 274C planetary camera which has a large chip making it ideal for quick high res lunar mosaics, which is what I was doing at the time. Living in South West London under the Heathrow flight path I always thought I may get a plane in the field of view one day and have had a couple of near misses but this is the first time I’ve actually captured one. It was easy enough to re-do that section of the mosaic so I was really happy to have captured it."
The International Space Station, which can be seen as a bright light gracing the sky from west to east, is tricky to capture from the ground with any detail but Roger shows us what's possible with readily available amateur equipment.
Lillian, also from London England, has similarly been taking advantage of a busy flightpath into a capital city's airports to catch these chance alignments with a Nikon D7000 camera and a tripod. Initially, the experience of a plane flying through the field of view being not so welcome:
"I used to wait for planes to get out of shot. Then set myself the challenge of trying to catch one after the first aircraft to do this totally freaked me out as it shot through the frame leaving a trail of expanding black pollution when I had my eye to the viewfinder". So much so that Lillian has started the Lunar Flight Path Flickr group dedicated to this kind of photography. It now has dozens of similar-minded appreciators of lunar interlopers.
Having now become well known for her own awesome brand of astrophotography - in particular, cataloguing the more beautiful aspects the moon presents to us - it's perhaps no surprise that Lillian's interest in the moon originates from marvelling at the full range of colours the moon can display in it's natural cycles:
"I guess my inspiration for photographing the Moon stems from childhood. One summer's evening, whilst out playing, I noticed a very pink orb low in the sky over the sea. Must've been the first time I'd really noticed it. That feeling of wonder and awe at the view of the full Moon rising is one I still get each time I see the Moon. The various colour changes in its appearance, from deep orange moonrise to white and back to colourful moonset fascinate me, as do the changing daily phases".
Roger's just purchased a dedicated imaging CCD camera to allow him to do more deep sky and narrowband imaging under his heavily light polluted skies, whereas Lilllian is stioc and philosphical about the contraints of London life, "having no garden [means] the Moon's the best thing I can image and planes are ever-present over London".
So whether it's a meteor shooting through an image of a distant galaxy, a satellite streaking across the eyepiece or an aircraft making its presence felt, there will always be people who see this as a lucky imaging opportunity to be as proud of as their skillful captures of a star cluster or planetary nebula, rather than the cockroach of the sky. Beauty can be found in almost anything and there are still many niches in astrophotography just waiting for someone to take them up - and which wont need to cost the Earth either.