Richard Willits first started looking at the night sky through a telescope that his twelve year old son purchased at the Minnesota Science Museum. That son is now 55 years old. Willits went on to develop a hobby for deep space astrophotography in retirement. He spent the last seven years learning the technology and software programs needed to capture galaxies, nebulas, comets, and moons — some as far as 30 million light years away. “It’s pretty humbling,” he says, reflecting on what he has been able to achieve with his telescope, camera, and an international community of folks interested in astronomy.
Indeed, meaningful friendships and collaborations have come from his participation in a UK-based astronomy group called Astronomy Shed. Willits has worked on multiple projects with his friend from Yorkshire, Julian Raymond.
One example of a collaboration between Willits and Raymond is their Elephant’s Trunk Nebula image featured above. The final image is the product of 120 pictures (10 per color filter) taken from the deck off Willits’ garage on the east side of White Iron Lake, and an additional 120 pictures taken by Raymond across the Atlantic in Halifax. Each pictures required 10-15 minutes of exposure, totaling about 50 hours of camera time alone. Various free softwares allow the amateur astrophotographers to “stack” the pictures, examining each pixel one by one; the final accumulation of which are better than any one.
“Once I got my first picture of the sky I fell in love with it,” Willits recalls. He continues to be struck with the beauty of deep space images. “It’s an art form.”
In the years since they purchased that first telescope, exploring the night sky became a family affair. His wife would read the paper to keep track of when comets or other astronomical events would take place. Together with their children they would go out into the night to take a look. More recently Willits was able to introduce his 16 year old grandson to the truly “awesome” beauty of the dark sky.
Willits and his wife, Mary, moved to Ely in retirement, about 18 years ago. In that time he became an advocate for the International Dark-Sky Association, helping set up occasional educational displays at the Miners Dry House. “People don’t realize the importance of being able to drive just out of town and look up to see a billion stars.”
“You gotta make a point of it,” Willits urges anyone who hasn’t been into the Boundary Waters or visited the Ely area to revel in the night sky. “Go up the Echo, pull your car off the road. After you shut off all the lights it will take 20-30 minutes for your eyes to be 1000x more sensitive to light.” Willits further advises dark sky gazers to go on a clear night with no moon.
“It’s amazing,” Willits says of the star-studded night sky, but, he laments, “most of the world will never see it.”