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History Photography Science

A Scientific Paint-By-Number Pastel Drawing Was Our First Closeup Image of Mars

January 5, 2023

Kate Mothes

All images © NASA, JPL-Caltech, and Dan Goods

Let’s rewind to 1965. Around ten years before the personal computer was invented and twenty years before the first cell phones were released to the public, this was the year that saw the first color television released to the mass market. Families would gather around the set to catch up on daily news broadcasts on one of three channels. On July 15, when NASA’s Mariner 4 probe flew within 6,118 miles of Mars as it passed the planet, it was big news, but when the image data was transmitted back to Earth, scientists didn’t have the technology to quickly render a photograph that could be televised. Taking a queue from a popular mid-century pastime, the very first representation of another planet viewed from a vantage point in space was a data-driven paint-by-number drawing.

The Mariner 4 probe was NASA’s second attempt to capture an image of the surface of Mars after a camera shroud malfunctioned on Mariner 3. Dan Goods, who presently leads a team called The Studio at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, describes how the scientists troubleshot and devised their next steps when faced with technical anomalies and errors:

After the flyby of the planet, it would take several hours for computers to process a real image. So while they were waiting, the engineers thought of different ways of taking the 1’s and 0’s from the actual data and create an image. After a few variations, it seemed most efficient to print out the digits and color over them based upon how bright each pixel was.

 

Detail of numbers on ticker tape

We now turn our focus to a scientist named Richard Grumm, who chose a more analog means of visualizing data as a failsafe if the intended image failed to transmit. He went to a local art supplies shop and requested gray chalk; the shop sent him with back to the lab with a pack of Rembrandt pastels. He and his team used the crayons to color in the 1’s and 0’s data, printed on 3-inch wide ticker tape, and determined the brightness level of the image using a key in shades of orange, brown, and yellow.

In spite of Mars’ nickname the “Red Planet,” the color scheme was coincidental. Grumm was concerned primarily with gradients and how it would appear in grayscale, since televisions were still in black-and-white. He justified the drawing to the Jet Propulsion Lab’s wary PR department—which thought the pastel drawing would be a distraction and preferred the public saw the real image—as a means to record the data in case Mariner 4’s equipment also failed. Eventually, the media found out anyway, and the pastel drawing was the first image of Mars to be broadcast on television.

In time, Mariner 4’s black-and-white photograph did come through successfully, and in comparison, Grumm’s drawing appears widened due to the width of the ticker tape. You can read more about this historic moment on Dan Goods’ blog and on the NASA website. (via Kottke)

 

Left: Color key. Right: Mariner 4 tape recorder

Richard Grumm’s team creating the drawing

Left: Richard Grumm’s team creating the drawing. Right: The pastels used to create the image

The image compiled from Mariner 4 data

 

 

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Photography Science

The ‘Pillars of Creation’ Glow in Remarkable Detail in a Groundbreaking Image from NASA’s James Webb Telescope

December 19, 2022

Kate Mothes

A photograph taken by the James Webb Space Telescope of the "Pillars of Creation."

“Pillars of Creation.” All images courtesy of NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

In a small region within the vast Eagle Nebula—a 6,500 light-year journey from our solar system in the constellation Serpens—the iconic “Pillars of Creation” appear in a ghostly formation. Made of cool hydrogen gas and dust, these incubators for new stars are dense celestial structures that have survived longer than their surroundings. Ultraviolet light from incredibly hot newborn stars gradually erodes the surrounding space and illuminates the ethereal surfaces of the pillars and the streams of gas they emit.

Since July, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has released numerous photographs of the cosmos in unprecedented detail. To process this image, scientists combined captures taken with the telescope’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), which brought different elements into focus. Near-infrared light emphasizes the stars, including thousands of newly-formed orange spheres that hover around the columns. The saturated hues around the interstellar formations are visible thanks to the mid-infrared contribution, which highlights the diffused orange dust around the top, deep indigo of the densest regions, and bright neutral color of the pillars. Lava-red spots on the upper parts of the spires contain young, embedded stars that will continue to form for millions of years.

See the full 47.59-megapixel photograph on the James Webb website. (via PetaPixel)

 

A detail of photograph taken by the James Webb Space Telescope of the "Pillars of Creation."

A detail of a photograph taken by the James Webb Space Telescope of the "Pillars of Creation."

 

 



Photography Science

NASA’s James Webb Telescope Captures an Astounding Photo of the Gaseous Pillars of Creation

October 20, 2022

Grace Ebert

All images courtesy of NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI; Joseph DePasquale (STScI), Anton M. Koekemoer (STScI), Alyssa Pagan (STScI), shared with permission

Back in 1995, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope documented the now iconic Pillars of Creation, a photo of a celestial area known for its staggering number of star formations. That initial image offered an illuminating glimpse of the interstellar stone-like columns made of gas and dust, although a composite recently released from the James Webb Space Telescope uses near-infrared light to highlight the region in even more detail.

