I was reading up on the big-ass comet (who’s name is not actually ISON) heading our direction, and the article mentioned that the discovery had been confirmed by iTelescope (among others). (REAL QUICK digression: I really like the word “precovery” — Once the discoverers said, “hey, there’s a comet there!” other astronomers were able to use data gathered before the official “discovery” to confirm the finding. Precovery.) So anyway, Since I work at the company that invented put-an-i-on-it product naming, I had no choice but to look into this iTelescope thing. I had this idea that maybe there were a million webcams all pointed at the sky, and with the combined computing power of the participants a useful image could be inferred.
Of course, I was wrong. It was early in the morning and the caffeine hadn’t reached the critical parts of my brain — the parts that would have considered the logistical nightmare my “global fly-eye” idea would entail. Maybe in a few more years…
But what I did find is entirely cool, and has the benefit of actually working. iTelescope is a cooperative that has some 20 pretty-dang-good telescopes, and for a fee you (yes, you) can use them to take pictures of the sky. (The difference between ‘telescope’ and ‘camera’ is all in the lens.) iTelescope has three facilities around the globe (New Mexico, Spain, and Australia), so it’s always night somewhere. You control the telescope over the Internet and download your results. Oh, these times we live in. (In these times, it must also be said: you retain all rights to the photos.)
How much does it cost? That depends on the telescope you choose and the phase of the moon. Prices start in the neighborhood of seventeen bucks an hour and go up from there. That seems like a lot of money, until you consider what it would cost to get these images on your own. Eleven (at least) have even been honored as APOD.
It feels odd to think of it as ‘photography’ when you’re so disconnected from the camera – heck, you’ll probably never even see the telescope you’re using. Many of the other decisions one makes in terrestrial photography are moot as well — there’s no depth of focus to deal with, for instance. Someone else has set up the camera; all you have to do is point it. Except, when you look at the gallery, you see that there are many images that combine dozens of exposures, some with different filters, sometimes with different data coming from different telescopes. Dang. Seriously, how many photographers have access to such a vast array of gear? (Answer: now, we all do.)
There is still an art to getting that spectacular deep-space image, and just as a fashion photographer has assistants to handle the details, iTelescope users have the iTelescope staff and a helpful Web robot. Good times, my friends. Good times.