The Astrophotography of West Virginia’s Dave Green

“I’m a coal miner… with a camera.”

Story and photos by Dave Green

The 45-foot telescope, photo credit Dave Green.

Have you ever worked an extremely long and difficult shift with someone? Maybe you’ve attacked some overwhelming workout with a friend, or you and a coworker have been assigned a job that seems impossible, but you deliver. I’ve worked in the coal industry for close to twenty years now, and I’ve been on a mine rescue team for twelve. I’ve trained in a Crossfit gym for about eight years, and I boxed for several years in my early thirties. I’ve been tasked with seemingly insurmountable jobs underground. I’ve had to dig deep to get through some brutal Crossfit workouts, and I’ve walked out of the boxing gym…beat up! Something interesting happens in these situations. There’s a special bond formed with those that accompany you in those challenges. There’s a connection made between you and those you suffer with. There’s a kinship formed when you share a profound experience. This may sound strange, but I feel that way about the Green Bank Observatory.

A site planted with giant radio telescopes listening in on alien conversations (maybe) is an obvious place to do landscape astrophotography, but it’s not that easy. The site sits in a “Quiet Zone.” Specifically, it’s located in the National Radio Quiet Zone consisting of 13,000 square miles of limited radio and cell signal. This not only limits the use of cell phones and microwave ovens in certain areas near the site but also all electronics, such as cameras. Astrophotography requires a lot of gear, and the camera is pretty high on the list.

I’m a southern West Virginia “boy” (old man), born and raised! I had only driven through Green Bank a few times, but I could see the telescopes from the road. They are behemoths. After getting into astrophotography several years ago, I knew I wanted to shoot there, but I also knew the limitations. I decided I would wait. I’d try to get somewhat of a portfolio together first. Maybe I could convince them to let me on the grounds with a flex. So, in September 2021, I gave it a try. I emailed the Green Bank Observatory. I sent a map with the specific location that I planned to shoot from. I told them what I planned to take pictures of, and I sent them a link with some of my photos. They responded with a very kind and soft “no.” However they told me, “There is a wooden observation deck in the parking lot of our Jansky Laboratory from which we do allow night photography.” That’s all I needed. I went to work on a plan.

Landscape astrophotography is quite a niche genre of photography. If I want to know how to pose a family for portraits, there will be a thousand videos on YouTube. If I decide I’d like to take a picture of a flower, there will be endless resources for tutorials for me to refer to. Though, if I want to plan a conjunction of a nebulous region of our Milky Way and a landmark here on earth, there’s not a lot of folks talking about that online. In September of 2021, after being shut down on my original plan, I had to determine what I could shoot from the observation deck. After some hours of research, I realized that I could catch the Orion Constellation setting on the National Science Foundation’s Green Bank Telescope. However, that would only be possible during the winter months, and I needed a moonless and cloudless night (not to mention a day off work). I watched extended forecasts religiously, as I do with so many shoots, and then in late January I saw an opportunity.

Star trails stream above the Green Bank Telescope, the view captured from the publicly accessible observation deck in the parking lot of the Green Bank Observatory, photo credit Dave Green.

The conjunction of the Orion Constellation and the Green Bank Telescope happens from the parking lot of the Observatory in late January around 2:45am. With that in mind, I decided that I’d just stay there the entire night. I’d get what sleep I could in my Nissan Frontier.

I left work the day of the shoot with everything packed in the truck. I wanted to get there before nightfall. Driving toward Green Bank through the Monongahela National Forest is always interesting. First, you’ll lose cell signal. Then, your Apple Music will quit streaming. It’s great! I arrived at the Observatory around 5:30pm with some daylight to work with. It was a bone chilling 5°F when I arrived and would only get colder as the night went on. I shot my foreground at twilight, and by the time I was shooting the sky it had dropped to -5°F. The night was long and cold but very exciting. Seeing Orion land directly over the telescope was great and a bit of a relief. I wasn’t exactly sure of my plan, but the constellation set exactly where I had anticipated. 

Frost forms on Dave’s camera equipment, a frigid -5°F during his first Green Bank shoot, photo credit Dave Green.

