Kiwi's space photos stun astronomers

23:51, Nov 27 2011
Rolf Olsen Beta Pictoris
SKY HIGH: Titirangi man Rolf Olsen's picture of the star Beta Pictoris, believed to be the first image by an amateur photographer.

A New Zealand man has been hailed as the first amateur photographer to capture an image of another solar system.

Aucklander Rolf Olsen has captured the star Beta Pictoris, and the disk of debris and dust orbiting it, in a stunning image that has amazed astronomers worldwide.

"I realised it was a special thing but I didn't realise it would generate such a stir," Rolf said.

Rolf Olsen

The photo shows the protoplanetary disk surrounding the star. The disk represents a developing solar system, and the material inside the disk could develop into planets and asteroids.

"This is a very young system thought to be only around 12 million years old and is essentially similar to how our own solar system must have formed some 4.5 billion years ago," Olsen wrote on his website

The incredible thing is that Olsen took the photo of the star, which is 63.4 light years away, using a 25cm telescope at his Titirangi home, a feat that has been described by those in astro-circles as a "milestone".


Astronomer and astro-photographer John Field, from Wellington's Carter Observatory, said Olsen's picture was "absolutely amazing".

"It's really cool work. I've never heard of it being done anywhere else before so it seems to be a world first. He's proved it's possible to do it with amateur equipment."

Olsen said he had spent the last couple of years wondering if it was possible for amateurs to capture Beta Pictoris.

"The main difficulty is the overwhelming glare from Beta Pictoris itself which completely drowns out the dust disk that is circling very close to the star."

Olsen had thought it was impossible to block out the glare using amateur equipment, but had second thoughts after reading a scientific paper from 1993 'Observation of the central part of the beta Pictoris disk with an anti-blooming CCD'.

He took an image of a similar star Alpha Pictoris, and then subtracted that from the image of Beta Pictoris.

"The glare from the disk is so bright it's hard to see anything close to the star," he said.

He kept on subtracting the two images from each other until he was left with only the difference between the two photos, which revealed the disk.

"And the result is, I believe, the first amateur image of another solar system: The protoplanetary disc around Beta Pictoris," Olsen shared on his website on November 16, the day he finished processing the image.

"I must say it feels really special to have actually captured this."

Astro-photography is a hobby of Olsen's, which he fits in between working as a computer programmer and taking care of his family.

It took a few hours over a few days to process the image, Olsen said. But it all paid off in the end. 

His efforts have since been highlighted by international newspapers and blogs.

Olsen's image captures information on Beta Pictoris, which will be added to a database of photos and data held on the star.

He encourages other amateur astro-photographers to follow the method he did and see what they can come up with.

"The more images you can taken the clearer result you'll get. It's about being patient," he said. "It takes hours."

Technology has opened up the doors for more amateur astro-photographers to contribute to the data pool, Field said.

Digital cameras are more sensitive than film cameras so are able to capture more information in one image.

"So on a small telescope they can capture things that previously only a one, two or five-metre telescope could take," Field said.

Olsen first ventured into astro-photography in 2003, but has owned telescopes since 1990.

His home, at the foothill of the Waitakere Ranges, is an ideal location for searching the night sky.

"The sky is nice and transparent here, due to the generally low levels of air pollution and high altitude dust in the southern hemisphere. It is also pretty dark since I live on the border of a large rainforest reserve and the nearby Tasman Sea," Olsen said.

The "convenient latitude" of his home also provided him with an 80 per cent view of the two hemispheres, he said.

Olsen moved to New Zealand in 2003 from Denmark.