Passion for astronomy is out of this world

Astrophotographer Simon Lewis took this photo of the southern night sky from the West Melton...
Astrophotographer Simon Lewis took this photo of the southern night sky from the West Melton observatory.
Space, planets and galaxies have interested Simon Lewis for as long as he can remember. The Greendale resident talks to Devon Bolger about his passion for astronomy and work as an astrophotographer at the West Melton observatory

What was it that first attracted you to astronomy?

Even as a kid, I’ve always been interested in science and technology. As a boy, I was always pulling things apart and trying to fix them, nothing was safe in my house. I started to grow this passion for space and our universe so this is kind of a natural progression for me because I’ve taken that interest in science and technology and applied it to astrophotography which is what I specialise in.

What do you like about astrophotography?

Astrophotography really includes a large part of science and astronomy because you’re trying to look at different type of objects using cameras and you have to try to understand the dynamics of what you’re looking at, the size and scale of what you’re looking at, and also the type of object you’re looking at and even when it might be visible. You have to put some effort into it and that’s the bit I like, there’s a science behind it. You have to understand the night sky and the object your aiming for and then kind of frame it up from there to create something that’s pleasing to the eye. Everybody that does astrophotography say it’s very much an art form in its own right. There’s result that’s the correct one to aim for, you just give it the finish that is your interpretation of the subject and one which makes you happy.

Is there anything that you find particularly exciting when you photograph it?

I like to look at things that aren’t quite mainstream. There are definitely major celestial objects that are commonly photographed and if you picked up an astronomy magazine you’d see pictures of them in there but I like to photograph more low key objects that are just as interesting. They’re not always as photogenic perhaps but they’re very interesting in their own right. For example, there’s an object near the Southern Cross called the Corona Australis that is what’s called a dark nebula, which is actually dust that is blocking the light from stars so if you look at it you can’t actually see any light through it because they’re being blocked by the dust. I quite like taking photographs of them and think they’re nice to look at because they’re not photographed very often.

What is your favourite constellation?

Not a constellation in particular, as our southern night sky is really fantastic there is so much to look at, so choosing one as a favourite is really hard. If you look directly to the south of us you’ve got Carina which is a fabulous constellation which has the Carina Nebula and what’s called the Homunculus which is a bubble of gas round a huge star that’s a 100 times bigger than ours. It’s a really beautiful area to photograph. Orion is also a really amazing constellation to look at too. It’s in our summer evening sky and it has a number of beautiful objects within it to image. If you look up and to the right from the stars on the belt you’ll see the Orion Nebula. It’s so big and so bright you can see it without a telescope even by naked eye as a fuzzy patch, you can really see it very clearly in a pair of binoculars.

Do you think are aliens out there?

Well, I’m always seeing strange and weird things out there at night. There are always satellites, space junk and meteors passing by us, but I think it would be a very lonely place and a very, very strange occurrence if human life was the only life in the universe. The problem I think is actually the distances involved and as an astronomer you’re acutely aware of how far away some of these objects are. Even in our own galaxy, which is around 200,000 light-years from edge to edge, our radio signals have only managed to get around a hundred light-years distant from earth so far, so I’m not surprised we haven’t run into anybody yet. 

You are from England, how long have you lived in the district for?

I visited New Zealand in 2008 while I was living in Europe and I settled in West Melton after doing some travelling and decided I loved New Zealand and wanted to live and work here, so I’ve been in Selwyn since I first arrived here. My met my wife here and we moved out to a lifestyle block in Greendale in 2016, basically because it’s a beautiful place to live, it’s amazingly dark at night and we have some land for my wife’s horses and room for my observatory.

Could you tell me about the work you do at the West Melton observatory and for the Canterbury Astronomical Society?

I’m on the society’s committee and I hold a couple of roles. I’m the webmaster and handle the website as well ticketing for events and Facebook updates. I’m also the membership officer. I also manage the content on the website and write the newsletter that we publish online monthly, we also publish a written magazine too. I play an active role in our public night programmes. Every Friday night we get about 80 to 90 people visiting the observatory. I might drive one of the telescopes or just wander around with binoculars talking to the kids and showing them what’s in the sky and explain what they’re seeing. The kids love it, they’re always asking things like: ‘Oh can we see a black hole?’ So you can really have a lot of fun just wandering around talking to them and explaining the night skies. We do that from the end of March until the end of September and during July we also do KidsFest where we are open every night if it’s clear, for 15 nights in a row.

 

life_in_bubble_banner2.jpg