Any time I’ve spent the night shooting, my wife will ask, “Did you get any good pictures?” That’s a reasonable question for a photographer after a shoot, but for a landscape astrophotographer… it’s complicated. Did I get any good pictures? I don’t know. I never know. Why? Because landscape astro-photos are not snapshots. Most of these images consist of multiple photographs blended into a final picture. The subjects in the sky are faint and difficult to photograph. It takes multiple photos and meticulous processing to bring these nebulous regions to life, and the shot of Orion over the GBT was particularly difficult. Without going into the mind-numbing details, I’ll just say that the final image you see is the result of several iterations and dozens of hours of processing.

I was satisfied with the final image. Landscape astrophotography is part art and part science. I do my best to create an image that represents a reality that we just can’t see with our eyes. I’ve always done that with my photography, and the photos of Green Bank were no exception. I didn’t realize how important that was until NASA reached out to me. They told me that my photo of Orion over Green Bank was being considered for an APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day). They wanted to know where I shot from, when I took the picture, and the lens I used. They were essentially asking if the photo was a representation of reality. I remember feeling almost dizzy trying to respond. A photo being selected as an APOD to an astrophotographer is like an Oscar to an actor. I sent RAW images, videos, and maps to NASA to confirm the accuracy. On February 23rd, 2022 the photo of Orion setting on the Green Bank Observatory Telescope was featured on NASA’s website as the Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Orion rising over the Green Bank Telescope, photo credit Dave Green.

When someone asks me if I’m a photographer, I’m reluctant to say yes. My Instagram and Facebook page is “dave_has_a_camera” because I felt that “Dave Green Photography” was pretentious. I’m a coal miner… with a camera. There’s nothing wrong with ambition, but I got into photography the same way people get into fishing. I just liked doing it. It’s a challenge. It’s exciting. It’s fun. A few of my photos have really connected with people. A lot of people. Orion over the GBT was one such photo. That’s why I’m writing a piece to be featured on GBO’s website right now. Life is weird!

I revisited the Observatory in 2023. I wanted to shoot a 180° panorama of the entire site with the winter Milky Way overhead. This time I didn’t need to flex! I had been in conversations with their communications manager for the last year, who had become my connection with the Observatory. They had featured my photos on their social media pages, and I had allowed them to use them in publications. I still wanted out on the Observatory grounds with a camera, and it just so happened that the night I wanted to shoot, the GBT was offline for maintenance, and I was given permission to photograph in a usually restricted area.

This time the weather was mild. It was late March. I could shoot the sky around 10pm. Although there were some challenges with this shoot, it was much easier than the shoot the year before. I felt like I was hanging out with an old friend. A connection had been made. I realize the GBT is an inanimate object, but its existence is a human conception. When I see the telescope, I see countless hours of human endeavor. I see some of the brightest minds at work. Since the winter of 2022 I had the opportunity to talk with several staff members from the GBO. They were all so great. They were all very encouraging. I felt welcomed in the marshy fields east of all the telescopes that night.

A panorama of the winter Milky Way over the Green Bank Observatory, photo credit Dave Green.

A radio telescope is an odd object in the heart of West Virginia. While we’re synonymous with coal, mountains, toughness, and wilderness most people don’t think of space exploration when they think of the Mountaineers, but we’re all those things. The depths of our “Wild and Wonderful” state may be as wild and wonderful as anywhere in the Universe. These hills, mountains, streams, and people of West Virginia may just be the crowning jewel of the cosmos. The hidden glories of our state are truly like buried treasure. With that said, space is pretty cool. Well, very close to zero Kelvin (space joke). So yeah, cool! So, take a West Virginia landscape, add some gargantuan telescopes, and then sprinkle in some cosmic star gardens, and you have a recipe for an awe-inspiring scene.

My work at the GBO is not complete. I’m a Mountaineer heart and soul. There’s several places in this state that I could commit all of my photography to, and Green Bank is one of those places. I’m very thankful to the staff there, not only for allowing me on the grounds, but for the work that they are doing. The work there is groundbreaking, and the Quiet Zone surrounding this site may just be preventing further exploitation of our “Almost Heavenly” national forest area. When I think of GBO, it’s like thinking of a friend. We’re on the same wavelength. We’re curious. We’re workers. We’re miners of the depths. We’re Mountaineers.

Print This