Crafting a Hubble galaxy in two minutes

By Phil Plait | March 24, 2011 12:00 pm

Have you ever wondered how those gorgeous Hubble pictures of distant cosmic objects are made?

Well, lucky you! My old pal Tiffany Borders alerted me to a video she and some other folks at the Space Telescope Science Institute put together. It’s a delightful whirlwind tour of how they go from digital data to stunning shots, using screenshots tied together into a two-minute frenetic animation:

How cool is that? I’ll note that when astronomers actually do science with the images, they use the raw data which is processed very carefully to maintain the data’s integrity. The beautiful pictures made the way shown in the video are for show… but I’ve found that they can help guide the eye to features you might miss in the individual images, too. So this isn’t just Photoshop trickery!

The galaxy in the video is the spectacular spiral NGC 3982, which I described in a little more detail when this image came out last year. Coincidentally, in that post I focused more on how the image was constructed than the science in it (though I have links there describing spiral galaxies).

And who knew Khachaturian would go so well with constructing Hubble images? Actually, I did — when I worked on Hubble data I listened to a lot of music, and that included Khachaturian’s Gayane suite — oh, how it makes my Slavic DNA sing! Nice to see it still fits, too.


Related posts:

Three generations of Hubble cameras capture a spiral
BABloggee saves Hubble!
Hubble Telescope, back on the air!

Comments (30)

  1. Brian Schlosser

    The Gayane Suite, like Strauss’ “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” is inextricably linked with “Space” in my mind. Thank you Stanley! :D

  2. Chris

    Would I be able to see a view like this one from, say. 100,000 ly out from this galaxy? I’ve heard it would be much dimmer and more diffuse. Certainly we wouldn’t be able to see the emission nebulae that brightly, right?

  3. John

    Finally, I know what settings to use on FITS Liberator! (The first steps they used at the beginning).

  4. DrivethruScientist

    HAX!

    Just kidding ;) To anyone who deals with microscope or telescope data, none of this is much of a surprise. No one’s messing with data here, just trying to make a pretty picture. Good visuals will almost always guarantee a higher impact journal than shoddy pictures would. But, if not a higher impact journal, at the very least the cover!

  5. faylan

    I like how, in the comments section on YouTube, the discussion is mainly about whether or not the Hubble images are Photoshopped to hide “the UFOs around the sun.”
    Why do we even try?

  6. bigjohn756

    I betcha it takes more than two and a half minutes to do all this…really!

  7. Jeffersonian

    How cool is that?

    Way

  8. Elmar_M

    OK, please excuse my lame question, but why does he scale the images individually first?
    Wouldnt it be better to scale them all together, once they have been copied together into a single image in Photoshop? that way you would not have to realign them in PS later.
    Unless they are not aligned when they leave the cameras? Then I think Hubble has a design problem, maybe?

  9. Michael Swanson

    You can see them erase Nibiru at 1:39!

  10. This very cool and helps me understand the process. I knew it was complex, but I get it more now than 20 minutes ago!

    So why do they rotate the image? They did it several times, but they mention it just after Nibiru is removed ;-) (at 1:52)?

  11. DrFlimmer

    If they had shown the scientific processing with IRAF the video would have been much less interesting!

    Combining dark frames and flatfields to remove bad pixels and “cosmics” is less instructive than doing it with Photoshop. ;)

    Still, nice video! :)

  12. Raskolnikov

    Khatchaturian was Armenian. Armenians are not Slavic.

  13. Kevin

    Cool. Just how I process all of my astro-photos. :)

  14. yo

    The music is not the main theme of COSMOS… :-p

  15. RwFlynn

    That could very well have been the fastest two minutes and 25 seconds of my life. One of the most fascinating too. Thanks, Phil!

  16. Crudely Wrott

    That’s a big 10-4 on Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance, Phil.

    A long time ago my brother and I had a wind up Victrola in our bedroom. We controlled the volume by closing or opening doors on the front of the cabinet. We had a fair sized stack of 78s that we cycled through endlessly. Sabre Dance was my runaway favorite. To this day, whenever I hear it, I am back in that room . . .

    What? Someone doesn’t know what a Victrola is? Bah. Kids today.

  17. What DrFlimmer said! The horrors of IRAF! *enters the fetal position*

  18. Nigel Depledge

    Chris (2) said:

    Would I be able to see a view like this one from, say. 100,000 ly out from this galaxy? I’ve heard it would be much dimmer and more diffuse. Certainly we wouldn’t be able to see the emission nebulae that brightly, right?

    It would not appear anything like this by eye, because it’s probably a long exposure (or a collection of several exposures added together).

  19. Nigel Depledge

    Crudely Wrott (16) said:

    What? Someone doesn’t know what a Victrola is? Bah. Kids today.

    Hey, I don’t know what a Victrola is, and I haven’t been a kid for … erm … quite some time.

  20. Messier Tidy Upper

    Great clip. Thanks. :-)

    @5. faylan :

    I like how, in the comments section on YouTube, the discussion is mainly about whether or not the Hubble images are Photoshopped to hide “the UFOs around the sun.” Why do we even try?

    Because for all the (admittedly too many) idiots who are out there; there are a still a lot of bright and good people who *do* understand and appreciate things like this as well?

    Because the alternative (just giving up?) means the idiots win & leaves everybody poorer and worse off?

    Because eventually openness and education are worthwhile and pay off in the long run?

    I hope.

    *****

    There is only person in life who you have any real say over, only one person you actually control, whose life you can even come close to fully experiencing and knowing and get to choose how they act. That person is your-self.

  21. Messier Tidy Upper

    @^ PS. Telepaths, hyper-empaths and downloadable AIs / copied brains excepted – perhaps! ;-)

    (Hypothetically speaking.)

  22. I took an observational astronomy course my last year of college, and for my project I chose to take color photographs of some of the more interesting items from the Messier catalog. Our process involved taking *many* relatively short (on the order of 30 second) exposures and then combining these photos while using image processing to reduce noise and bring out dimmer details.

    I wonder, does Hubble typically take single, extra-long exposures, or does it layer many shorter exposures on top of one another? The deep field images are incredible engineering feats regardless, but I can’t imagine that the telescope could stay so precisely aligned for such a long time.

  23. outer_banks_fan

    Speaking of Khachaturian, Gayane, and space, don’t forget the adagio from the suite was used in 2001: A Space Odyssey!

  24. Messier Tidy Upper

    @22 Oh & godlike aliens that have advanced so far that their technology is equivalent to magic. Mustn’t forget that hypothetical exception either! ;-)

  25. It’s very cool, but then again, on numerous occasions I wonder “ok how would that look in visible spectrum.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love those pics, but I dunno to what extend it’s pimped by coloring elements in various lights, or adding ultraviolet, x-rays, infrared…

    I know that other spectra bear more scientific information, but I was VERY let down when I heard that James Webb won’t have visible light cameras :( Couldn’t they throw in that, jut for regular people? :)

  26. What!? The raw data is all available for scientific scrutiny? You mean they aren’t hiding the raw data to cover up the imminent arrival of Nibiru!? My world view has now been shaken to its very foundations. I guess I should look into some laser tattoo removal services to get that pesky “Praise the Annunaki!” tattoo removed.

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