Years ago I was dreaming of the night sky. I was dreaming of new ways to experience it, with rich visuals and interactivity. I envisioned a window that you could hold up to the sky and reveal all the wonderful things that go unseen, despite their reality. Of course, the means of accomplishing this vision seemed far out of reach. I didn’t have the know-how or resources to build such a clever device on my own.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to. A company called Apple did it. With the launch of the iPhone, a window to the sky had been opened. Although, there was still one problem--what good was a window without a great view?
With an existing hardware platform I could focus my efforts on engaging content. I wanted to create a complete picture of the sky, something even more dazzling than the clearest night imaginable and would reveal the depths of our galaxy and beyond. Again, I was in over my head.
Had I known in advance how much work lay ahead of me I likely never would have started so my naivety was a blessing in disguise. I spent many months planning the photographic strategy and aquiring the equipment that would be necessary for the undertaking. Thermoelectrically-cooled cameras, motorized tripod gear and specialized bandpass filters were just some of the oddities I had never needed in my previous experience with architectural photography.
And then there was travel, an inherent aspect of the project. By necessity, capturing every angle of the starry sphere would make the survey a multi-continental journey, one that ultimately traversed 15,000 miles of road in the American west and 45,000 miles of sky on trips to the northern cape of South Africa. Regardless of where I travelled, arid, high-elevation terrain far away from the glow of city lights was always the preferred stage.
Unpredictability was the rule, not the exception. A few hundred exposures could be taken one night, only to be followed by a couple thousand the next. I was often at the mercy of the weather or the rising disk of the moon overpowering faint starlight with its stray glare. Even the clearest nights could bring unpleasantries my way with bitter cold sometimes dropping to -6°F (-23°C).
A year and many sleepless nights later I had amassed over 37,000 exposures. This unwieldy collection of data would have taken far too long to process into a single photo by hand so a semi-automated process was developed. Even then, the work of unifying all the photographs took three months to complete and many hundreds of CPU hours. The data crunching consumed four terabytes of hard drive space and nearly equal amounts of patience but the end result seemed worth the wait.
The final 5,000 megapixel photograph reveals tens of millions of stars with light 3,000 times fainter than the human eye is capable of seeing. Dust and glowing gas from our home galaxy take turns complementing or blocking the starlight, forming a complex tapestry on vast scales that are difficult to imagine. Even galaxies distant from our own can be seen, reminders that ours is but one of billions.
While the app is not capable of showing the full resolution of the survey, it does something magical that is otherwise impossible to do on a PC. Sky Survey gives you a personal window to the night sky, the one I dreamed about so many nights ago. I hope you enjoy this window as much as I do. There is so much to discover out there!
EVERY PICTURE TELLS A STORY.
37,440 of them tell a saga. Photographer and designer Nick Risinger recounts his year-long, 60,000 mile journey of creating the imagery that would become the Sky Survey app.