Tupper Lake Arts Center showcases astronomy images

Adirondack Sky Center and Observatory Vice President and Tupper Lake school Superintendent Seth McGowan stands in front of his photos on display at the Tupper Arts Center’s astrophotography showing, including one of the Andromeda galaxy and a series of images he took over the course of the 2017 solar eclipse while he was in Kentucky. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

TUPPER LAKE — The Tupper Arts Center is premiering a collection of astronomical images in collaboration with the Adirondack Sky Center and Observatory Thursday night, including photos of far-off galaxies, star clusters and solar eclipses taken in Tupper Lake, by Tupper Lakers.

From the craters of the moon, a mere 238,900 miles from Earth, to the colorful swirls of the Andromeda galaxy 2.5 million light years away, the four professional and amateur astrophotographers whose work is on display have spent long hours through the middle of the night capturing images of events in deep space. For reference, light travels at 186,000 miles per second.

Tupper Lake school Superintendent Seth McGowan, who contributed photos to the gallery, has been photographing the stars for over two years, taking photos from the Sky Center’s Roll-Off Roof Observatory near Little Wolf beach. McGowan said astrophotography is a humbling experience.

“250 million light years away there’s billions and billions of stars out there,” McGowan said. “The Milky Way has 7 billion stars. We can’t even think of those numbers; it doesn’t make any sense.”

This gallery will be on display at the Park Street storefront all month long. The arts center partnered with the Sky Center, featuring images taken by Gordy Duval, a founding member of the Sky Center, and McGowan, the organization’s vice president, as well as George Normandin and Tim Connoly, astrophotography professionals who have both lent their knowledge to the Sky Center’s annual astrophotography conference.

The Sky Center is preparing to build an Astro-Science Center, a museum dedicated to the sky above, situated in a town with some of the darkest skies in the eastern U.S.

Though the Sky Center typically focuses on the informational and scientific aspects of astronomy, McGowan said the partnership with Tupper Arts allows them to show the artistic side of exploring the stars.

“These are generally thought of as scientific images, but I mean, there’s more to it than just that,” McGowan said. “The thing about astronomy is that in addition to all the chemistry and physics and everything else, there’s unbelievable beauty out there.”

Getting these images is not easy, McGowan said. He still has a bit of frostbite in his fingers from when he was taking photos earlier this week. The darkest hours of the night are the only time the celestial bodies are visible, and winter typically brings less humid conditions.

“It’s quiet,” McGowan said.

Astrophotography requires a normal DSLR camera, using the telescope as a super-powered lens. McGowan’s method of taking astronomical photos is arduous, compiling hundreds of long-exposure images to get the most pure, sharp final product.

While the camera shutter for a typical photo might only be open for a fraction of a second to gather the light needed to create an image, photographing star clusters millions of light years away requires the shutter to be open for up to minutes at a time. This shutter speed is evident in one of Duval’s images of the Milky Way shining brightly over Tupper Lake. An airplane or a meteor passed through the frame as the shutter was open and was captured as a single streak of red light cutting across the top corner of the picture.

McGowan said there is tracking software that shifts the telescope in microns to follow stars and keep them from streaking.

He compresses his hundreds of photos into one image to reduce visual “noise” created by the digital camera and get a better contrast between dark black and bright white.

He said photographing stars is usually a solitary experience. Even when he is working with other people, there are so many factors to set up and monitor that a conversation might never occur.

“Astrophotography is frustrating, it’s expensive, it’s time consuming,” McGowan said. “There’s nothing easy about it.”

Usually, their final products would not be printed, just shared over phones and social media. At Tupper Arts, the prints are hung on the walls, meant to be admired. The prints will be on sale as well, with all proceeds going toward the sky and arts centers.

The collection includes solar photos from Connolly, whose love of astrophotography was passed on to him from his father, Tim, and lunar photos from Normandin, who has been using telescopes since the ninth grade and has taken over 5,000 images. Normandin works at the Kopernik Observatory in Vestal. Duval uses a single-shot technique to get his photos, capturing all the data the image needs in one opening of the shutter.

McGowan’s solar eclipse photos were taken in the parking lot in a Walmart in Kentucky and include an image of the sun in total eclipse. McGowan had not planned to take photos when he dropped his daughter off at the University of Kentucky, but he had his equipment with him and the parking lot made for a good place to take photos and talk with other astrophotography enthusiasts from around the country.

Thousands of people had flocked to the path of totality, using filters on telescopes to stare at the sun.

McGowan described the scene at the parking lot. The Walmart closed temporarily during totality to let employees see the unique solar event. The air got colder, and McGowan said the gathering grew quiet with an excited hum before letting out a cheer when the moon totally blocked out the sun.

“There was an energy from the crowd that I don’t remember feeling before,” McGowan said, adding that it even exceeded the energy of New Year’s Eve in Times Square.

He said the aftermath looked post-apocalyptic as thousands of cars packed every exit and lines for the bathroom stretched a quarter-mile long.

In April 2024 Tupper Lake will be in the path of totality for a solar eclipse. McGowan said he expects hotels to start getting reservations for those dates in the next year or two, and said he hopes the Astro-Science Center will be open by then.

“TL should brace for it because we’re going to get a lot of people here; I guarantee it,” McGowan said.