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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.

 

 

 



Photography

A Rare Glimpse of Comet Leonard’s Last Moments Wins the Astronomy Photographer of the Year Contest

September 16, 2022

Grace Ebert

“Disconnection Event” © Gerald Rhemann, Tivoli Southern Sky Guest Farm, Khomas, Namibia, December 25, 2021. All images © Astronomy Photographer of the Year, shared with permission

The brilliant Comet Leonard put on a mesmerizing performance late last year when it streaked across the sky on Christmas Day. Expelled from the solar system shortly after, the celestial matter captivated photographers around the world during its brief stint of visibility, including Gerald Rhemann who captured the illuminated body as its gas tail disconnected from its nucleus and was swept away by solar wind. The incredibly rare and brief event also garnered Rhemann the top prize in this year’s Astronomy Photographer of the Year contest.

Hosted by the Royal Observatory Greenwich, the 14th-annual competition received more than 3,000 entries from 67 countries. This year’s collection includes a glowing, avian-like aurora over Murmansk Oblast and the International Space Station as it flies over the Apollo 11 moon-landing site—the latter was taken by Andrew McCarthy, whose galactic photos have been featured multiple times on Colossal.

Explore all of the winning images on the contest’s site, and if you’re in London, stop by the National Maritime Museum to see the photos in person through August 13, 2023.

 

“Winged Aurora” © Alexander Stepanenko, Murmansk, Murmansk Oblast, Russia, January 15, 2022

“Stabbing Into the Stars” © Zihui Hu, Nyingchi, Tibet, China, December 24, 2021

“Back to the Spaceship” © Mihail Minkov, Buzludzha, Balkan Mountains, Stara Zagora Province, Bulgaria, August 12, 2021

“The Night Highway” © Filip Hrebenda, Stokksnes Peninsula, Iceland, April 11, 2021

“Moon: Big Mosaic” © Andrea Vanoni, Porto Mantovano, Lombardy, Italy, January 19, 2021

“The International Space Station Transiting Tranquility Base” © Andrew McCarthy, Florence, Arizona, USA, January 19, 2022

“In the Embrace of a Green Lady” © Filip Hrebenda, Hvalnes, Iceland, April 10, 2021

 

 



Photography Science

The James Webb Telescope Captures Jupiter’s Rings and Brilliant Aurora in Two Stunning Composites

August 24, 2022

Grace Ebert

Image courtesy of NASA, ESA, Jupiter ERS Team, processing by Ricardo Hueso (UPV/EHU) and Judy Schmidt

It’s been two months since NASA unveiled the first images captured by the exceptionally powerful James Webb Space Telescope, and a pair of new composites taken by the observer’s infrared NIRCam showcase Jupiter’s aurora and unique characteristics in similarly striking detail.

Against a dark backdrop filled with hazy dots that are likely distant galaxies, the wide view features two of the planet’s moons, Amalthea and Adrastea, and its rings. According to the European Space Agency, which released the images, the dusty halos shown are one million times fainter than the gaseous mass they encircle.

For the close-up, astronomers applied three filters to the NIRCam to capture the tiny details of the largest planet in our solar system. Zeroing in on the Jovian atmosphere, the image shows two polar auroras shining through red hues, with brilliant greens and yellows swirling around. “A third filter, mapped to blues, showcases light that is reflected from a deeper main cloud. The Great Red Spot, a famous storm so big it could swallow Earth, appears white in these views, as do other clouds because they are reflecting a lot of sunlight,” the agency says.

Because the human eye can’t see infrared light, scientist Judy Schmidt collaborated with astronomers to make the planet’s details visible. (via Peta Pixel)

 

Image courtesy of NASA, ESA, Jupiter ERS Team, processing by Judy Schmidt

 

 



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.

 

 

 

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