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Hubble images being colorized to enhance their appeal for public - LA Times



 
 
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  #1  
Old September 9th 03, 09:05 PM
Rusty B
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Default Hubble images being colorized to enhance their appeal for public - LA Times

PR With Universal Appeal

The Hubble's amazing but drab images of the cosmos are being digitally
enhanced as a splashy sales pitch for the space program.

By Allison M. Heinrichs, Times Staff Writer

Sep. 5, 2003

BALTIMORE The postcards from the farthest reaches of the universe
stream back to planet Earth each week from the Hubble Space Telescope
rainbow-hued clouds of nebula gas, sparkling lilac dust on the arms
of pastel galaxies, blazing red stellar outbursts.

The Hubble images are the sharpest and most detailed of the cosmos
ever seen; snapshots of cataclysmic events occurring billions of
light-years away in a dance of color and light that seem almost too
good to be true.

They are.

The planets, nebulae and galaxies really are out there but their
breathtaking colors are, in most cases, exaggerated. They are the
product of a team of NASA astronomers, computer artists and
public-relations folk who touch up and color Hubble's photographs,
massaging each one until it is, in the words of one scientist, "just
right."

It's a merger of science, art and marketing.

Zoltan Levay, one of Hubble's first photographic artists, describes
the production of the colorful Hubble images as a "reconstruction
process." Hubble sends its snapshots back to Earth in grainy black and
white, and then Levay and other artists at the Space Telescope Science
Institute clean up the images and digitally colorize them.

Sometimes, the colors are close to reality, but often, artistic
liberties are taken. And whenever there exists the option to choose a
color that generates an image of mind-boggling beauty over one that
yields more mundane results, the scientists are unabashed about saying
that the more aesthetically pleasing option always wins.

"It's hard to tell the story if you don't have a stunning image to
back it up," said Ray Villard, the public-relations director for the
$1.5-billion telescope. "You can go out of your way to be incredibly
accurate, but if people come away and haven't learned anything, then
what was the point?"

The point, according to some people, is that by enhancing the hues of
the universe, Levay and Hubble's other photographic artists have
inadvertently created a public misperception that the heavens are
bursting with color an exciting, enticing, action-packed,
Technicolor cosmos worth spending billions of dollars to see more of.

Any photographer at a newspaper, including this one, would be fired
for using digital technology to substantially alter a picture. And any
scientist doctoring research data would be cast into scientific
oblivion.

Hubble's artists aren't the only group colorizing the universe.
Ground-based observatories and other space telescopes, such as the
Chandra X-ray Observatory, also enhance their images, but Hubble is by
far the most powerful force in creating the public vision of the
universe.

Levay argues that the motive is not to deceive but rather to
illuminate a universe that is muted in gray scale and hidden in light
invisible to human eyes.

And while the colors may not be entirely true, Hubble supporters say
it's a small concession to keep the dream of space alive

"Big science," said Caltech astronomer Shri Kulkarni, "requires big
publicity."

It may seem odd that the awesomely infinite universe needs to be
touched up, but it does.

The plain truth is that although Mother Nature dots outer space with
stunning subject matter, she has a clever way of hiding it. Myriad
cosmic wonders lurk to either side of the visible spectrum's thin
sliver. Pulsars, for example, beam their powerful signals in radio
energy, while the dust-choked galactic core of the Milky Way is
revealed almost exclusively in the infrared.

The universe is also a pretty dim place, making nebulae, galaxies and
distant moons appear grayish to the naked eye even through powerful
telescopes. "If you hopped in a starship and traveled to these
objects, they'd still look gray," Villard said. "These are things that
we can never see with the limitations of the retina."

NASA set out to reveal the hidden universe by arming the bus-sized
Hubble Space Telescope with an array of infrared, ultraviolet and
visible light detectors. The telescope was launched in 1990 and placed
into an orbit 380 miles above the Earth, where it is not affected by
the light-distorting atmosphere.

Hubble's 8-foot mirror allows it to peer nearly all the way across the
13.7-billion-year-old universe and see distant objects as they existed
less than a billion years after the Big Bang. The collision of
galaxies hundreds of millions of light-years away appears so clearly
that astronomers can see the long arms of glowing dust being yanked in
a monumental tug of war.

The bounty of images from the visible and invisible universe posed a
dilemma for NASA's scientists: How do they show their discoveries to
the taxpayers who foot the $250-million annual bill for the telescope?

"It's like translating poetry from another language," said Keith Noll,
an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
"Hubble speaks 50 different languages, and we only speak one, the
language of our eyes."

Levay is Hubble's translator.

The boyishly inquisitive 50-year-old amateur photographer began his
NASA career in 1978 as a data analyst at the Goddard Space Flight
Center in Maryland.

