Photos: Views of the cosmos, courtesy Brown students and scholars

Using telescopes, tools and spaces at Brown, members of the University community capture awe-inspiring photos of the universe in spectacular fashion.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Whether it’s atop the roof of the Barus and Holley building, within the walls of the historic Ladd Observatory or any place that offers a commanding view of the sky, every year students and other members of the Brown community invest time and effort in not only learning about the stars, but capturing them — often in quite spectacular fashion.

The effort includes undergraduates taking introductory astronomy courses offered by the Department of Physics, students looking to venture further into the cosmos through Brown’s Astronomy Club, graduate students who have a knack for astrophotography and faculty and staff members who manage the observatory equipment or research distant galaxies.

Below are some of the stunning images that have come from students, faculty and staff in recent years, along with a description of where in the universe they sit or what it took to put the snapshot together.


Also known as the Seven Sisters star cluster, the Pleiades are a group of more than 800 stars about 410 light-years from Earth. This image was taken by physics Ph.D. candidate Anthony Englert using observatory equipment atop Barus and Holley, which is home to Brown’s School of Engineering and Department of Physics. The telescope was built onto the roof in 1976 and since then has been one of the most powerful teaching tools in the physics department. It currently uses a 16-inch Schmidt Cassegrain telescope and is capable of taking deep-sky images billions of light-years away, bringing users face to face with planets in the solar system, distant stars, nebulae and other galaxies. This image of Pleiades is a composite of about 60 images taken over five hours.

The Sun

Each academic year, hundreds of students use the Barus and Holley Observatory, the Ladd Observatory and nearly two dozen portable telescopes and cameras the physics department owns to learn about the cosmos, including the massive effort it takes to capture awe-inspiring images of the universe. This image of the sun was taken by undergraduate students from Physics 220. The introductory astronomy course, along with Physics 270, helps students get familiar and comfortable with the night sky and using the department’s telescopes. The students took this on March 11, 2020, using a 90mm H-Alpha solar telescope. This full disk capture shows a wealth of detail, including bright flame-like structures extending outward from the sun's surface. Students were assisted by Mike Umbricht, an observatory curator at the Ladd, in collecting the images; Scott MacNeill, director of the Frosty Drew Observatory in Charlestown, Rhode Island, and staff astronomer at the Ladd, provided help processing the images.

The Moon

One of the most popular targets in astrophotography is Earth’s nearest neighbor. Along with lunar images from Robert Horton, manager of Brown’s astronomy labs and the Ladd Observatory, some of the images were taken by Brown undergraduates from last semester’s Physics 270 course and students in the Astronomy Club, which meets about once a week for deep sky imaging and hosts events to engage the community through astronomy. The final image shows a small crack in the center known as Hadley Rille, the area Apollo 15 explored.

Rosette Nebula

Located in the Milky Way, the Rosette Nebula is located about 5,000 light-years from Earth. The nebula spans 130 light-years and is home to about 2,500 stars. The image was taken by students in Physics 220 three years ago using the Barus and Holley Observatory.

Whirlpool Galaxy

In Physics 220, Brown undergraduate Zackariah Spooner took a snapshot of Messier 51, better known as the Whirlpool Galaxy. The galaxy is a whooping 31 million light-years away, meaning this image into the past was 31 million light-years in the making since it takes light that long to travel from there to Earth. The Whirlpool Galaxy gets its name from its spiral structure and is a popular target for astronomers. Spooner, a sophomore, took this image using the Barus and Holley Observatory.

Orion Nebula

Sophomore Hannah Beakley produced this image after a stargazing session at Barus and Holley. The Orion Nebula, also known as Messier 42, is one of the brightest nebulae and is about 1,300 light-years away. South of Orion’s belt, this region is known as the “sword” of Orion. Also visible to the left of the nebula is the Running Man Nebula. Beakley took this image in Physics 220.

Abell 133

This is the central region of galaxy clusters in the Abell catalogue 760 million light-years away. It was produced by the lab of Brown physics professor Ian Dell’Antonio using the Victor M. Blanco 4-meter Telescope and the Dark Energy Camera at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. The image is part of a project surveying all of the most massive galaxy clusters in the local universe. The researchers use the shapes of the galaxies to measure dark matter through a process known as gravitational lensing. Essentially, every object seen in this image is a separate galaxy.

The Lagoon Nebulla

Messier 8, more commonly known as the Lagoon Nebulla, is a giant interstellar cloud in the constellation Sagittarius. It is about 5,200 light-years from Earth. The massive stars embedded within the gas cloud give off enormous amounts of ultraviolet radiation. Brown graduate student Donovan Davino produced the image following a late-night observation session at Barus and Holley. “This consists of 20 to 60 long exposures for about 4 hours straight,” Davino said. The observation was followed by nifty photo editing to stack the images, choose the colors seen in the image and select which regions to highlight.


Using one of the physics department’s portable telescopes, Horton took this image in July 2020. Comet NEOWISE is a long period comet discovered on March 27, 2020. At that time of the image, it was about 160 million miles away from Earth.

The Milky Way

Davino captured this image at the South Window Arch in Utah’s Arches National Park, producing it from a combination of 60 stacked images taken with a camera and lens borrowed from Brown’s physics department. It captures swaths of the Milky Way galaxy. Davino calls it “A Window Between Worlds.”