The high cost of deep space astrophotography

Jason Kottke notes the winners of the Royal Observatory’s Astronomy Photography of the Year 2009 contest, which was conducted on Flickr (here’s the group). “I had no idea that images this sharp and detailed could be taken with non-pro ground telescopes,” Jason writes. It’s worth mentioning, though, that “non-pro” doesn’t necessarily mean inexpensive.

True, photos in the Earth and Space and Our Solar System categories were taken with off-the-shelf equipment like digital SLRs and commercially available, mass-produced telescopes, but deep space astrophotography (i.e., galaxies and nebulæ) has become the realm of mind-bogglingly expensive equipment — much to the dismay and discouragement of tyros with merely above-average amounts of disposable income.

The finalists in the Deep Space category are a case in point: digital SLRs and inexpensive Chinese-manufactured scopes are nowhere to be seen. As is the case with the reader’s galleries in astronomy magazines, expensive telescopes (Ritchey-Chrétien reflectors, triplet apochromatic refractors) and specialized astronomical cameras dominate.

The winner’s photo of the Horsehead Nebula (mpastro2001 also had a second photo in the top five) used a 12½" Ritchey-Chrétien telescope ($21,500) and an SBIG STL11000 camera ($7,195 and up) with an AO-L adaptive optics accessory ($1,795) on a Paramount ME mount ($14,500). Total cost for just the equipment mentioned here: $44,990.

That’s well ahead of the other finalists, but they didn’t exactly skimp either:

  • clierviewh’s photo of M81 and M82 used a combination of a TMB 130 apo refractor ($3,999) and an SBIG ST2000 camera ($2,595 and up) and a Meade 12-inch RCX400 ($6,999) and an SBIG ST10XME camera ($5,795). Total cost: $19,388 (not including a mount for the apo or other accessories).
  • strongmanmike2002’s photo of Centaurus A was taken through an Astro-Physics 152 refractor (I’m guessing around $5,400), using an FLI Proline 11002 camera ($8,195), Astronomik filters ($600) and a Starlight Xpress SXV-H9 camera ($2,795) as an autoguider. The Takahashi mount-tripod combo must have cost at least $6,429 for the mount and $2,195 for the tripod. Total cost: $25,614.
  • tvdavisid’s photo of the Eta Carinæ Nebula used a 16-megapixel FLI Proline 16803 camera ($10,495) and an Astro-Physics 155EDF apo refractor ($5,400). That’s already $15,895, and we haven’t even gotten to the mount, guider and narrowband filters.

This is what it takes nowadays to get your photo published in Astronomy, for which you get $50.

(Prices may be only approximately accurate, but get the point across.)