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Observatory contest winner

Madison astrophotographer Mark Hanson won an international award for this photo of a galaxy millions of light years away.

There is a famous line in Shakespeare, in which a character insists that the fault “is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

Well, Shakespeare never tried to take photos of deep space from the ground in Madison. The nights never really get dark anymore. The abundance of light, even in areas outside the city, makes it unfavorable for astrophotographers.

“We got disgusted with Madison skies,” R. A. “Doc” Greiner said this week.

Greiner, 83, is an emeritus professor of electrical engineering at UW-Madison. He’s also the eldest of a group of four Madison-area amateur astronomers who take photographs and hunt asteroids, not from Madison — that pesky light issue — but from telescopes in New Mexico they can each operate with computers from their living rooms in Wisconsin.

For the past several years, the Doc Greiner Research Observatory — named for the group’s sage elder — has been operating at Rancho Hidalgo in Animas, New Mexico.

Just how well it is working received official recognition last month, when Mark Hanson of Madison — the group’s most avid astrophotographer — traveled to England, and the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, to receive an award for his entry in the observatory’s annual Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition.

Hanson, 52, a Middleton High School graduate who works for Environment Control of Wisconsin, was the winner in the competition’s “Robotic Scope” category, described as “photos taken remotely using a robotic telescope and processed by the entrant.”

Hanson’s winning image features most prominently a galaxy known as NGC 3718, an estimated 52 million light years from Earth.

One of the judges, Chris Lintott — an astronomy researcher at the University of Oxford and host of the BBC’s “The Sky at Night” program — said of Hanson’s photograph: “This galaxy’s unusual shape portrays a complicated past; it’s undergone a collision in the recent past, probably responsible for the bright blue young stars sprinkled throughout the halo.”

It was around two decades ago that Hanson and Greiner met, as members of the Madison Astronomical Society (MAS). They connected with two other MAS members, Matt Mills and Greg Sellek, and eventually the four built their own small observatory — named for Greiner — in the Middleton-Cross Plains area. Hanson’s passion was imaging; Sellek, the group’s technology guru; and Mills enjoyed searching for asteroids.

In 2007, Mills wrote an article for Capitol Skies, the MAS newsletter, reporting that Sellek had discovered an asteroid, also known as a minor planet, orbiting between Jupiter and Mars, and would be given the opportunity to name it.

It was around that time that the Greiner group relocated their observatory to Evansville. But Hanson, with his interest in images, was by then wary of light pollution even in remote areas in Wisconsin. He and Doc Greiner were making trips to New Mexico — a high elevation, little light pollution, astronomer’s dream — and became friendly with a couple named Mike and Lynn Rice, proprietors of New Mexico Skies, a remote telescope hosting facility in Mayhill, New Mexico.

It was Lynn Rice, during one of Hanson’s visits, who told him he had a photo, his first, in the new issue of Astronomy magazine. Hanson was thrilled — it was an image of the nebula known as Witch Head — and he’s since published some three dozen photos in the Waukesha-based magazine.

It was Hanson, who, in his visits to New Mexico, heard about Rancho Hidalgo, where the Doc Greiner Research Observatory, with two telescopes, was established in summer 2011. It’s at about 4,500 feet of elevation. The Madison group leases the space and pays for electricity and Internet. The telescope of Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto, now resides at Rancho Hidalgo.

Greiner has had some recent physical issues that have prevented him from actually visiting the latest observatory that bears his name. Of course, it is not necessary to actually be in New Mexico for the Madison group to be able to access the telescopes; it just takes an Internet connection.

Hanson knew he had something special when he downloaded, over two nights, the photo that earned him recognition last month in England. “Two of the best nights I’ve ever had,” Hanson said, of the conditions for viewing.

His daughter suggested Hanson enter the Royal Observatory, Greenwich competition. A second Hanson image received honorable mention, and is included, along with his winning photograph, in a beautiful coffee table book Hanson received at the awards ceremony. Mark and his wife, Lori, made a week of their trip for the ceremony, and enjoyed all of London.

“Isn’t it wonderful?” Greiner said this week, of his friend’s honor. Greiner is in the book, too, since his name is on the observatory.

I asked Hanson if the two decades he has devoted to astrophotography has in any way changed his mind about the nature of the universe — the possibility of other life — not knowing if he was given to such cosmic thoughts.

“I just know it’s big,” he said.

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Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.