He learned on the fly, reading manuals and chatting online with noted astro-photographers. That's how he discovered New Mexico Skies, a facility at an altitude of 7,300 feet in Lincoln National Forest in Mayhill. It's a full-service operation that offers rental space for astronomers and maintains some 60 telescopes. The rent goes for $1,000 a month. "It's probably cheaper than the golf club I'm a member at," Walker says, laughing. "Plus there's no food minimum."
Walker and a friend loaded his gear into a car and drove the 580 miles to Mayhill. The folks at New Mexico Skies helped him set up and connect to a laptop, from which he typed commands that enabled him to photograph targets in the sky. "You can image almost every night because the weather is usually good," Walker says. "I've been pumping out pictures ever since."
Thanks to the computer hookup, he can practice his hobby even when he's on the road doing his day job. "I enjoy getting up in the morning and seeing what images I got during the night," Walker says. "It keeps my mind off missing my family, and it keeps my brain working. It would be easy to turn on SportsCenter and just zone out. This is just something I enjoy. I'm not really that nerdy."
Oh? Walker played with Tim Finchem at Pebble Beach last year in a First Tee outing and discussed his hobby with the PGA Tour commissioner. "Finchem thought it was incredible," Walker says. Former President George W. Bush joined the two for lunch, and Walker slid his phone to Finchem, who was floored by what he saw. "Then Finchem slides the phone over and says, 'Hey, Mr. President, look what Jimmy is doing,' " Walker says.
Walker breaks into his best Bush impersonation, squinting like Will Ferrell on Saturday Night Live and affecting his down-home cadence: "That's good, that's really good." Then Bush pulled out his iPad, waved it around and asked Walker if he had that app "where you can hold it up and move it across the sky?" Walker laughed, then replied, "Yeah, Mr. President, I have that one."
Walker's most spectacular image may be one of several he has taken of Orion's Sword, which is located in the southwestern sky. In the middle is a bright red blob, like a smashed strawberry, with spreading space dust around it resembling spilled chocolate. "It has a 3-D effect, like you can almost reach through and grab it," Walker says. "I really exaggerated [the color]. The level of detail is incredible."
Walker frequently posts images on Twitter. He has a folder of more than 80 space images available for viewing at jwalk.smugmug.com/ astrophotos. He flips through the image catalog on his cellphone as easily as most people click through their list of contact numbers. "I like this one, NCG 2170," he says, holding it up to see. "I wish it had a name instead of a number, though, because it is so frickin' cool."
Walker has already documented a lot of sky. The Christmas Tree Cluster. The Cone Nebula. The Pinwheel and Whirlpool galaxies. A wide view of Horsehead Nebula with a stunning splash of red and amazing clarity.
"The Witch Head Nebula turned out really well," he says. He clicks on his phone, puzzled. "Where'd that go?" he says. He keeps clicking. "Here it is."
He has imaged the Andromeda and Sombrero galaxies, the Sagittarius Triplets and the Rosette Nebula. The list goes on.
"The thing I like about astronomy is being outside at night and seeing the stars in a dark sky," Walker says. "It's very surreal. It makes you feel small."
These days he is excited because galaxy season is in full swing. "You know that dark line you see in the sky at night? You're looking through the darkest part of the Milky Way so you can see deeper into the universe now than at any other time of the year," Walker says. "The center of the Milky Way is where all the action is now. You can squeeze 200 galaxies into one picture if you do it right."
He has new gear to break in—a $30,000 telescope and a $13,000 camera. His to-do list of targets includes Antares, a supergiant star, and M16, a diffuse emission nebula.
He's got a shot, no doubt about it.