After five years at Goddard, he moved on to NASA's fledgling Space
Telescope Science Institute, an astrophysics center created to manage
Hubble's scientific research. He was later drafted to help "paint" the
Hubble images for public release because of his combination of
computer and photography skills.

Displayed on his computer monitor in Baltimore is a black and white
image of the Trifid Nebula a dusty cloud of gas 5,200 light-years
away that contains the remains of countless stellar explosions. Like a
tree in a snowstorm, the image is lost behind a flurry of white
streaks and bright spots.

This raw image from Hubble has been attacked by cosmic rays, tiny
energetic particles that randomly strike the cameras from all
directions, saturating the detectors and leaving bright white trails
in their wake.

A click of the mouse brings up a slightly better picture. A computer
program removes the "snow" by comparing two images of the nebula and
erasing any elements that are not in both.

The new image lacks the grainy appearance, but its gray haziness masks
the secrets locked away in Trifid's clouds.

Levay pulls up three "cleaned" images of the nebula taken through
Hubble's different camera filters. These photographs, taken in black
and white, were captured almost a year ago by astronomers who were not
interested in taking a pretty picture of the Trifid, but in learning
more about the energetic gas within its dusty clouds.

Because gases radiate different colors of light when energized,
astronomers use Hubble's toolbox of colored glass filters to dissect
the heavens. For example, hydrogen the universe's most abundant
element glows at the red end of the spectrum of light visible to the
human eye, while doubly ionized oxygen (oxygen with two electrons
missing) makes its presence known in teal. So astronomers use a red
filter to study hydrogen and a blue-green one for oxygen.

The three filters Levay selects for the Trifid's representative image
are hydrogen, doubly ionized oxygen and singly ionized sulfur (sulfur
with one electron missing). He then assigns them each a color red,
green or blue. When mixed, these optically pure colors yield several
million different hues, from the deepest violet to the palest pink.

Levay assigns red to hydrogen because it is the more abundant of the
three gases. The oxygen image he "paints" blue.

So far, he has been fairly true to the natural colors, but now Levay
is faced with a problem: Doubly ionized sulfur glows a deeper red than
hydrogen, but the only color left in his palette is green. It's not an
entirely accurate combination, but it's the most natural one that
Levay can construct with only three optically pure colors.

When the green sulfur and blue oxygen layers come together, the fuzzy
gray nebula becomes an unsettling shade of turquoise. One last click
of the mouse adds the final scarlet hydrogen gradation, and the nebula
is revealed as a turbulent stellar birthing ground, billowing with
enough hydrogen fuel to keep its newborn stars sparkling for billions
of years.

Levay has just translated the cosmos.

The final decision which way is up is definitely more art than
science because there is no "up" in space: Hubble's photographic
artists orient the images according to their own feelings about what
is most pleasing to the eye.

Sometimes, the orientation is immediately agreed upon, but often
Hubble's imaging team will spend hours debating the most appealing,
and in some people's opinion, the most marketable look.

"It is definitely marketing," said William E. Burrows, the author of
"This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age." "But it is no less
justified than the military putting on air shows to get young people
to enlist. Everybody is selling something NASA is selling space and
this is one way to do it."

NASA has many reasons to "sell space," not the least being to help
justify the agency's annual budget of $15 billion.

"NASA has been at the forefront of marketing their world, and there is
nothing wrong with marketing a good idea," said Felice Frankel, an MIT
science photographer. "Somebody there knew how powerful images can be
to get people on the side of research. NASA has found this language
that makes astronomy accessible, and it has worked because they
continue to get major, major funding."

But how far should NASA go in its effort to make the public aware of
the scientific mysteries that Hubble is uncovering?

If a picture is scientific in origin, most people assume that it must
be accurate, Frankel said. Although NASA is not hiding the imaging
process (it is detailed under "gallery" at http://www.hubblesite.org
), she said that the space agency, along with the magazines and
newspapers that reproduce the images, are not doing enough to tell the
public about the colors.

"All of those images should be captioned and say that the colors were
generated digitally," Frankel said.

At National Geographic magazine, Hubble shots have been published in
the past carrying an explanation that the colors were digitally
enhanced. But Bill Douthitt, an editor at the magazine, said future
articles probably wouldn't carry that information because the magazine
had previously described the coloring process. Instead, they can
dedicate more space to science, he said. (The Los Angeles Times also
does not note the colorizing of Hubble images.)

The Hubble scientists often wrestle with the confusion that may arise
when they create a "natural" or "representative" image. They don't
want to mislead the public, but, Villard said, they also don't want
outer space to look "boring."

"I would draw the line where the color really could lead to some
serious scientific misperception," Villard said.

Levay likens the process to nature photography, in which images are
often adjusted to make subjects look more ideal. In the Kaufman Focus
Guides, a series of books used by bird watchers to help them identify
their targets, photographer Ken Kaufman modifies his images to enhance
identifying marks.

