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An astronomical artist

ECU professor to present photographic time travel through space

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Photographs of multiple galaxies by Tim Christensen hang on the walls at A Time for Science.


Mackenzie Tewksbury

Friday, January 12, 2018

A Time for Science, a nature and science learning center on Dickinson Avenue, is debuting its 2018  adult series Thursday night with an interactive exhibit of outer space.

East Carolina University biology professor and astronomical artist Tim Christensen will share his six-year journey as an astro-photographer during the “Under the Microscope: Ancient Photons” event.

He may teach biology during the daylight hours, but by nightfall, it’s playtime for Christensen. From his home in Simpson, he sets up his equipment — a telescope, a scientific-grade charge-coupled device (CCD) camera mounted on 2,000 pounds of cement — and begins to survey the night sky. All he needs is a cloudless night.

The journey began six years ago when Christensen looked into the night sky with a naked eye and saw what he calls “blobjects,” fuzzy, gray blobs of “something” in deep space. But he knew there was color out there, and in order to see the color, he needed to take photos.

“It starts out as a well-meaning father who wants to share space with his kids. You know how dads get sometimes; they see a toy and they want to run with it,” Christensen said.

But it was more than just a liking to space for Christensen. His photographs represent an out-of-this-world phenomenon and expansive point of view. To the naked eye, the night sky might just look like a dark abyss scattered with stars, but with his photos, a whole new world full of galaxies millions of light years away is visible. To Christensen, it makes him feel small, while also thinking big.

“It’s basically a gateway to wonder,” Christensen said. “If you can visualize that we are sitting in a galaxy and universe full of these amazing things, and contemplate the fact that they are millions of light years away, you feel small. But in the process of becoming small, your view of the world expands.”

When he first began the stellar hobby, he set up with a Canon digital single-lens reflex camera to capture the abyss, but multiple attempts proved unsuccessful. He began learning what he could do to improve the images and really capture the wonder of outer space. A few internet searches later, Christensen seems to have gotten the hang of it. 

“I’m largely self-taught due to the fact that I’ve scoured the internet for how-tos. I kind of just put those together in a jigsaw method,” Christensen said.

In simple terms, Christensen cools down his camera to minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 degrees Farheinheit), takes hundreds and hundreds of images of an object behind multiple filters and then digitally combines and manipulates the images to pull out the colorful details. He has programmed his telescope to target exactly what he wants to photograph. “I get to sleep while my telescope does stuff automatically,” Christensen said, laughing, because his projects require exceptionally long exposure times. His shorter works call for nine hours of exposure, while his longer ones take nearly 700 hours of exposure.

These works are displayed at A Time For Science, and when the Under the Microscope series debuts Thursday night, Christensen is ready to share a photographic time travel through space. He said those who attend the event can expect to hear his personal journey through the craft — he’ll show some of his first “terrible” photographs taken on the DSLR — along with the evolution of astronomical imaging and how it inspires him to think about something larger than himself. 

Emily Jarvis, executive director at A Time For Science, said they try to pull in an expert who is reflective of the center’s monthly exhibit. This month is heavily focused on space, so Christensen seemed like the perfect fit. There will be wine and hors d’oeuvres, and Jarvis said it’s shaping up to be a great networking event for those who wish to gather with others who have similar interests.

“What we want to do is ignite excitement for all things science, and space is a specialty of ours. ... The average Joe doesn’t get the chance to view these things,” Jarvis said.

Contact Mackenzie Tewksbury at mtewksbury@reflector.com or 252-329-9585.