Even if you could hitch a ride on a rocket ship, you wouldn’t see cloud-like nebulas, star clusters and distant galaxies the way Eric Coles of Glen Ellyn sees them.
Some of the lightwaves they emit are not visible to the human eye.
But amateur astronomer Coles has captured almost 1,000 images that show their beauty.
His work – plus that of another astrophotographer – was on display in the longest-running show at an art gallery at Fermi National Laboratory in Batavia.
But no one from the public got to see the exhibit, the only one he has ever done.
That’s because “Imaging the Cosmos: Astro Photography and Landscapes by Dr. Eric Coles and Martin Murphy” opened in March 2020 – the same time Fermilab’s campus was closed to all but essential employees because of the pandemic.
The exhibit was taken down Sept. 30.
“This feels really disappointing, considering all the work and the expense that went into this,” Coles said.
Coles is an entrepreneur with a doctorate in biochemistry.
“I’ve always been interested in science,” the 78-year-old said.
He held research positions with medical schools at Harvard and Columbia universities and founded the companies Alexon Biomedical and Xickle LLC.
In 2011, he had more time on his hands after selling one of his companies. Seeing a telescope for sale for $400, he bought it, set it up in the yard of his home and started studying astronomy. He used a cellphone to get images.
“Did I know where this was going?” Coles said. “This is definitely a late-in-life interest.”
Coles initially spent hours in his backyard in the middle of the night. Now he uses a computer to aim a much bigger – and costlier – telescope at the sky.
He has a 20-inch telescope on a mountaintop at Sierra Remote Observatories in California. Coles estimates he has spent about $80,000 for the setup.
He programs the telescope to capture light from targets, such as galaxies, nebula and star clusters. Filters separate the three primary colors emitted by these objects. Then they are recombined and processed to form the final image.
Special filters also are used to see the emissions of elements present in nebulas, such as hydrogen. It may take 10 to 40 hours to capture enough light on an object.
“Processing that light is time-consuming, but the resulting image is a joy to behold,” Coles said.
The images are not necessarily one-and-done snapshots of the nebulas, galaxies and star clusters. Coles may combine data captured several times or include data from other photographers.
“You don’t snap a pic and then the pic comes out,” Coles said.
The Fermilab exhibit
Coles was a frequent visitor to Fermilab, attending lectures and other events every three to four weeks. He saw an astrophotography display in the gallery on the second floor of Wilson Hall.
That inspired Coles to approach the director of visual arts at Fermilab and ask if he could put on a show. The director approved his request.
“Imaging the Cosmos: Astro Photography and Landscapes” had 34 metal prints from Coles and about 10 from Martin Murphy. The images Coles selected ranged in size from 10 by 12 inches to 30 by 40 inches.
Work to install the exhibit happened March 20, 2020. The laboratory was closed the next day because of the pandemic.
The grounds and the Lederman Science Center have since reopened to the public. But Wilson Hall, which used to host public lectures, concerts, film screenings and more, has not.
So for 2½ years, only Fermilab employees could view the exhibit.
On Sept. 30, Coles was allowed to have a private event for about two dozen friends and relatives. It was only for a few hours. When it was over, he had to remove his photographs from the walls and take them home.
Coles is not sure what he will do with the prints. He is thinking of giving a few to a startup business he advises.
“Or it might stay in the basement,” he said.
Still, his passion for astrophotography remains strong.
“To see a setup and how it operates is fascinating,” he said. “We [amateurs] can do more good work than the best professionals could do 30 years ago.”