The sky's not the limit

One of the best amenities of Lake Oconee is the dark sky above it, according to Chris Hetlage.

Chris and his wife, Sandra, moved to Lake Oconee about eight years ago. Golfing, fishing, scuba diving, woodworking, photography, and a saltwater aquarium are a few of his many hobbies. He currently owns and operates 44 Horizons Photography real estate and drone photography studio. Before retirement, he was director of a software company specializing in the development and implementation of electronic medical records for some of the most notable health care facilities in the world.

Chris Hetlage sets up one of his telescopes beside Lake Oconee.

But all that shifts to the background once the sun dips below the horizon and the celestial bodies are visible. “When we moved here, the first thing my wife and I did was go out on the dock and just lay down and looked up to see all the beautiful stars,” Chris said. “The lake is a beautiful place to see the stars because it’s very dark out here.”

He does more than just gaze at the stars. Chris is a freelance astrophotographer who has been featured in or whose works have been published by NASA, CNN, The New York Times, National Geographic, The Weather Channel, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Amateur Astronomy magazine, Sky and Telescope magazine, and Astronomy Technology Today, among others.

Chris has been interested in photography since childhood. “My interests developed into doing more extreme photography like underwater photography and macro photography,” he said. In the 90s, he started doing astrophotography, which he says is photographing the stars, moon, planets, nebulae, galaxies, celestial events, etc.

A nebula is a cloud of dust and gases formed around stars that are either forming, collapsing, or have exploded as a supernova. PHOTO BY CHRIS HETLAGE.

“It’s very complicated, very complex, but that’s the kind of thing that I like to do,” Chris said. “I like challenges and technological challenges interest me. It can be very expensive as well because the equipment that’s required is very complex.”

In explanation, Chris said the nebulae and galaxies are millions of lightyears away, which makes them dim in our sky. “They’re hard to see and you need a very long exposure to photograph and see the details of them,” he explained. “That’s what makes it so complex because you have to track that object as it moves across the sky, sometimes six to eight hours at a time, and you’re doing it on top of a moving ball, the Earth, which is in constant motion. So, it’s pretty complicated, but once you do it and see the results, there’s an amazing amount of things out there to see.”


Chris and some of the special equipment in his private observatory.

Before they moved to Greensboro, the Hetlages lived in Atlanta, which has too much light pollution for stargazing. In fact, there were no areas in the entire Eastern United States that could be considered dark sky areas conducive to seeing celestial bodies. So, Chris and a friend bought almost 100 acres in Taliaferro County and developed Deerlick Astronomy Village. With a flat terrain and sparse population, the area provides large unobstructed views of the sky with plenty of space for the Village residents and members to set up their own observatories. Driving from his home in Atlanta to his cabin at Deerlick is how Chris and Sandra discovered Lake Oconee and ended up becoming full-time residents. And thanks to the dark sky over the lake, Chris said he can just set up his equipment out there. He hopes the area’s rapid growth and accompanying landscape lights, flood lights, and streetlights won’t degrade the view of the beautiful night sky. “Out in the city of Sharon, which is near Deerlick, the city adopted a lighting ordinance that only allows certain types of lights to illuminate their streets and homes, which is really nice because they want to protect their night skies,” he said. “So, they have the security and beauty of lights but not the light pollution.”


The sun's surface has electrically charged gases that are constantly moving. Chris took this solar photo using a Lunt 80mm Ha telescope mounted on a Losmandy GM8. PHOTO BY CHRIS HETLAGE

Just as his interests have always developed, Chris’ astrophotography has grown to include solar photography and photo-graphing rocket launches at NASA. His voice obviously livened with excitement when he talked about solar photography.

“Taking pictures of the sun is interesting because it’s changing all the time,” he said. “Whereas each space object, like galaxies, they don’t change over millions of years. But the sun has solar flares and prominences that cause dark spots, and they’re interesting to take pictures of. … It takes a very special telescope and camera. You cannot do it with a normal telescope and camera because you should not look at the sun and you could ruin your eyes and ruin your camera.”

For the Great American Solar Eclipse in 2017, Chris and his friends planned far in advance to know the best picture-taking and viewing locations. They set up in a field just outside of Nashville, which the farmer had opened for viewers.

“From an adventure perspective, that was one of my favorite events,” he said. “It was very cool…A total solar eclipse has to be seen to be really appreciated. I can just only imagine what people were thinking 2,000 years ago when an event like that happened; it must’ve been like the end of the world, but it was very spectacular to see. It was a lot of fun to photograph, but I found myself not taking pictures the whole time, but just looking at it and enjoying the moment. I can’t wait for the next one (April 8, 2024).”


The space shuttle Discovery. PHOTO BY CHRIS HETLAGE

Through his many astronomy connections, Chris had the opportunity to photograph the last three space shuttle launches for Sky & Telescope Magazine. “I got to meet so many interesting people and I got to set up my camera right there along the launch pad, really, really close,” he said. “And I got to go up into the launch tower and walked right up to the door of the space shuttle and that was very cool. There are people that do this for a living, and I was fortunate enough with my limited experience to get to go out there. I don’t go down to the Space Center as often as I used to, but I still enjoy it.”

Chris didn’t formally study astronomy, but once he became interested in the 90s, he studied a lot of books and star charts to learn everything. “These days, anyone interested can just track down stuff on the computer, or they can point their iPhone up to the sky and your iPhone will identify the object you’re looking at. That makes it a lot easier,” he said.

People who do not use an iPhone or who would rather view through a telescope, he recommended they “start out with an 8-inch Dobsonian. It’s a good telescope to get started with because you can see nebulas and star clusters and galaxies with it, but it isn’t very expensive.”

To see more of Chris’ adventures and astrophotography images, visit his website, www.hetlage.com.

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Story by Lynn Hobbs, photos by Chris Hetlage, published in the November-December 2021 edition of Lakelife magazine.