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Festival of Lights

An Awe-Inspiring Earth-Bound View of the Heaven’s Wonders

Article by Melinda Gipson

Photography by Joey Trotz, Joel Silverman

Originally published in Leesburg Lifestyle

On a clear night from his Atlanta backyard, Joey Trotz captures the universe.

This self-described amateur astrophotographer uses a kit consisting of gear available to any hobbyist. But Joey is more than your average photographer. When the Internet was new and online publishing was self-taught, Joey was an award-winning photojournalist and editor at the Augusta Chronicle owned by Morris Communications. One of his earliest claims to fame was creating the first ever continuously independent website covering the annual Masters Golf Tournament, complete with a continuously updated online leaderboard.

That led to a partnership with Sports Illustrated, covering events like the Olympics and the Word Series, taking an integral role in shaping Web-based storytelling (with awards that bested the New York Times on occasion) and introducing game-changing technologies to the digital newspaper industry. He went on to direct ad operations for SI.com, pioneer interactive television for CNN, write rules for digital video at the Interactive Advertising Bureau, direct data monetization for Turner, master programmatic advertising, and match wits with IBM’s Watson as global head of advertising. 

Today, his day job consists of devising privacy protocols for Google’s “Privacy Sandbox” – an essential toolkit for making sure that digital content can be supported by advertising while respecting the personal privacy of its consumers. “It’s a little bit geeky for sure,” allows Joey, “but it represents a sea change in how digital advertising works online for both web and mobile.”

Yet at night, his eyes turn skyward.

As a kid, he’d always been fascinated with space and long thought that many of the photos he enjoyed of distant galaxies were taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, far beyond the light-canceling effects of Earth’s atmosphere. Not so, as he learned in 2017 when he decided to bone up on how to photograph a total solar eclipse that was visible along a path from Oregon through his home state of Georgia. He bought a used telescope on eBay and figured out how to attach a digital camera. “I was thrilled to be able to capture the ‘Bailey’s Beads’ phenomenon, an effect that happens when the sun shines through the mountains and craters of the moon around the edges. It only lasts seconds. That was the beginning of my plunge into astrophotography.”

His current gear cost him around $5,000, but it’s the investment of time that is more significant. “Astrophotography is the hardest thing I've ever tried to figure out on my own. There are optics, mechanical engineering, software, meteorology... so many disciplines that go into planning and setting up the equipment. Any slight error in any of these things means not capturing usable data.” He uses an attached Raspberry Pi computer with specialized software that relays instructions such as how the telescope mount should compensate for the Earth’s rotation, how often to refocus, how many exposures it should take, and how long they should last. And then there are hours spent processing the raw data on a computer to create the images!

Websites like “CloudyNights.com” helped immeasurably in sharing methods and tips for overcoming challenges. Like any perfectionist, he’s happiest with the images that were most difficult to capture, some of which we’ve shared here. We do so during this season in which we celebrate the Festival of Lights because of the awe they inspire and maybe the impetus they provide to launch other explorers.

Joey says, “Every time I shoot something new, I can’t wait to see what I’ll be able to capture. It’s exciting to create these visuals that, a few years ago, I honestly thought were all being shot by Hubble in space. I didn't really have an understanding, and probably a lot of your readers as well, that these kinds of images can be captured by amateurs on the ground, which is truly mind-boggling. It's awesome in the true sense of that word, that we can capture this light that's been coming to us in some cases for billions of years, traveling across the universe to land on Earth.”

It doesn’t make him feel small, exactly. “I do think about how big everything is in the hidden, hardly visible world that's all around us. It is as mesmerizing in scale as it’s miraculous in its beauty. I feel very privileged to have figured out how to capture these images and make this into an enjoyable hobby that I try and do every time I get the chance.”

He gives back not only by sharing his astronomy work but also by donating proceeds of his book, Quarantine Cocktails, chock full of his creative mixology recipes, to Giving Kitchen, an Atlanta charity that provides emergency assistance for food service workers through financial support and a network of community resources (see https://givingkitchen.com). You can find the book here: https://tinyurl.com/qcocktails.

Image 1: The Veil Nebula encompasses an area six times the full moon's diameter in our nighttime sky. It’s divided into three main parts: the Eastern Veil (NGC 6992), the Western Veil (NGC 6960), and Pickering's Triangle (NGC 6979), captured here all at once through a fairly wide-field telescope measuring only 275mm in focal length. Each of these segments reveals the intricate beauty of a supernova remnant, the result of a massive star's dramatic end. Its delicate tendrils, filaments, and cavities tell a story of powerful stellar explosions and the ongoing dance of matter and energy in space. This image has 19 total hours of exposure time.

Image 2: NGC 7000, also known as the North American Nebula, and its celestial companion, the Pelican Nebula, was discovered around 1786. These stunning nebulas reside in the Cygnus constellation, about 1,600 light-years away from us. The North American Nebula, aptly named for its resemblance to the continent, spans an enormous area in space equivalent to about four times the apparent width of the full moon in the night sky. The nebula itself is about 100 light-years wide. Nestled alongside NGC 7000, we have the Pelican Nebula, resembling a bird in flight across the vast expanse of the universe. Its intricate network of gas clouds and dust intricately weaves the tale of cosmic creation and transformation, as it’s believed this is an area of star formation. 14 hours total exposure.

Image 3: A picture featuring the supernova discovered by astronomers around May, highlighted within the gorgeous Pinwheel Galaxy. At *only* 21 million light-years away, the supernova dubbed SN2023ixf is the closest observed in the past 5 years. Witnessing the explosive death of a star is a rare and extraordinary event; only two or three occur within our galaxy every century, and only a few hundred are found annually outside our Milky Way. But they rarely become as bright as this one. Betelgeuse, the red star located in the constellation Orion, is reportedly close to going supernova relatively soon, at least, that’s suggested by some cycles of darker and brighter illumination for the last 4 years. When it goes, it’s expected to be as bright as the full moon - but concentrated on a single point of light. At only 650 light years away from Earth, it could be visible in the daytime.

A short list of Joey’s gear:

●      Telescopes: Explore Scientific 102mm, Sharpstar 61mm, and a Celestron SCT 8"

●      Cameras: ASI 1600MC-Cool-Pro, ASI 120mm, Olympus EM1-MkII

●      Mount: ASI AM5 Harmonic Equatorial Mount

●      Imaging Computer: ASI AirPro

●      Software: Pleiades Astrophoto Pixinsight, Adobe Photoshop

Other resources that may help include The Northern Virginia Astronomy Club novac.com/wp, and DarkSky.org, the International Dark-Sky Association, which in 2021 designated Sky Meadows in Delaplane an International Dark-Sky Park. You can also follow Joey on Instagram at instagram.com/jetrotz.

"It's awesome in the true sense of that word, that we can capture this light that's been coming to us in some cases for billions of years, traveling across the universe to land on Earth.” Joey Trotz

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