Professor puts heavens on display in astronomy art show

Beyond being a professor of physics and astronomy here at UAA, Travis Rector has taken his research and passion a step up.

When walking into the current Student Union Gallery exhibition at UAA, “Making the Invisible Visible,” visitors come across a vast array of galaxy, nebula, moon and other fascinating space photography.

Most of these images were recorded during the professor’s studies at the Kitt Peak Observatory in Arizona. Some of them were captured from space observatories in Hawaii, Chile and New Mexico. Within the show there are also pieces like the “Elephant Trunk Nebula,” which UAA students initiated as an object to look at and document.

The telescopes used for research contain highly sensitive digital cameras and mirrors close to the size of the entire gallery. After the digital information is captured, the telescope uses high-tech software to convert the data into a black-and-white image.

Rector has been recording digital space imagery for about 12 years. Seven years ago, Kitt Peak Observatory requested Rector create a few images to show other scientists the magnitude of the observatory’s telescope and its ability. Through many different filters, the telescope is able to pick up information on light, x-ray and radio waves. For example, the “Triangulum Galaxy” is an image created using a mapping of radio waves.

Here is where art becomes a tool.

“We have to take what the telescope sees and translate it into something we can see,” Rector said. “The color added to the black and white photographs is natural in the sense that if we had extremely large eyes, it would come close to what we would see.”

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Color is used extensively in the images to illuminate the details, but it doesn’t stop there. Rector says that he works very hard to make sure the pieces are aesthetically pleasing to everyone. He hopes that this comes close to the experience of joy he has had in his studies.

There are several panoramas of the observatories themselves in the show. This gives a sense of the telescopic eye and the sense of wonder that goes into this type of research, as well as its aftermath of colorful glittering imagery.

After gazing at the space images, a bright and somewhat mystical group of helixes, crystals, spokes, flames, lava and birds alongside the more earthly and human images of the observatories, viewers may gain a great reverence for technology and the amazing well of possibilities.

“Even though I have copyrights to these pieces, I do not consider them mine,” Rector said. “There is an artistic element that is mine, but most of my satisfaction comes from watching people enjoy the images.”

His pieces have been displayed in some galleries and museums around the nation and are always available online or at the Kitt Peak Observatory, but this is the first time he had the opportunity to have a personal exhibition.

“This has been fun,” he said. “Seeing the way people react and interact has been very insightful.”

Framed pieces from this exotic exhibit will be put up in the Engineering Building as part of a permanent display at the end of the show.