Local photographer’s nebula shot gets nod in Greenwich

Matthew Wheeler was named a semifinalist at the Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year Awards in London, England at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. Wheeler was the only semifinalist from Canada. / MATTHEW WHEELER

by Andru McCracken

The whole thing got started not long after the Roman Empire fell, and it finished with local photographer and astronomer Matthew Wheeler being named a semifinalist at the Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year Awards in London, England at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. Matthew Wheeler travelled to London to meet the judges and other contestants and to hear the finalists announced on September 15. His remarkable photo of space and the third planet from the sun captured the judges’ imagination.

If you’ve ever proven your astronomical prowess to friends around the campfire by pointing out Orion’s belt, you’re familiar with the part of the sky where the Orion nebula lives. That is the astro part of Wheeler’s photo.

Another shot by Wheeler of the nebula

But he managed to photograph that nebula and the tip of Mount Lucille. Together. Folks that notice the relatively quick turning of the earth, and the dimness of a dark night sky, will recognize the challenge.

“Technically it was extremely difficult,” said Wheeler.

He took the image on March 31, 2016: one exposure in two distinct phases, first tracking the stars and nebula with a clock drive, then at the precise moment, disengaging the clock drive and allowing the faint lights of McBride illuminate Mount Lucille.

“It’s technically pure,” said Wheeler, that is, he didn’t use photoshop to create the image.

He attempted the shot on just three nights that year due to weather and the season, as spring arrives it brings dusk earlier and earlier, preventing deep sky photography.

“The judges liked it,” said Wheeler. “The ones I talked to said they hadn’t seen anything like it before. The competition was very stiff, I was very lucky to be included.”

The top prize was won by a Russian professional astronomer, who couldn’t attend as he had booked time at a large telescope, so the prize was picked up by a diplomat from the Russian Embassy.

The Orion nebula is forming 100s of stars as we speak, said Wheeler. When astronomers cast their eye to the nebula they see all stages of star development. The nebula is a long way off so its light takes time to travel here. The light that created the image set off on its journey through space soon after the fall of the Roman Empire.