Heaven on Earth: The Astronomy Photographs of Iván Éder

    Taking heed of a suggestion by the International Astronomical Union, the United Nations declared 2009 the International Year of Astronomy, appropriately marking the four-hundredth anniversary of Galileo’s first use of a telescope for his astronomical observations. It was Galileo’s observations which first confirmed Copernicus heliocentric theory. Thus the beginnings of modern astronomy are strongly linked to his observations of four hundred years ago.

    When Galileo embarked on his observations using a telescope, he was, in the modern sense, an amateur astronomer–he had not earlier undertaken in-depth astronomical observations. But thanks to his persevering work, he soon became one of the major astronomers of his time, committed to Copernicus’ theories. It is something similar that today’s amateur astronomers go through when starting to use a telescope, even if the key element in their work is not seeking to prove any theory. The Galileos of today wish to familiarise themselves with and experience the phenomena of the sky for their own sake, and they are fortunate enough to work with telescopes Galileo and his contemporaries could not have dreamed of.  

    Even the most simple amateur telescope of today is a thousand times more effective than Galileo’s primitive instrument was. Thanks to the increasingly perfected telescopes and the digital revolution, even amateurs are able to take astronomy photos much more spectacular than those taken not too long ago by the cream of the profession using the most expensive supertelescopes.

    Iván Éder, 29 years old, is one of the better known Hungarian amateur astronomers, who is known first and foremost for his outstanding astrophotos. It is no exaggaration to declare him to be the best Hungarian astrophotographer, one who fought his way with great perseverance to be counted among the acknowledged astrophotographers worldwide. And he is still at the beginning of his career.

Comet Holmes on November 4, 2007 – one of Iván Éder’s best astrophotographs  

   Éder was born into a family of musicians. His father, a cellist, is a member of the Kodály String Quartet, his mother is the pianist Vera Kancsár. His grandfather was a physicist and it may have been from him that Iván Éder inherited his interest in the natural sciences.

   He graduated from the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music as a percussionist but, as he says, it is almost impossible to make a living as a percussionist nowadays. He has always been attracted by astronomy, and as soon as his amateur astronomer friends offered him a job, he was more than happy to take advantage of the opportunity. As of now, Éder works for the Budapest Telescope Store, helping customers and offering advice on telescopes and, of course, has many astrophoto questions to answer as well.

Iván Éder: the percussionist

   His earliest memories are connected with Halley’s Comet. Like most people, he has not seen it, but since it was the sensation of 1986, he heard a great deal about it at the time. He acquired his first experiences with the telescope at the Baja Observatory, where he returned annually in the summertime as a regular guest of the nightly telescope programmes.

    Éder was given his first telescope in 1994; he remembers this as follows: "I was dying to see the planets, but at the beginning of the year, in January-February, no planets were visible. When I first saw Jupiter and its moons, this sent cold chills right down my spine. A couple of months later seeing the Ring of Saturn was an indescribable experience to me, as was seeing the craters on the Moon and double stars: just about everything I could reach with the eye of the telescope fascinated me."

   This is how he recalls sighting Comet Hale–Bopp, three years later: "My most memorable experience as an astronomer happened in the Börzsöny Hills, during a class excursion, on the Nagyhideg hill. The sky was crystal clear due to a cold front; I’ll never forget the sight of the comet. It was of that comet that I was able to take my first astrophoto–for lack of equipment, with a standing camera, using an objective lens."
   Éder established contacts with the Hungarian Astronomical Association in 1999. This meant a huge step for him, thanks to the new friends he made there, Éder was able to concentrate more on astrophotography. By the spring of 2000, he took his first pan shots, with the technical advantage of correcting the seeming warping of the sky so that the stars remain dot-like on the long exposure photographs. For hours on end he collected starlight in order to capture the Orion Nebula or the Pleiades.

     Not, however, satisfied with a shop-bought telescope, he went about constructing his own. Throughout the years he has progressed to build telescopes of greater efficiency; as of now, Éder uses several different telescopes for his photography. The one he favours most is a 130-diameter TMB refractor; his telescope with the greatest capability is a Newtonian reflector with a 30 cm diameter. (In astronomy the diameter of the telescope is the most important parameter; a 30-cm telescope can gather a considerable amount of light, crucial in particular for the observation of dim objects.)

Iván Éder: the amateur astronomer

    Of all Hungarian astrophotographers, Éder’s photos were published first on the Astronomy Picture of the Day website (http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/astropix.html)–photos of the conjunction of Venus and the Moon, deep space objects and  Comet Holmes.

    Iván Éder long carried on with conventional film photography, but in recent years he has turned to a digital technique. He now uses a Canon EOS digital SLR camera and claims the digital method produces more effective work, at the same time creating images of greater beauty. Most importantly, it makes it possible to capture objects considerably dimmer than film would allow. When, years ago, he photographed the M51 Whirlpool Galaxy onto film with an amateur astronomer friend, they had to expose the film for 1000 minutes. With his present equipment, Éder is able to achieve the same limiting magnitude in 5 minutes–a fitting example of the advantages of digital technology.

    Iván Éder lives in Budapest, where devotees of astronomy are in great difficulty because of the amount of light pollution. He is able to capture the Moon and planets from his garden–as the sight of neither is affected by the city’s light pollution. If he wants to take shots of depth objects, Éder takes his equipment and travels 100 kms, to the heart of the Mátra Hills. His favourite place is Ágasvár which stands at nearly 800 metres and whose tourist lodge serves as a base for many Hungarian amateur astronomers.

    As a classical musician, Éder has little hope of earning a stable livelihood, although he occasionally performs with some of the best known Hungarian symphonic orchestras, including the Budapest Festival Orchestra and the Hungrian National Philharmonic Orchestra. As a musician, he hopes to be a member of one of the great orchestras. As a private person, he would like to start a family; and as an astrophotographer, he would like to found an observing base of his own from which he can take better advantage of clear skies. He would also like to capture some of the celestial sights in the Southern Hemisphere, claiming that they are a great deal more exciting than those of the North. Also, he aspires to direct astrophoto exhibits in which he can reveal the beauties of the skies at greater proximity.

 Attila Mizser is the Secretary General of the Hungarian Astronomy Association, and head of the Budapest Polaris Observatory. As an editor of a number of publications on astronomy, he considers the popularisation of astronomy a primary task.