Hubble Space Kaleidoscope

I’ll break my silence with a simple link… To The Onion article “Hubble Kaleidoscope Finds Evidence Of Space Looking All Crazy” that appears in this week’s issue. I don’t know how long that link will stay active but bwa-ha-ha-ha! Dang funny.

And there’s some truth to it, too. I’m inspired to round out my next column for the Communicating Astronomy with the Public Journal.

Rotating Helix

I’m takin’ it easy for Lincoln’s Birthday (he was a distant relation, actually, so I deserve it). Look! A Spitzer image! And no, I’m not just logrolling for my friend Robert. I took a look at today’s press release, and I couldn’t find anything else to blog about, then…

I take a closer look. I thought I’d link to the Hubble Space Telescope picture of the Helix and make some kind of comparison. But when I skipped between the two images, I noticed that the two seemed to be rotated 90° with respect to one another. Odd. For a quick double-check, I took a look at Rob Gendler’s (as always gorgeous) picture of the Helix, and it seems to match Hubble’s.

Here, I’ll save you the trouble and link to an essentially equivalent picture (with the Hubble color scheme) from Travis Rector:

Yep, it’s rotated. Bizarre!

I mean, honestly, it’s not a big deal. But it might be considered a little confusing not to have imagery from the NASA Great Observatories lining up properly.

Otherwise, I was just going to note that it’s interesting how the exterior of the nebula shifts from red-yellow in the Hubble image to blue-green in the Spitzer view: purely a matter of convention, of course, since images are typically mapped by wavelength, with shorter-wavelength light being mapped to (ironically) cool colors and longer-wavelength light to (equally ironically) warm colors. The red haze at the center of the Helix in the Spitzer image indicates a source of small, warmed particles—interpreted to be colliding comets in the aforementioned press release.

The Hubble site offers a “tour” of the Helix, which is quite nice. Perhaps we&rsquo’ll be treated to a different tour in a future interactive—one which shows the nebula not just in optical light, but in its intriguing infrared emission as well.

Dark Matter Blobs!

Reporting from the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle, Washington… In a brand spankin’ new press release from Hubble, we have the first-ever “3D map of the Universe’s Dark Matter scaffolding.”

First off, the result is quite kewl. We’re beginning to map the stuff that “outweighs” ordinary matter by a factor of six to one. Great work, COSMOS team!

The above image isn’t the primary image released, but it’s the one with which I find the greatest fault. By abstracting the blobs of dark matter without any reference to scale whatsoever, we’re left with no sense of how large the object is that we’re looking at. The primary image that accompanies the press release improves on the problem by labelling slices at 3.5, 5.0, and 6.5 billion years ago, but the size of the image on the plane of the sky is left undescribed—although the caption does clarify that “Each panel represents an area of sky nine times the angular diameter of the full Moon.”

Images such as the one above do a disservice to public understanding of astronomers’ work by abstracting the result completely from reality. The lack of scale I already complained about, but I have other issues as well“ The use of isosurfaces is non-intuitive for the vast number of people. The inclusion of half a box around the data provides a sense of dimension but could also confuse people. And a meaningless background haze does nothing in service of the rest of the image.

Great science, bad picture.

Zoom in the New Year

The Hubble Space Telescope released the image above as part of a “Celestial Season’s Greetings” release. Nice enough picture, and although I’m unclear on the seasonal part, I find it interesting that Hubble site has joined in the zoomify style of presenting images.

I ran across “The Big Picture” site at Caltech this week as well, although I think it’s been around for a while.

An interesting, new, albeit content-less way of interacting with the imagery.


This may seem lazy, but… We ended our visualization conference today with a discussion of imaging philosophy. And the above image came up in discussion. It’s the (in)famous “Pillars of Creation” image of the Eagle Nebula, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, of course, and it’s gotten about as much visibility as any astronomical image of the last few decades. So without much ado, maybe I could just pass along a few questions for those of you who consider yourself members of “the general public” (whatever that means, anyway).

Did you know that the Eagle Nebula doesn’t shine in those particular colors? In fact, it looks more like this pink-ish image from Rob Gendler, which is at least closer in color to what you would see with your eye up to a telescope. Does it bother you that the image represents something that you wouldn’t see through the eyepiece of a telescope? Do you think image specialists are lying to you by presenting images in this manner? (You can learn how the Hubble team makes thir color images by reading “Behind the Pictures” at their website.)

For that matter, how do you think we should describe images like the one above? They’ve often been called “false color.” Does that sound appropriate? What does the term suggest to you? Hubble describes such images as ”representative color.” How does that sound?

As you might guess, those of us in the biz have our own ideas, but I’m curious if anyone out there would like to share their opinion(s).


Hubble Déjà Vu

When in doubt, look for a Hubble image! I’ve been trying to post once a day, but that means I have to find an image of interest each and every single day, and well, sometimes it’s simplest to fall back on what I know best. And that means astronomy. And that means Hubble.

What’s a little odd about the above picture is that I know I’ve seen something similar from Hubble before (even though the new images come from the Advanced Camera for Surveys, I know, I know). But much in the same way that the last time I mentioned the Hubble it was reproducing images that had been released back in April, there’s just a sense of déjà vu going on here.

Anyway, the up shot is that better resolution reveals useful data about star clusters in the super crazy high-resolution images. Which is important to understand what happens when two galaxies collide—namely, scads of stars are born.

Little Day-Glo Orange Spot

The above Hubble image, released back in April, is in the news again because the origin of the so-called “Little Red Spot” seems to be “the only survivor among three white-colored storms that merged together” in the last decade, resulting in a ruddy storm with wind speeds that rival its Great Red Sibling.

But I find this image slightly disturbing. The almost radioactive, day-glo red of the two spots (and excessive blue of the normally white bands) deserves greater attention than it receives in the picture’s caption. All we learn is that “two filters are shown in red/orange (F892N, near-IR strong methane band) and blue/cyan (F502N continuum/cyan light),” which I find less than satisfying. Is that “red/orange” and “blue/cyan” on top of a “true-color” image? I take it to be the case, but the verbiage leaves me guessing. (Certainly when you compare the above to another Hubble image of the same part of Jupiter, taken around the same time, the colors are quite different.)

This is a good place to spend a little time, in my opinion, explaining a bit of process. Mention something about “particular wavelengths of light” or “enhanced color” or something. Make it clear that we’re not seeing Jupiter as it would appear were one to put one’s eye up to Hubble’s eyepiece.

(Um, just in case… That last line was a joke. Hubble has no eyepiece. It’s in space. For more info on how Hubble images are made, please read the lovely “Behind the Pictures” page at the Hubble website.)

Uranus in Season

Hubble just announced the discovery of a dark cloud in the atmosphere of Uranus, but as I looked at the press-release image, I realized that I was seeing Uranus from a slightly different angle compared to previous images. So I created the composite image above, using the various Hubble pictures of Uranus from 1994 through 2006. The Hubble crew did much the same thing with Saturn a few years ago, so it’s not an original idea. But it’s kinda kewl to see Uranus going through 14% of its orbit.