This new 122-megapixel photo features a deep-blue expanse studded with light, and the pillars themselves appear less opaque than in the earlier shot. When cropped, the new image shows the Eagle Nebula, located 6,500 light-years away. The bright red fiery orbs apparent from this view are new stars, which are formed “when knots with sufficient mass form within the pillars of gas and dust… begin to collapse under their own gravity (and) slowly heat up.”

 

Left: Pillars of Creation captured via Hubble. Right: Pillars of Creation captured via James Webb

Some of the incandescent bodies still in the early stages of life also produce undulating, lava-like ejections, which NASA describes:

Young stars periodically shoot out supersonic jets that collide with clouds of material, like these thick pillars. This sometimes also results in bow shocks, which can form wavy patterns like a boat does as it moves through water. The crimson glow comes from the energetic hydrogen molecules that result from jets and shocks. This is evident in the second and third pillars from the top–the NIRCam image is practically pulsing with their activity. These young stars are estimated to be only a few hundred thousand years old.

Researchers say the new photo will allow more accurate counts of new formations and their development.

 

 

 



Design

Cosmic Cliffs Infinite Galaxy Puzzle Features New Imagery from the James Webb Space Telescope

July 14, 2022

Grace Ebert

All photos courtesy Nervous System, shared with permission

This week, the first images from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope amazed and daunted us with their inordinately deep looks at the cosmos, particularly the shot of the glimmering star-forming region known as the “Cosmic Cliffs” of the Carina Nebula. The team over at the Catskills-based studio Nervous System translated this galactic masterpiece into a new, similarly expansive infinity puzzle intended to be tiled continuously, with no predetermined shape, start, or end. Similar to its other designs, this iteration includes four whimsy cuts in the shape of an astronaut, a shooting star, a satellite, and the gold mirrors of the groundbreaking telescope itself. Try your hand at puzzling together distant galaxies by picking up the 264-piece jigsaw from the Nervous System shop.

 

 

 



Photography Science

NASA’s Webb Space Telescope Reveals Astounding, Unprecedented Views of the Universe

July 12, 2022

Grace Ebert

“Cosmic Cliffs” in the Carina Nebula. All images courtesy of NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope unveiled its first-ever collection of high-resolution color images capturing an exceptional amount of detail about the universe. The instrument reaches deeper into the cosmos than any before.

Launched in December, Webb is the world’s largest and most powerful observer with the ability to view cosmic bodies like the atmospheres of exoplanets, or those outside our solar system, and some of the first galaxies to emerge following the Big Bang 13.5 billion years ago. The telescope is equipped with a host of near-infrared tools that will help visualize galactic phenomena and celestial bodies that are otherwise invisible to the human eye. Webb is capable of getting four times closer to the cosmological event than the Hubble Space Telescope, which helps scientists better understand how the universe has evolved since.

Preparation for the mission began in the 1990s, and the 6.7-ton telescope is currently focused on documenting planetary evolution and spectroscopic data about their chemical makeup, which involves targeting five cosmic objects: the gassy planet WASP-96 b that’s about 1,150 light-years away, the Southern Ring Nebula, Stephan’s Quintet galaxy, the SMACS 0723 galaxy clusters, and the 7,600 light-years away Carina Nebula with enormous stars that dwarf the sun.

 

The very first images include a stunning composite of SMACS 0723 as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago. Rich with glimmering galaxies, the composite comprises “a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground,” administrators said in a statement. There’s also the mesmerizing Southern Ring Nebula, which is comprised of shells of dust and gas released by two dying stars, and Stephen’s Quintet, five glowing galaxies captured in Webb’s largest composite to date, reaching a size that would span approximately one-fifth of the moon’s diameter.

Perhaps the most stunning image from the first release of visuals is that of the star-forming region in the Carina Nebula, which shows what researchers refer to as “cosmic cliffs,” or what appears to be rugged, mountain-like forms that are actually the edges of immense gaseous activity. The tallest pinnacles of that celestial body are about seven light-years high.

Webb was designed to spend the next decade in space, however, a successful launch preserved substantial fuel, and NASA now anticipates a trove of insights about the universe for the next twenty years. Follow its movements with NASA’s tracker, Where is Webb?

 

Southern Ring Nebula (NIRCam Image)

SMACS 0723 as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago

Left: SMACS 0723 captured by Hubble. Right: SMACS 0723 captured by James Webb

Carina Nebula, detail

 

 



Photography Science

78,846 Photos of the Sun Are Stitched Together into a Mesmerizing Timelapse of Its Movements

November 19, 2021

Grace Ebert

Using data from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, filmmaker Seán Doran composed an entrancing timelpase of the sun’s glowing coronal loops during a month-long period. The video project compiles 78,846 ångström-171 photographs from August 2014 that show the bright, curved structures, which are made of hot plasma, as they burst upward. Colorized in gold in the timelapse, the arced loops often form a bridge between dark sunspots, or places where powerful magnetic fields breach the surface and flow into the massive star’s atmosphere.

For similarly stunning glimpses at astronomical happenings, head to Doran’s YouTube, which features footage of Earth’s orbit, Comet Neowise, and the rugged topography of the Red Planet. (via PetaPixel)