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How art and science come together in space photography

Space photography and imagery have come a long way from rocket-borne cameras. High-tech telescopes can now show us the universe in much more detail

1968: The Earthrise photograph is the first colour image of Earth from the Moon by a person (taken by astronaut William Anders during the Apollo 8 mission). Anders clicked this picture moments after fellow astronaut Frank Borman captured Earth in a black and white photograph. 
1968: The Earthrise photograph is the first colour image of Earth from the Moon by a person (taken by astronaut William Anders during the Apollo 8 mission). Anders clicked this picture moments after fellow astronaut Frank Borman captured Earth in a black and white photograph.  (Nasa/Bill Anders)

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In October 1946, the US launched a suborbital rocket from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. This V2 rocket was fitted with a DeVry 35mm black and white motion picture camera. After reaching an altitude of around 105km, capturing a frame every second and a half, the camera came hurtling down. Though it was ripped to pieces, the film, kept in a protective steel cassette, survived re-entry and gave us the first picture—grainy and hazy—of Earth taken from space.

1946: First image of Earth from space, taken by the V2 No.13 rocket that was fitted with a 35mm black and white motion picture camera and launched from the White Sands Missile Range in the US. 
1946: First image of Earth from space, taken by the V2 No.13 rocket that was fitted with a 35mm black and white motion picture camera and launched from the White Sands Missile Range in the US.  (Wikimedia Commons)

Space imagery has come a long way since. Images once captured with the help of high-altitude balloons and other kinds of aerial photography methods made way for ground-based observatories. Ground-based images of stars, however, are often fuzzy, and even overlap sometimes, because of the smearing effect of Earth’s atmosphere.

1990: The Hubble’s first light image illustrates the telescope’s improved resolution when compared to ground-based observatories. In this case, it is shown with a ground-based picture of the same region of the sky from Las Campanas Observatory in Chile.
1990: The Hubble’s first light image illustrates the telescope’s improved resolution when compared to ground-based observatories. In this case, it is shown with a ground-based picture of the same region of the sky from Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. (Credit: left: E Persson (Las Campanas Observatory, Chile)/Observatories of the Carnegie Institution of Washington; right: Nasa, ESA and STSCI)

In 1990, the Hubble’s first light image was roughly 50% sharper than the image of the same region of the sky captured by an observatory in Chile. Now we are witnessing some of the most detailed images ever captured through space telescopes like the Hubble (launched in 1990) and its technological successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), launched last year.

2022: A new image of Jupiter captured by the Webb. In this stand-alone view, created from a composite of several images, auroras extend to high altitudes above the planet’s northern and southern poles.
2022: A new image of Jupiter captured by the Webb. In this stand-alone view, created from a composite of several images, auroras extend to high altitudes above the planet’s northern and southern poles. (Nasa, ESA, CSA, Jupiter ERS team; Image processing: Judy Schmidt)

Processing methods have improved remarkably too. One example is the composite image of Jupiter, as seen by the Webb, that the US space agency Nasa released on 22 August.

Even today, though, most space images are captured in black and white or grayscale. In fact, most astronomical data reaches scientists in the form of ones and zeroes, which are then translated into formats, including images. Colours too are introduced. Images taken by telescopes that observe at the “invisible” wavelengths are sometimes called “false colour images” or “representative colour images”. That is because the colours used to make them are chosen to bring out important details. This is done through coloured filters and image analysis software.

2022: The Webb Deep Field image is the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe to date. This image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 shows thousands of galaxies—including the faintest objects ever observed in infrared.
2022: The Webb Deep Field image is the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe to date. This image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 shows thousands of galaxies—including the faintest objects ever observed in infrared. (Nasa, ESA, CSA and STSCI)

The Hubble has captured countless images for space enthusiasts and astronomers to marvel at. One was the Hubble Deep Field image, released in 1995, which captured thousands of remote galaxies.

1998: A comparison of images of the Southern Ring Nebula (NGC 3132), captured by the the Hubble Space Telescope.
1998: A comparison of images of the Southern Ring Nebula (NGC 3132), captured by the the Hubble Space Telescope. (The Hubble Heritage team)

Earlier this year, the JWST went further. In a fraction of the time, and far more detail, it “surpassed” the deepest image of the universe ever taken, notes Greg Brown, a Royal Observatory Greenwich astronomer, on the Royal Museums Greenwich website. “Unlike Hubble’s field, this image was deliberately focused on a specific galaxy cluster, named SMACS 0723,” Brown writes. “Webb, with a much larger mirror and its focus on red and infrared light, is better suited to seeing these distant galaxies than the much smaller, blue-focused Hubble ever could.” Brown adds that while even the shortest Hubble deep field took over a week to produce, “Webb needed to stare (at a part of the sky) for only 12 hours to achieve an image that almost certainly contains the most distant galaxy seen in infrared light”.

2022: The Southern Ring Nebula captured by the James Webb Space Telescope. The near-infrared image of the nebula was taken using the Webb’s NIRCAM instrument.
2022: The Southern Ring Nebula captured by the James Webb Space Telescope. The near-infrared image of the nebula was taken using the Webb’s NIRCAM instrument. (Nasa, ESA, CSA, STSCI, NIRCAM)

So, the next time you see a colourful image of a faraway galaxy, remember that it’s a result of both science and art.

Also read: Future of space travel: Get set for a holiday in zero gravity

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