July 24, 2014

Deep Space from the 17th Tee

Ted Wolfe has a time machine sitting in his backyard. It might look like a 12.5-inch Ritchey-Chretien telescope, the same design as the famous Hubble space telescope. But when Wolfe gazes through it into deep space, he is seeing the light that shone from distant galaxies and nebula millions and millions of years ago.

"I like to really get out there 35 million light years or so and see what's going on," says Wolfe, a retired executive vice president of Welch's, the grape juice makers. He spends part of each year at his home near the 17th tee in Quail Creek in Naples, pursuing his passion for astrophotography and producing dazzling images of far-flung phenomena. Some of them will be part of an exhibit, "The Color of the Universe," scheduled for late spring at Florida Gulf Coast University's new science center.

The Gulfshore, as it turns out, is a prime spot for observing the inner workings of the cosmos, with the warm gulf waters helping to stabilize the night sky.

"Since there's less turbulence in the layers of atmosphere, there's less twinkling in the stars as seen from here and better resolution for the photography," says Wolfe, who relies on a CCD-a "charged coupling device" camera-to overcome the encroachments of light pollution. He can operate his telescope by remote control from his study, about 150 feet away, looking at images as they pop up on the screen of his computer. Unlike standard photography, with exposures in fractions of seconds, Wolfe's images often require hundreds of minutes of exposure and must take into account the 1,000 miles per hours rotation of the earth.

Wolfe became starstruck about 40 years ago when walking one night with his wife, Nancy, in a Cincinnati park where some astronomers had set up their telescopes to gaze at Saturn.

"I would have just kept right on walking, but she told me to go ahead and take a look," says Wolfe. "Well, even in a small telescope Saturn looks positively boffo. I was hooked."

After buying a home in Naples seven years ago, Wolfe began devoting more and more time to astrophotography. He begins planning his winter shoots in September, painstakingly plotting a night-by-night shooting schedule to cover various quadrants of the sky. Wolfe specializes in "deep sky imagery," rather than shooting Earth's moon and the planets, and his images have appeared in magazines such as Sky and Telescope and Astronomy.

He has even been credited with at least one deep-space discovery from his open-air observatory on the 17th tee. It was a shot of the M-81 galaxy, about 11 million light years away. M-81's center is often obscured, but using a new software program, Wolfe was able to see where other astronomers had never seen before.

"I was the first guy to see inside of that galaxy. And when it popped up on the screen I almost spilled my coffee," says Wolfe. "That's the kind of thrill that you're always seeking."

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