This is not a great photograph, but it is the beginning of a journey.
In 2009, I started to fixate on space again. It was the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, and the space shuttle programme was sadly beginning its swansong. I don’t know how fixated I was on space as a kid – I grew up in the awkward post-Challenger pause, and somehow drifted away from mankind’s greatest explorations, checking back in for a trip to the astonishing Kennedy Space Center in 2000 and then for the ebullient exploits of Spirit and Opportunity on Mars. Mars! I realised that I had no idea where our neighbour was in the sky, or anything, in fact, other than the moon, and even then I only knew where it was when I could see it.
On a chilly 8 February 2010, space shuttle Endeavour soared into the sky above Cape Canaveral, lighting up the night sky and sending crumples of thundering noise 7 miles to where we stood – barely – at Kennedy Visitor Center. STS-130 was the first launch I had seen, a glorious expression of our capabilities and our vulnerabilities. At once beautiful, but clearly violent and explosive, Endeavour reached orbit around the earth at a speed of around 28,000 km/hour, in less time than it took us to return to the car park.
That was it. Time to learn, time to explore. The result is blurry, imprecise, but I know it is a nebula, around 1,300 light years away, that is visible with the naked eye even with light pollution and atmospheric disturbance from the middle of a city centre. That’s only 7,642,000,000,000,000 miles away. Long walk to the car. This was taken with a Canon EOS 7D mounted to a Skywatcher 130P reflector telescope using a Barlow (turns out that the scope isn’t good for astrophotography as the focusing distance isn’t close enough for an SLR). M42 is the nebula in the centre of Orion’s sword, which hangs beneath the central belt in the Orion constellation. Far more beautiful images exists of M42, but this is where I begin, a blue smudge, but one utterly different than the pinpricks of light we all know. Over a thousand years ago, the nebula emitted light on a journey that arrived just in time for this photograph. I hope to see much more on my travels round the night sky.