How I Learned to Explore the Universe

How I Learned to Explore the Universe

My name is Andrew McCarthy, and I am a full time astrophotographer.  

Andrew McCarthy

My journey began the summer of 2017. Like many people in the United States at the time, I was excited for the coming total solar eclipse that would span the entire country. Feeling inspired, I recalled fond memories from my childhood of looking through my dad's telescope and seeing the planets in our solar system, and wondered  if I could recreate that experience as an adult. It was with that goal I bought my first telescope, a 10" Dobsonian designed for visual astronomy. 

Dobsonian Telescope

After assembling the base and mounting the telescope, I immediately brought it into my backyard. My light pollution was so bad I could only see a handful of stars, a couple of which were directly south of my house over my back fence, so I started there. Immediately I saw a bright object fill my eyepiece, but it was out of focus. I fiddled with the knobs until an image swam into view. What I saw took my breath away. 


(note- these pics were taken MUCH later. But this is what my eyes saw)

By a stroke of luck, the "star" I pointed at wasn't a star at all. It was a whole other planet. Saturn, complete with rings, and moons, was right there in my eyepiece. Instantly I was overwhelmed with a sense of wonder, and was 9 years old again peering through my Dad's telescope from  my childhood backyard. I experienced what I can only describe as a life-changing perspective shift... I realized that while I lived my day to day life, there was a whole universe out there I was completely ignoring. I wondered what else I could see, so I pointed my telescope to the other bright object over my fence. 


Jupiter was right there as well! Looking back, I now wonder how much different my life would be if I hadn't decided to use my telescope for the first time when there happened to be planets centered over my back fence. It was quite a stroke of luck really, since that sent me down this wonderful rabbit hole that is astrophotography. 

With Jupiter in the eyepiece, I pulled out my cell phone (I think it was an iPhone 6) and tried to take a picture. Of course, it didn't look anything like how it looked to my eyes. At the time, I didn't know enough about photography to understand things like "dynamic range" and "atmospheric turbulence" I just knew I wanted to share what I was looking at with my friends and family. 

I started searching on google for answers. I typed things like "taking pics of Jupiter" and mostly ended up seeing tons of sites about the gas giant with fancy high quality pics of the planet from NASA and other major agencies. Very cool, but not what I wanted. I added the word "amateur". The first thing that popped up was a reddit post- someone captured a picture of Jupiter from their backyard! I clicked the link, and saw a gorgeous pic of the planet. After my recent experience, I wondered how that was possible. 

In the comments, the individual that took the pic wrote a detailed description of everything they did to get the picture, including an equipment list. Reading that list was incredibly foreign to me. I wondered if I was in over my head. Trying to simplify, I decided that perhaps it came down to the camera. After all, my eyes and telescope seemed to work fine. I bought the camera that photographer said they used, something called an ASI224MC. I hoped I could figure it out when I received it. 

Turns out, the trick to photographing planets is something called "lucky imaging".  What you have to do is take thousands of pictures of something over the course of a few minutes, and then stack them with software and it makes the image wayyy clearer. This is due to the atmosphere, when you're that zoomed in through miles of atmosphere, it ripples with the currents, destroying your image. The software analyzes the images looking for the ones where this effect is the least pronounced, then stacks and sharpens them, revealing an image that is not just good, but better than what your eyes can even see (although on a clear night, your eyes can see incredible detail). I followed this process, and my images were much better (although it took a while to really get the hang of it. Behold: My first image of Jupiter and Saturn with this process:

Learning about this process gave me an idea... what if I took this strategy, and applied it to the moon? It would be a ton of work, but I'm sure  the resulting image would be incredible!

I was right....

Absolutely obsessed, I wondered how much further I could go. I started learning about HDR photography, and wondered if that technique could be applied to the moon. Basically, by exposing for different elements in the composition, and then combining the images, you conquer the dynamic range of the scene. For example, there is an unlit side of the moon that is faintly visible thanks to "Earthshine"... the sunlight bouncing off Earth back onto the moon. By overexposing the lit details, you can expose for this. You can also use this technique to capture stars, which are normally too faint to capture in a photo with the moon. I spent a long time working on this, and came up with this:

The response was overwhelming. 

I went from an unheard of amateur astrophotographer to making the news internationally. Major publications around the world wanted to hear how I did this. Thousands of people around the world messaged me asking for help capturing the moon. My instagram absolutely blew up from having a few hundred followers to 10's of thousands. 

With this newfound popularity, I worried I was an imposter. I was nowhere near the level of astrophotographer that I was made out to be. Shooting the moon like this, while somewhat inventive, wasn't really all that hard. Capturing deep space images is much harder, and frankly, I still wasn't very good at it. Here's one of my best nebula photos at the time- the lagoon nebula.

Lagoon Nebula

That is where I join you today. It's been a few years since my first viral image, and I've learned a lot since then. Here is that same nebula captured May 2022:

Lagoon Nebula

I'm always striving to be the best at what I do, but I still have more to learn. I appreciate you being along this journey with me, especially as I decided to quit my career in sales & marketing technology and pursue this full time. I am now completely funded by those who enjoy my images, which is not without risks, but I love what I do so I couldn't be happier. 

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