How art and science come together in space photography


In October 1946, the United States launched a suborbital rocket from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. This V2 rocket was fitted with a DeVry 35mm black and white motion picture camera. After reaching an altitude of about 105 km, capturing an image every second and a half, the camera went into a whirlwind. Although torn to pieces, the film, preserved in a protective steel cassette, survived re-entry and gave us the first – grainy and blurry – image of Earth taken from space.

1946: First image of the Earth seen from space, taken by the V2 n°13 rocket equipped with a 35 mm black and white cinematographic camera and launched from the White Sands Missile Range in the United States.
(Wikimedia Commons)

Space imagery has come a long way since then. Images once captured using high-altitude balloons and other types of aerial photography methods have given way to ground-based observatories. Images of stars on the ground, however, are often blurry and sometimes even overlap, due to the smearing effect of Earth’s atmosphere.

1990: Hubble's first bright image illustrates the telescope's improved resolution compared to ground-based observatories.  In this case, it is shown with a ground image of the same region of the sky from the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile.

1990: Hubble’s first bright image illustrates the telescope’s improved resolution compared to ground-based observatories. In this case, it is shown with a ground image of the same region of the sky from the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile.
(Credit: Left: E Persson (Las Campanas Observatory, Chile)/Carnegie Institution of Washington Observatories; Right: NASA, ESA and STSCI)

In 1990, Hubble’s first bright image was about 50% sharper than the image of the same region of sky captured by an observatory in Chile. We are now witnessing some of the most detailed images ever captured by space telescopes like Hubble (launched in 1990) and its technological successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), launched last year.

2022: A new image of Jupiter captured by the Webb.  In this stand-alone view, created from a composite of several images, the auroras extend to high altitudes above the planet's north and south poles.

2022: A new image of Jupiter captured by the Webb. In this stand-alone view, created from a composite of several images, the auroras extend to high altitudes above the planet’s north and south poles.
(Nasa, ESA, CSA, Jupiter ERS team; Image processing: Judy Schmidt)

Treatment methods have also improved remarkably. An example is the composite image of Jupiter, seen by Webb, which the US space agency Nasa released on August 22.

Even today, however, most space images are captured in black and white or grayscale. In fact, most astronomical data comes to scientists in the form of ones and zeros, which are then translated into formats, including images. Colors are also introduced. Images taken by telescopes that observe at “invisible” wavelengths are sometimes called “false color images” or “representative color images”. Indeed, the colors used to make them are chosen to bring out the important details. This is done using color filters and image analysis software.

2022: The Webb Deep Field image is the deepest, sharpest infrared image of the distant universe to date.  This image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 shows thousands of galaxies, including the faintest objects ever observed in the infrared.

2022: The Webb Deep Field image is the deepest, sharpest infrared image of the distant universe to date. This image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 shows thousands of galaxies, including the faintest objects ever observed in the infrared.
(Nasa, ESA, CSA and STSCI)

The Hubble has captured countless images for space enthusiasts and astronomers to marvel at. One was the Hubble Deep Field image, released in 1995, which captured thousands of distant galaxies.

1998: Comparison of images of the South Ring Nebula (NGC 3132), taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.

1998: Comparison of images of the South Ring Nebula (NGC 3132), taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.
(The Hubble Heritage Team)

Earlier this year, the JWST went a step further. In a fraction of the time, and in much greater detail, it “surpassed” the deepest image of the universe ever taken, notes Greg Brown, an astronomer at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, on the website of the Greenwich Royal Museums. “Unlike the Hubble field, this image was deliberately centered on a specific galaxy cluster, named SMACS 0723,” Brown writes. “Webb, with a much larger mirror and its focus on red and infrared light, is better suited to seeing these distant galaxies than the much smaller, blue-focused Hubble.” Brown adds that even though the shortest Hubble Deep Field took over a week to produce, “Webb only needed to look at (part of the sky) 12 hours to get an image that almost certainly contains the galaxy. furthest seen in infrared light.”

2022: The South Ring Nebula captured by the James Webb Space Telescope.  The near-infrared image of the nebula was taken using Webb's NIRCAM instrument.

2022: The South Ring Nebula captured by the James Webb Space Telescope. The near-infrared image of the nebula was taken using Webb’s NIRCAM instrument.
(Nasa, ESA, CSA, STSCI, NIRCAM)

So the next time you see a colorful image of a distant galaxy, remember that it’s the result of both science and art.

Read also: The future of space travel: get ready for a zero-gravity vacation

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