comments on the question and answer(s) to What are the technological advancements that made it possible for modern large telescopes to work with alt-az mounts instead of equatorial mounts? have made me wonder just how old astrophotography is, and when folks started to use astronomical photographic imaging using telescopes.

Question: What were the first photographic images taken with telescopes to produce astronomically useful results? What telescope was used?

The title is worded to exclude the first time a photosensitive material was simply put at the focal plane of some telescope to see if it worked i.e. to exclude the "absolute first image of a celestial object through a telescope".

The answer should refer to a photographic image that was used for astronomy in some scientific manner - have some quantitative analysis performed or some theory tested.

Certainly ~150 years ago science from emulsion plates was already well underway, but there was photography before emulsion as well.

The Smithsonian Magazine's September 18, 2013 The Women Who Mapped the Universe and Still Couldn’t Get Any Respect contains the sentence

Early astrophotography used the technology of the daguerreotype to transfer images from a telescope to a photographic plate."

However the link is broken: http://www.astro.virginia.edu/~rjp0i/museum/photography.html

note: It would not necessarily be a nighttime exposure.



1 Answer 1


First useful astronomical photo:-

The first useful astronomical photo was of a total solar eclipse, taken by William de La Rue in 1860. He used a Kew photoheliograph to capture the precious shots of totality. It answered the hotly debated question at that time - where do the flares around the "diamond ring" in a totality originate from? (Earth's atmosphere, Moon, or the Sun)

Setting sail in the borrowed Royal Navy troopship HMS Himalaya, the chemist, astronomer and gentleman-adventurer Warren de La Rue (1815-1889) had these questions in mind. The date was 7 July 1860, eleven days before the most important solar eclipse of the nineteenth century.

His mission: to settle one of the most hotly (no pun intended) debated astronomical questions of the day: what are the mysterious, tentacular limbs that appear beyond the edge of the Moon during an eclipse? Are these prominences features of the Moon? Are they disturbances from within the Earth’s atmosphere? Or are they a part of the Sun normally obscured by its dazzling glare?

Half telescope, half camera, and designed by de la Rue himself, it was the first instrument made specifically to photograph the Sun. This was also the first occasion where its use might allow a scientific problem in astronomy to be resolved using photography.

De la Rue and his team took over 40 photographs, including two precious shots of totality. With an exposure time in these dimmed conditions of one minute, they were lucky to capture even one.

If prominences were Earth or Moon-based, the observations from different sites ought to differ, but if prominences were solar in origin, they should match. Happily, an Italian Jesuit astronomer named Father Angelo Secchi had established his own observation post a few hundred miles to the south, and he managed to capture some half-decent shots of his own of the Sun at eclipse. Not as clear as those taken using the Kew photoheliograph, these images were just sufficient for the job. By comparing his own shots with those of Secchi’s, de la Rue established that the features observed were identical on each.

The photo of beginning of the eclipse (1860):-

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The photo of totality (1860):-

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The Kew photoheliograph used (now in Science Museum, London, since 1927)-

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First astronomical photo:-

The first astronomical photo was of the moon, taken by John Draper in 1840, using the daguerreotype process itself.

The first photo ever was taken by Louis Daguerre himself, using a camera obscura in 1839, a photo of the moon which came out as a blurry dot, thus being not quite useful but surely remarkable.

The American Physics Society (Jan 2013) states as such:

In 1814, a Frenchman named Nicéphore Niépce began experimenting with ways to record light, and managed to transfer an image to paper two years later via a camera obscura. By 1822, he had figured out how to make such an image permanent by capturing it on a flat sheet of polished tin coated with bitumen. One of the oldest surviving photographs dates back to 1825, when Niépce captured the black-and-white image of an engraving of a boy pulling a horse. But this method required a full eight hours of exposure.

Six years later, French painter and inventor Louis Daguerre– who had worked with Niépce briefly before the latter’s death in 1833–discovered how to reduce exposure time to 20 to 30 minutes. Daguerre had been apprenticed in architecture, theater design, and panoramic painting, and later invented the diorama, and his visual sensibility was fascinated by the potential of Niépce’s research.

Legend has it that he accidentally broke a mercury thermometer, giving him the idea that a shorter exposure time would produce a very faint image, but this image could be further enhanced via a chemical process involving the vapor given off by mercury heated to 75° Celsius. Daguerre then “fixed” the image, so it wouldn’t be sensitive to further exposure to light, by rinsing it in a solution of common salt. The surface was still prone to tarnishing, even by the slightest friction, so most daguerreotypes were sealed under glass before being mounted in a small folding case.

From PetaPixel (Jun 2023), John Draper's photo of the moon (1840) -

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From the Grateful American Foundation, John Wipple's photo of the moon (1851) -

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From PetaPixel (Jun 2023), John Whipple and James Wallace Black (1857) took this photo using collodion-coated glass negatives -

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And a comparison to show the progress of astrophotography as it happened, from Andrew McCarthy and Connor Matherne (2022), named, "The Hunt for Artemis" -

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    $\begingroup$ "...And a comparison to show the progress of astrophotography as it happened, from Andrew McCarthy and Connor Matherne (2022)..." Is this real astrophotography? This is true? $\endgroup$
    – ayr
    Commented Feb 5 at 9:05
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    $\begingroup$ @dtn Yes, the last photo is true! instagram.com/cosmic.speck/p/Chf7GOwJXrf/?hl=en&img_index=1 instagram.com/cosmic_background/p/Chf6VUvPk08/… The links to the actual post; I don't have the required reputation to post more than 8 links, so apologies for not posting the links in my answer itself. Andrew clicks them from his backyard, and Connor is mainly a color grader (I forget the actual term) along with being an astrophotographer if I am not wrong. This moon picture is 176 megapixels. It was clicked to help the Artemis mission. $\endgroup$
    Commented Feb 5 at 11:28
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    $\begingroup$ @dtn Sheesh, sorry my bad; it wasn't to help it, but meant as a tribute to the Artemis mission, which hadn't launched by the date the photo was clicked. It was made from thousands of images, compiled together to get that masterpiece of a photo (200000 from Andrew and 50,000 from Connor). It's named "The Hunt for Artemis". Connor specialises in space colours, and the colours are real, just with a high saturation. The red areas have feldspar and iron while the blues have titanium-rich regolith. $\endgroup$
    Commented Feb 5 at 17:15
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    $\begingroup$ @dtn It is possible! Though it's not quite possible to get that much of a high quality for other planets with a telescope in the backyard, space agencies like NASA, ISRO etc. can and have done it. instagram.com/cosmic_background/p/C0cW3xxOFyN/… - Jupiter, from Andrew McCarthy. (2023) europa.nasa.gov/resources/29/europas-stunning-surface - NASA's photo of Europa. (2017) isro.gov.in/mission_Pictures_from_Mars_Colour_Camera.html - ISRO's photos of Mars (2014) $\endgroup$
    Commented Feb 5 at 18:42
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    $\begingroup$ @dtn instagram.com/cosmic_background/p/C2Xrvtyxjbe/… - This is from Andrew McCarthy too, of the sun, and for comparison, the planets of our solar system. (2023) $\endgroup$
    Commented Feb 5 at 18:43

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