First Photograph of the Orion Nebula

Henry Draper (1837-1882)

On this date 140 years ago, American physician and prominent amateur astronomer Henry Draper (1837-1882) made the first successful photograph of the Great Nebula in Orion, now usually referred to as the Orion Nebula. He used an 11-inch telescope (an Alvan Clark refractor!) and an exposure time of 50 minutes for the black and white photograph.

First photograph of the Orion Nebula, September 30, 1880. (Henry Draper)

Draper continued to improve his technique, and a year and a half later he obtained a 137-minute exposure showing much more detail.

Photograph of the Orion Nebula, March 14, 1882. (Henry Draper)

It really is amazing how image recording technology has improved over the past century and a half! At its best, film-based photography had a quantum efficiency of only about 2%, which means that only 2 out of every 100 photons of light impinging on the photographic medium is actually recorded. The rest is reflected or absorbed. The human eye—when well dark adapted—has a quantum efficiency of 15% or better, easily besting photography. Why, then, do photographs of deep sky objects show so much more detail than what can be seen through the eyepiece? The explanation is that the human eye can integrate photons and hold an image for only about 0.1 second. Film, on the other hand, can hold an image much longer. Even with reciprocity failure, photographic media like film can collect photons for minutes or even hours, giving them a big advantage over the human eye. But charge-coupled devices (CCDs) are a considerable improvement over older technologies since they typically have a quantum efficiency of 70% up to 90% or more. The CCD has truly revolutionized both professional and amateur astronomy in recent decades.

Recent Orion Nebula CCD image by Robert Gendler

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *