"Astrophotographers" combine a passion for astronomy with photography, capturing photons of ancient starlight with telescopes and digital cameras to make dazzling images of distant objects in the night sky.
Adam Block is one of the best of them anywhere.
And he's eager to "share my passion for astronomy through public speaking and creating images of the universe," he said.
The University of Arizona is where it happens now.
Block, 35, joined Steward Observatory in July 2007 to build new public astronomy programs at the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter, a one-of-a-kind science center run by the College of Science atop 9,157-foot Mount Lemmon in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson.
Block, along with observatory mountain operations staff, installed a new 24-inch RC Optical Systems telescope equipped with an STL-11000M camera for the SkyCenter's "SkyNights" public observing program four months ago. The images he's taken with this telescope so far "are some of the best I have ever produced," he said. NASA published one he took a month ago as the "Astronomy Picture of the Day."
Praise and Prizes for Astronomy Images
Block is winning accolades for astronomical imaging.
The Santa Barbara Instrument Group has awarded Block the SBIG Award for Excellence in Astronomical Imaging and named him to its astrophotography Hall of Fame. Perhaps only 20 or 30 amateur astronomers worldwide are astrophotographers at Block's level, said Michael Barber, a member of SBIG's board of directors. The board chose Block as the 11th recipient of the prize.
Another SBIG Hall of Fame photographer, Connecticut physician Robert Gendler, will feature Block and others in his forthcoming book, "Masters of Astrophotography."
The International Astronomical Union Minor Planet Center recently approved naming a main belt asteroid as "172525 Adamblock." David Healy of Sierra Vista discovered the asteroid while observing at his Junk Bond Observatory on Oct. 4, 2003, and dedicated it to Block, who "has helped popularize astronomy through public speaking and his masterful astronomical photographs."
A 1996 UA graduate in astronomy and physics, Block was lead observer for all nighttime astronomy public programs at Kitt Peak National Observatory from November 1996 to September 2005. He honed his imaging and image -processing skills during his years at Kitt Peak, assisting visitors in taking more than 1,500 deep sky images and taking many more magnificent color deep-sky images of his own.
"My philosophy of imaging is to try to highlight an aspect of an object that is either intriguing or new," Block said. "Each image tells a story and offers an experience for the viewer. My rules for processing images are to globally enhance the image and selectively correct artifacts when necessary. In addition, I strive for a 'natural' appearance for the image. My philosophy is, if you can tell what I did to create the image, then I didn't do a very good job."
Block is acknowledged as one of the world's most published astrophotographers.
"Adam has been one of Astronomy magazine's most consistent contributors since I took over as photo editor in 2003, and he's one of the best," said Michael Bakich, Astronomy magazine photo editor. "I would place Adam easily in the top five imagers on Earth, without reservation. And, while I try not to overuse his images, when I need a shot of a deep-sky object for a story, Adam's folder is the first place I look."
Dozens of Block's images have been published in such books as "A Year in the Life of the Universe," " Cosmic Butterflies," "Beyond Earth," "Encyclopedia of Amateur Astronomy," "The Caldwell Objects" and "Night Wonders." Hundreds of his images have appeared in National Geographic, Astronomy, Sky & Telescope, Arizona Highways, Coleum, Astronomie, Scientific American, Ciel & Espace, The Practical Astronomer and other magazines. NASA has run about three dozen of Block's astrophotos as the "Astronomy Photo of the Day," and Space.com has featured a score of his images as its image of the day.
Block produced a highly praised DVD series called "Making Every Pixel Count" that explains how to use processing software and Photoshop to transform raw deep-space images into picture postcards of the universe. The DVD tutorials he developed in 2006 are popular with astroimagers worldwide.
Since January, Block has been manager and telescope operator for Tim Ferris' "Seeing in the Dark" Internet Telescope, a National Science Foundation-funded program that is available for free to teachers and students. Block takes images of deep sky objects that students and teachers request.
Passion for Astronomy and Outreach
Block became fascinated by stars as a toddler when his grandfather would point out celestial objects in the New England night sky. Block's parents, who subsequently moved the family to Georgia, bought Block his first real telescope, a 4.5-inch Astroscan from Edmund Scientific when he was 9.
"This was a wonderful first telescope from which I saw the rings of Saturn, the belts of Jupiter, star clusters, nebulae, comets and even a few bright galaxies," he said. A few years later, when his parents bought him an 8-inch Celestron, Block made his first attempts at astrophotography using film.
In high school, Block met a professional astronomer who changed his life. The astronomer was the observatory director who ran public evening programs at Atlanta's Fernbank Science Center. "My first impression of an astronomer was that of a person sharing his knowledge and passion about something he enjoys," Block said. He became a volunteer for the director during the observatory's public nights, and it launched his own career in public outreach.
After high school, Block decided to attend the UA to study astronomy and physics. As a freshman, he volunteered at Flandrau Planetarium and ran Flandrau's 16-inch telescope for the public a couple of nights a week. He became lead telescope operator for Steward Observatory's 21-inch campus telescope. He was an active president and vice-president of the UA Astronomy Club, and installed a 16-inch Newtonian telescope for the club in the dome on Tumamoc Hill. The UA astronomy department gave him its undergraduate teaching award.
It was at the UA that Block began making digital images with a CCD, or charge-coupled device. "My first image of the ring nebula was little more than a grainy gray oval with a star in the middle. But I was captivated," he said.