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Smart Art: Imaging the Cosmos
Ever wonder how astronomers get those amazing pictures from space telescopes?
It's not quite as simple as pulling out a camera and snapping a Kodak moment.
As the visualization scientist for NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and Galaxy Evolution
Explorer, Dr. Robert Hurt translates the information from the spacecraft
into extraordinary images that help us understand the cosmos.
DR. ROBERT HURT:
What we generally do is we'll start with the core of the science result.
We'll look at the data, we'll look at the published paper
that tells what the astronomers have discovered.
And then what we'll want to do is get into that nugget of result,
that thing that we're trying to teach the public.
NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope observes infrared light.
The Galaxy Evolution Explorer studies ultra violet light.
When the spacecraft sends us an image, it's actually just a bunch of numbers. It's numbers
that capture how bright each part of the sky is at a particular wavelength of light, one that we
Hurt is an astronomer and an artist. He uses his computer to shift things that are invisible to
our eyes and makes them visible.
So what I have to do is take this data which effectively counts as black and white images
that come through colored filters on the telescope. And what we have to do is take these
colors which the eye can't see and assign them into color that the eye can see.
And when you do that we can build up what is called a representative color image.
Red shows heat from hot dust. Blue shows starlight which is even hotter, and green --
the fluorescent light of organic molecules. Suddenly we see things around the universe that
we've never seen before. But what if the story doesn't have a picture?
That was the case with a Galex discovery that showed black holes stifle the formation of
Sometimes we end up with a science stories that are actually extremely difficult to tell just
from the data.
What's a visualization artist to do? You literally have to go back to the drawing board.
To tell the story, Hurt's colleague, Tim Pyle, created this artist's concept of a black hole.
We wouldn't claim that these things we've visualized in our artists conception are exactly
what these things look like because literally we don't know. But what we can do is get as
close as we understand today.
A Spitzer study uncovered evidence of planet birth around a dead star, though you'd hardly
know it by looking a graph. So Hurt created an animation of a star that dies in a fiery blast,
and the aftermath.
It has to tell the story in an exciting way but also be true to the science, has to be realistic.
Armed with science, creativity and inspiration visualization scientists and artists are taking us
to distant reaches of the universe.
We've done visualizations to show planets around other stars. We've shown what sunsets
would look like in exotic systems. Astronomers today are solving some of the most
interesting mysteries in the history of mankind and if we can visually make that exciting to
people, then really that's what our job is all about here.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology
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