BY GREG JOHNSON
Vincent Van Gogh finished The Starry Night over several days in June 1889. Ed Roach’s starry nights take months, precise mathematical calculations and lots of cooperative weather. There’s a good chance he’s one of very few West Virginians with his hobby, astrophotography.
“It’s not a good activity for people who like instant gratification,” the Lewisburg architect says with a smile and typical understatement.
While the rewards can be a long time coming, the results are colorful, high-resolution photographs of stars, nebulae and galaxies millions of miles away, invisible to the human eye. The sophisticated optical telescopic cameras he uses are capable of hours-long time exposures. Since the earth is constantly in motion, the cameras have to be rotated to follow the movement of the heavenly bodies, so in the photographs they look fixed in the night sky.
Roach’s fascination with stargazing dates back to age 8, when he read an article in the World Book Encyclopedia about the Andromeda Galaxy, the nearest major galaxy to the Milky Way. “There was an old black and white picture of a cluster of stars, but something about it sparked my imagination. It made me realize the vastness of everything.” He was hooked, and by age 10 he acquired his first telescope. “I was frustrated at first because I didn’t know where to look. The sky was just so big. After a while I got tired of looking at the moon.”
He remained fascinated by the subject, but he didn’t take it up seriously until later in life, when he was a married man. “I wanted to see deep space objects, but I couldn’t afford a decent telescope. So I read astronomy magazines and kept up with things until I could get some modest equipment. When I finished architecture school at Virginia Tech and finally had some earning potential, I started investing in better equipment. It just grew from there.”
His wife, Melissa, a nurse at Peyton Hospice House, urged him to pursue his interest in astronomy despite the expense. “I don’t have a boat or a motorcycle or a collection of firearms, or some of the other things guys have. I don’t hang out in bars. This is my vice. I gave it up for a while because of the cost of the equipment I needed to take longer exposures, but Melissa encouraged me to take it up again. Any hobby can get ridiculously expensive - you just have to give yourself permission to do it. My dad was jokingly making comments about the cost of my hobby until I reminded him of how much he’d spent on his bass boats and fishing gear.”
He found support in a group of Greenbrier Countians who were interested in astronomy. “Dave Buhrman, Michael Rosalina, and especially John Dynak, who recently passed away. John was a professor at the community college. He was a great inspiration to me. He took the pictures that first made me realize that what I wanted to do was possible. That’s when I started investing in better equipment.”
The Roaches live in Lewisburg, where light pollution presents a challenge for backyard stargazing. Ed is able to use special narrowband filters, like the ones used in the Hubble telescope, to filter out the extraneous light. Patience is the name of the game, because the objects need to reach the right “sweet spot” in the sky before he photographs them. The process requires taking dozens of images over a period of nights and then putting them together in a method called “stacking”.
“Renick is the best area in Greenbrier County for looking at the night sky,” he says. “It’s so dark there it’s amazing. West Virginia in general is a good place for imaging the sky. Some of the darkest areas on the East Coast are between Renick and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank.”
His day job as an architect specializing in residential architecture allows him to work from a home studio, so he’s never far from his collection of sophisticated cameras, telescopes and equipment. The walls of his home are filled with some of his favorite images. He admits he’s “sold a couple and traded a couple”, but he’s obviously motivated by the activity and the eye-catching end products, not the financial potential they might have.
For those considering taking up astronomy as a hobby, he recommends passing up the department store telescopes that advertise 500x magnification. “They’ll prove frustrating,” he predicts. “Instead, start out with a good star chart, a map of the moon, and a reputable telescope from a manufacturer selling a package that will give an honest magnification of about 50x per inch of the telescope. For example, Orion and Celestron sell inexpensive but good scopes. It would also be beneficial to invest in an inexpensive German equatorial tripod, and learn how to use the setting circles for coordinates. You’ll be amazed at the hundreds of deep sky objects you can see from 25x to 150x magnification through a good 3-inch telescope.”
Spend a little time talking astrophotography with Ed and you’ll feel like you’ve just had a class with Carl Sagan or Stephen Hawking. To put things in perspective, he explains that a light year is about 6 trillion miles, and the Orion constellation is 1500 light years away. He points out that when he photographs Orion, the light entering his telescope left the constellation as the Roman Empire was falling. Galaxies are millions of light years away. He has images of galaxies hundreds of millions of light years away, which means he has photographs of light that left those distant stars when dinosaurs were roaming the planet.
There’s obviously a lot more to the night sky than meets the eye, and Ed Roach has the pictures to prove it.