photos maddy adams

Jason Wait, BCIT Engineering student and amateur astrophotographer, observes the infinite sky from his backyard and captures it through his camera. Astronomy is a massive subject to cover, but Jason sat down with me to give a momentary glimpse into deep space and why he’s so passionate about it.

If you’re ever stressed, if you’re ever concerned about worldly problems, take a picture of something that’s 12 billion years old.

“It’s always been an interest,” Jason begins. “Growing up with an engineer father, and a nuclear physicist grandfather, there was always a lot of discussion around the table about random hypotheticals or the interesting points of views about the laws of physics. I remember as a kid, one time my dad was at the dinner table and said, ‘If you had an infinitely long beam, and you took it and started to spin it around, at the ends of those beams, you would go back in time.’ He was getting into the fundamental idea that because light travels at a specific speed, everything in our universe has to be coherent with respect to the consequences of actions. You see it in science fiction all the time.”

Every artist (and scientist) begins somewhere. Jason, a completely self-taught astrophotographer and enthusiast of all things outer space, laughed as he thought back to where he started.

“Maybe it was listening to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s podcast in the 10th or 11th grade, I decided to figure out what I would be interested in. I spent years [thinking] ‘Maybe I should buy a telescope’, but wondered what the point would be. I didn’t just want to look through a telescope and be ‘Oh, that’s cool’. I wanted to be able to share what I was seeing with other people.”

“[There was a point] where I couldn’t even point to the North Star. I was so excited about buying a telescope, but so ignorant that I didn’t know how much I had to learn before I could start finding objects in the sky, let alone taking pictures of them. I started taking totally garbage images with my cellphone.” He chuckled as he pulled up his Instagram (@jasonrwait) and showed me the first picture he ever took of Jupiter. “You can’t even tell what it is!”

However, with his enthusiasm and passion fuelling his hobby, Jason proceeded to acknowledge how important the Internet and the online astrophotography community was to teaching and refining the skills that he needed.

“I read a story about a 17-year-old that basically got his PhD for free, online. I’m not suggesting that I can do that, not everyone has that focus or intellect. If I can emulate that to any degree at all, then it would be a successful use of the Internet, which is such an important tool for us to use. It’s amazing that we can use the Internet to do anything. There’s an astrophotography Subreddit, and my goal was to post images there that would be passable images. The [community] is amazing, and [gave me] good ideas of what software to use. In general, you have to use a huge amount of programs to make this all happen. All the software I use is developed by astronomers and shared for free. I use FireCapture, which can do long exposure, incredible short exposures, and a variety of file types. Planets generally have to be in an uncompressed AVI video.”

If you had an infinitely long beam, and you took it and started to spin it around, at the ends of those beams, you would go back in time.

He held up a picture of Mercury’s transit past the sun. “This is almost a gigabyte per second of video frames. Each of these pictures is 80,000 frames compressed into a single one. I use a German software called AutoStakkert! which rates the images on how blurry they are and chooses the better ones, averages the signals on the better ones (weighted averaging). There’s [also sharpening] blur from our atmosphere, blur from inside the telescope tube — there’s tons of little details to improve the quality of the images.”

“It’s something I’m super enthusiastic about, especially participating in this community of amateur [astrophotographers]. If I had been lucky in my galaxy captures, for example if a star had turned into a supernova, then I would have effectively documented that object transition, and contributed in a very, very small way to the actual science of astronomy, which is definitely the goal. The whole reason why I’m starting at BCIT is so I can work with a large telescope, or work in a particle physics lab like my grandpa did.”

“In the next five to ten years we have a few really big facilities coming out. The astronomy community is pretty dead-set on everything being open-sourced and shared. There is an incredible international cooperation that takes place because of it. The principle of everything being out on the table and helping each other is so useful. When these new facilities come out, they’re going to be putting pretty much all of their data online instantly, and we’re going to have a problem where we won’t have the software to deal with this automatically. It’s going to take tens of thousands of people spending hours and hours figuring out how to compile this data into useful information. What I’m hoping to get out of taking this program at BCIT, is to try to automate [that process] somehow. A lot of the skills I’ve developed taking deep space images, resolving sharp planetary details from the crappiest video series, I think is going to be useful if I am to participate in all of that.”

Jason’s usual hunting ground is his own backyard in Vancouver. Despite the bad light pollution and freezing cold weather in recent months, he’s managed to capture some stellar photos. When asked about how he plans his shoots, he explained: “In general, you want to shoot whatever happens to be straight above in the season. Most people are shooting the same list of 15 or so targets all year round. Right now, in the winter, it happens to be the Orion Nebula. It’s about 1000 light years away, which is shockingly close by for a star-forming region. I spent my whole summer shooting the Bubble Nebula, which is in the Cassiopeia region.”

As he stood next to his wall-sized poster of Hubble’s capture of the Carina Nebula, he remarked, “It’s just crazy to think sometimes, the size and scale of the universe. It’s such a relief too. If you’re ever stressed, if you’re ever concerned about worldly problems, take a picture of something that’s 12 billion years old. Our solar system is 8 light hours across; our sunlight takes 8 hours to reach Pluto roughly, or 8 minutes and 40 seconds to reach Earth. That’s the scale of our universe in our local region. It’s 1.5 light seconds to reach the Moon. The Milky Way is 250,000 lightyears across. Stephan’s Quintet is a few hundred million lightyears away… oh my god.”

We single-filed out of warmth of his home into the cold, crisp air to shoot some photos at Queen Elizabeth Park. The sky was bright, but clear of clouds. Jason pointed up at the sky and exclaimed, “There’s Venus!” And sure enough, just past the crescent of the moon, was a bright little dot in the blue expanse.