"Different field marks [of the bird] may not be showing up as
prominently as he would like, so he'll touch them up so that they are
visible," said Lisa A. White, an associate director at Houghton
Mifflin, the publisher of the guide books. "He's aiming for an ideal
version of the bird."

Levay is aiming for a more illuminating view of the universe.

In the Trifid Nebula picture, it would have been more accurate to use
two shades of red for hydrogen and sulfur. But then, the star-forming
region that he knew was there would not have been revealed.

Legions of Hubble fans would probably agree with his decision.

Mike West, a telescope dealer for Oceanside Photo and Telescope near
San Diego, said he often gets customers who buy telescopes expecting
to peer into the sky and see the striking colors and details that
Hubble images depict.

When all they see is the plain old universe, some return, complaining
their telescopes are broken.

"All the time we deal with that," West said. "If they are expecting to
see stuff like what the Hubble sees, they will come back."



Story URL:

http://www.latimes.com/news/nationwo...adlines-nation

Story URL in Tiny URL:

http://tinyurl.com/mrz9
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  #2  
Old September 10th 03, 04:17 AM
pete
external usenet poster
 
Posts: n/a
Default Hubble images being colorized to enhance their appeal for public - LA Times

on 9 Sep 2003 13:05:48 -0700, Rusty B sez:
` PR With Universal Appeal
`
` The Hubble's amazing but drab images of the cosmos are being digitally
` enhanced as a splashy sales pitch for the space program.
`
` By Allison M. Heinrichs, Times Staff Writer
`
` Sep. 5, 2003
`
` BALTIMORE The postcards from the farthest reaches of the universe
` stream back to planet Earth each week from the Hubble Space Telescope
` rainbow-hued clouds of nebula gas, sparkling lilac dust on the arms
` of pastel galaxies, blazing red stellar outbursts.
`
` The Hubble images are the sharpest and most detailed of the cosmos
` ever seen; snapshots of cataclysmic events occurring billions of
` light-years away in a dance of color and light that seem almost too
` good to be true.
`
` They are.
`
` The planets, nebulae and galaxies really are out there but their
` breathtaking colors are, in most cases, exaggerated. They are the
` product of a team of NASA astronomers, computer artists and
` public-relations folk who touch up and color Hubble's photographs,
` massaging each one until it is, in the words of one scientist, "just
` right."
`
[...]
`
` Hubble's artists aren't the only group colorizing the universe.
` Ground-based observatories and other space telescopes, such as the
` Chandra X-ray Observatory, also enhance their images,

Ah, as opposed to leaving them natural colour... what colour
are natural x-rays, exactly?



--
================================================== ========================
Pete Vincent
Disclaimer: all I know I learned from reading Usenet.
  #3  
Old September 10th 03, 12:46 PM
Ian Stirling
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Posts: n/a
Default Hubble images being colorized to enhance their appeal for public - LA Times

pete wrote:
on 9 Sep 2003 13:05:48 -0700, Rusty B sez:
` PR With Universal Appeal
`
` The Hubble's amazing but drab images of the cosmos are being digitally
` enhanced as a splashy sales pitch for the space program.


More seriously, sometimes these images are actually fraudulently enlarged,
to make them look bigger than they do to the naked eye...
snip
Ah, as opposed to leaving them natural colour... what colour
are natural x-rays, exactly?


Do x-rays cause flashes in the retina, as other ionising radiation can?

--
http://inquisitor.i.am/ | | Ian Stirling.
---------------------------+-------------------------+--------------------------
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He wouldn't have made them out of MEAT! - John Cleese
  #4  
Old September 10th 03, 07:21 PM
OM
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Default Hubble images being colorized to enhance their appeal for public - LA Times

On 9 Sep 2003 13:05:48 -0700, (Rusty B) wrote:

The Hubble images are the sharpest and most detailed of the cosmos
ever seen; snapshots of cataclysmic events occurring billions of
light-years away in a dance of color and light that seem almost too
good to be true.

They are.


[Bimbo claptrap deleted]

....Spoken like a true journalistic bimbo. Someone please call the city
desk and have her assigned to the South Central beat investigating
gang activities, please.


OM

--

"No ******* ever won a war by dying for |
http://www.io.com/~o_m
his country. He won it by making the other | Sergeant-At-Arms
poor dumb ******* die for his country." | Human O-Ring Society

- General George S. Patton, Jr
  #5  
Old September 15th 03, 10:38 AM
Doug Ellison
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Default Hubble images being colorized to enhance their appeal for public - LA Times


Hubble's artists aren't the only group colorizing the universe.
Ground-based observatories and other space telescopes, such as the
Chandra X-ray Observatory, also enhance their images,


What colour is an Xray. Or for that matter, an IR observation by Hubble.

Heck - ANY digital images is 'tweaked' before you publish it - even if it's
just to auto-level the image to get max. dynamic range out of it

Doug


 




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