Williamsburg physics teacher moonlights as astrophotographer

savwilliams@tidewaterreview.com

During the school year, Christopher Becke can be found teaching physics at Warhill High. After dusk, he shifts his focus upward toward the celestial bodies that dot the sky.

The Williamsburg resident has combined his love of astronomy with some self-taught photography tricks to gain a small online following. Becke's work has been featured in news stories by CNN and The Washington Post, and he has been retweeted by Star Trek actor William Shatner.

Becke said his interest in astronomy goes back years, and he started with a small telescope. He has no formal astronomy education, other than what he experienced while getting his undergraduate physics degree at Brandeis University.

Astrophotography began to stick in May 2014 when he began connecting on Twitter with like-minded people.

"Getting on Twitter, and seeing somebody else say, 'Oh, yeah, you can put your smartphone up to a telescope and get great pictures,' I thought 'no way,'" Becke said. "But that has developed into this hobby. Once you take your first picture of a nebula through a telescope, it's pretty exciting. You can catch those photons that left millions of years ago, and here they are, in my camera phone and I can get pictures of it."

Becke's repertoire online includes pictures of the moon, the sun, planets, nebulae, galaxies, rocket launches and the international space station passing in front of stellar bodies.

Becke now has an assortment of tripods, mounts, screens, lenses and telescopes, including an eight-inch Celestron telescope he said may cost $1,000 if he had bought it new (instead of on eBay, where he got it for $200). And he still owns the $50 telescope he started with.

Becke said he learned his photography skills from a community of Twitter photographers who share his passion, through a series of checking how people set up their shots, what settings they used and how they knew the cosmic event was coming.

"You develop these weird Twitter friendships with people that you may never meet in real life, that you learn things from," Becke said. "Then you become the 'Oh, check with @BeckePhysics, because he knows such-and-such and he's done that.'"

One of Becke's photos taken in July features the moon rising over the nation's capitol. He captured a time lapse, which shows the moon lightening from deep red to pale yellow as its position shifts relative to the camera.

Trevor Mahlmann, who Becke had corresponded with but never met before that night, taught Becke the calculations behind determining how frequently he would need to snap pictures to capture the moon every time it shifted its full width. The result — a photo that strings more than 20 instances of the moon edge-to-edge across the D.C. sky.

Math is pivotal to this type of photography. To capture images of bodies either hundreds or millions of miles away, when the ground is literally spinning under him, Becke uses a secret weapon: trigonometry.

When the NASA's Wallops Flight Facility launched canisters of luminescent gas in June, Becke made sure to capture the event. Becke emailed a contact in the rocket program he had met at a teachers program several years before, asking for detailed information about the launch. Becke got the time, angle, range and height of release and then pulled out his calculator.

"From that, you can kind of calculate what it would look like from there, if you draw a couple of right triangles. But I wasn't filming from there, I'm filming from here, in Williamsburg," Becke said. "So I had to go and – it was pages of trig in order to calculate, 'Okay, I need to point my camera at this angle to catch the beginning of it, and this is the end of it.' I mapped it all out, and then realized the field of view of my camera, and said, 'Okay, that means I have to point my camera in this direction, at this angle and turn it up sideways,' so that I could get where these clouds are going to be and where they're going to drift."

Becke said people could just wing a photograph like that if they wanted to, but he thought the hard work paid off. CNN ended up using his final time lapse — made of more than 70 20-second exposures taken over the course of 24 minutes —in its article about the launch.

Some of Becke's equipment helps him track stars, because larger motorized telescopes and mounts can pinpoint the north star and keep themselves oriented in the right direction while panning at the speed of the Earth's rotation. Other times, Becke says he prefers to take out an old-fashioned tripod and his camera.

After Becke got a DSLR camera as a Christmas present in 2015, he didn't think he'd ever go back to the iPhone, but he's found there's a time and place for both tools. With the iPhone, Becke can attach more lenses than his DSLR will connect with to enlarge the image and fill the photo frame.

Becke said the trick is to use what's freely, or cheaply, available. Becke frequently uploads lots of exposures and videos to his computer, and uses software to break down the images frame by frame, and turn many blurry images into one clear picture. Or, he can use software to stack a series of images, like he did to display the moonrise over the capitol.

"It's so easy to learn to pay attention to the sky. And it's rewarding to look up and go, 'Oh yeah, that's Jupiter,' and pull up a pair of binoculars, even, and see the moons of Jupiter," Becke said. "I don't want people to be intimidated by the equatorial mount and the 8-inch telescope and all that ... anybody who's got a regular digital camera, a DSLR, you can take Milky Way pictures. It's so accessible, and I had no idea."

Williams can be reached by phone at 804-824-8289.

Becke's toolkit

How to find him online: twitter.com/BeckePhysics

Apps Becke uses

General space map: SkyPortal

International Space Station locator: GoISSWatch

Smartphone night pictures: NightCap Pro

Computer picture software: Registax

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