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Science Journal

Seeing in the Dark

From a high-tech observatory in Portal, Arizona, Rick Beno snaps candid portraits of the universe.

by Dawn Newman-Aerts

 

 

When most communities are getting ready for a good night's sleep, Rick Beno quietly unlocks his observatory door, rolls up his sleeves, checks his telescope, and peers deep into the dark skies above the desert Southwest. Beno's cosmic subject is the billions of light-years of space that surround our Earth. At the end of his telescope near Rodeo, New Mexico, snapshots of galaxies, nebulae and double clusters linger at the end of his fingertips.

dark sky 1
Beno gazes into deep space.

Deep sky astro-photography is not a new space-age science. It has long been the vast field of scientists who have an innate interest in astronomy, and who like to tinker with the complex nature of high-tech equipment and digitized software. In today's discipline, even an amateur photographer can purposely (or accidentally) snap an encounter with the obscure or a big-sky moment while seated behind a simple telescope. Sky-watchers are longer confined to elaborate mountain-top observatories in remote parts of the world.

Beno is not alone on the desert floor near Rodeo. In fact, his "Conferring With the Sky" observatory fits in well with a handful of others who have settled in this remote area. It's here that he and a community of avid scientists, engineers, astro wizards and space photographers share common ground in their quest to work in the ultimate "dark-sky village."

Beno and his wife, Vicki, discovered this remote slice of sky back in 2003.

"It really doesn't get much better than this," says Beno of the surrounding desert landscape. "There are similar places in the US, but they are getting much harder to find."

 

Rick Beno has been actively observing the night sky for roughly 55 years — first as a youngster, growing up in Southern California, and, a few years later, as a Cal-Poly University student who juggled his time between weekend study and pursuing the interstellar medium.

observatory
The Conferring with the Sky observatory near Portal, Ariz.

His early interest in astronomy began at the age of nine with the profits from a paper route. "I don't know why, but the first thing I decided to buy with my pay was a two-inch Tasco telescope," says Beno with a half-smile. "I suppose just about every kid (back then) started with a model like that, but I was really inspired." It wasn't long before his parents found him a better telescope — a more sophisticated model that Beno says he didn't quite know how to use, and, unfortunately, didn't have any instructions for.

He credits a high school physics teacher, who made science "pure magic," with leading him to a career in aerospace. "I wish more kids would have the opportunity to get into an astronomy class in high school," Beno says. "It's one of those classes that opens the door to so many paths in science."

Beno earned degrees in aerospace engineering at Cal-Poly University and at the University of California-San Diego. After graduating, he began a career with Northrop-Grumman. He spent much of his career as a software engineer in defense navigation and simulation equipment

Over the years, Beno says, there were jumps in the size and sophistication of his telescopes. "In the 1970s I could afford a much better telescope, so I spent lots of nights in my backyard in Cerritos, California, just observing the night skies and working with astro-photography."

 

Today, in the desert at the Arizona Sky Village in Portal, just across the border from New Mexico's Bootheel, Beno's silo-like observatory juts straight up against the flat desert. It sits just steps outside his back door. He climbs the steep, winding staircase that leads to a mostly circular "portal" of darkness.

nebula
One of Beno’s favorites: The “Drunken Dragon nebula,” LBN 762
(All photos courtesy Rick Beno / Conferring with the Sky observatory)

"I have to say, there's something special about working in a natural setting like this," says Beno, as he peers out through the 24-inch PlaneWave telescope that dominates his observation platform. "I guess for me, it's just a really peaceful spot."

His "spot" is an intricate playground of high-tech equipment, in a roomy space-like nodule. "So, it's about fully taking in the night sky as it is," he says. "You can hear the coyotes in the distance, but you can mostly focus on the stars." And what you are able to capture at any given moment, he explains, is both unpredictable and amazing.

Standing high above the cacti that surround him, he carefully captures a universe at play.

 

Rick's website features extreme shots of galaxies, clusters, nebulae and solar sysem objects. He keeps meticulous records of technical data for every image. He has taken thousands of photographs, with more than a few personal "keepers." He is particularly fond of snapping an astro-photo in 2008 he dubbed the "Drunken Dragon nebula." It shows a nebula first identified in the 1950s and originally named Lynd's Bright Nebula (LBN) 762.

In the Sky Village, Beno's astro-photography process is a mostly turnkey operation. "I basically have to cool down cameras, equipment, lenses and instruments every night and there are exact adjustments with equipment and computer software." When looking for moving objects, he uses a process called "blinking" or the overlaying of photographs.

Silver City stargazers can join the Silver City Astronomical Society, which holds monthly meetings except in the heart of summer, generally on the second Saturday of each month at Billy's BBQ, 2140 Hwy. 180, at 1 p.m. For membership and meeting info, see silverastronomy.org or email silvercityofstars@gmail.com.

"Basically, these images are aligned between two or more photographs over a span of seconds and minutes," explains Beno. He uses filters, shutter speeds and exposure times similar to traditional photography, but with the specialized PlaneWave 24-inch reflector telescope. It is a high-tech setup with the ability to capture high-resolution digital images.

But interests in astro-photography and deep sky observation vary, says Beno, even at this astronomy outpost at the remote edge of Arizona. "We have one neighbor who spends much of his time involved with finding elusive supernovas or capturing images of multiple galaxies. A ‘wide field' astronomer might focus on the entire Milky Way, while another looks for locations to determine the best points around the planet to observe solar eclipses."

That would be Fred Espenak, a retired NASA astrophysicist from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center known as "Mr. Eclipse," who operates the Bifrost Astronomical Observatory in Portal. Espenak, who continues to maintain NASA's official eclipse website at eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov and who has witnessed 24 total solar eclipses, spoke at a special presentation of WILL and the Silver City Astronomical Society (see box) in March.

 

Today's deep-sky astronomers use robotic telescopes, remote-controlled equipment and complex computer programs. Beno's techniques capture images you can't see with the naked eye, or even through a telescope. He points out that today's robotic telescopes can be controlled from anywhere in the world using an Internet connection.

"Deep-sky images no longer require a mountain-top observatory to capture interstellar vistas or rogue asteroids," says Beno with a smile. "And what we have here is a ‘dark sky oasis' with ideal conditions — that's low light pollution, higher elevations, low humidity, and laminar (non-turbulent) air flow." According to fellow astronomers, there's nothing more seductive in the field than a night sky filled with stars and glowing clouds of colorful interstellar gas.

From his desert-based portal, Beno has set his sights on sharing his knack for astro-photography by offering workshops and learning opportunities for local students who have an interest in exploring dark skies, galaxies, clusters and nebulae.

He says, "It really doesn't get much better than this."

 

 

For information about class visits to Beno's observatory, as well as images from his astro-photography, see his website at ConferringWiththeSky.org.



Dawn Newman-Aerts is a former Minnesota newspaper journalist who lives in Rodeo.

 

 



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