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PR With Universal Appeal

The Hubble's amazing but drab images of the cosmos are being digitally enhanced as a splashy sales pitch for the space program.

September 05, 2003|Allison M. Heinrichs | Times Staff Writer

BALTIMORE — The postcards from the farthest reaches of the universe stream back to planet Earth each week from the Hubble Space Telescope -- rainbow-hued clouds of nebula gas, sparkling lilac dust on the arms of pastel galaxies, blazing red stellar outbursts.

The Hubble images are the sharpest and most detailed of the cosmos ever seen; snapshots of cataclysmic events occurring billions of light-years away in a dance of color and light that seem almost too good to be true.

They are.

The planets, nebulae and galaxies really are out there but their breathtaking colors are, in most cases, exaggerated. They are the product of a team of NASA astronomers, computer artists and public-relations folk who touch up and color Hubble's photographs, massaging each one until it is, in the words of one scientist, "just right."

It's a merger of science, art -- and marketing.

Zoltan Levay, one of Hubble's first photographic artists, describes the production of the colorful Hubble images as a "reconstruction process." Hubble sends its snapshots back to Earth in grainy black and white, and then Levay and other artists at the Space Telescope Science Institute clean up the images and digitally colorize them.

Sometimes, the colors are close to reality, but often, artistic liberties are taken. And whenever there exists the option to choose a color that generates an image of mind-boggling beauty over one that yields more mundane results, the scientists are unabashed about saying that the more aesthetically pleasing option always wins.

"It's hard to tell the story if you don't have a stunning image to back it up," said Ray Villard, the public-relations director for the $1.5-billion telescope. "You can go out of your way to be incredibly accurate, but if people come away and haven't learned anything, then what was the point?"

The point, according to some people, is that by enhancing the hues of the universe, Levay and Hubble's other photographic artists have inadvertently created a public misperception that the heavens are bursting with color -- an exciting, enticing, action-packed, Technicolor cosmos worth spending billions of dollars to see more of.

Any photographer at a newspaper, including this one, would be fired for using digital technology to substantially alter a picture. And any scientist doctoring research data would be cast into scientific oblivion.

Hubble's artists aren't the only group colorizing the universe. Ground-based observatories and other space telescopes, such as the Chandra X-ray Observatory, also enhance their images, but Hubble is by far the most powerful force in creating the public vision of the universe.

Levay argues that the motive is not to deceive but rather to illuminate a universe that is muted in gray scale and hidden in light invisible to human eyes.

And while the colors may not be entirely true, Hubble supporters say it's a small concession to keep the dream of space alive

"Big science," said Caltech astronomer Shri Kulkarni, "requires big publicity."

It may seem odd that the awesomely infinite universe needs to be touched up, but it does.

The plain truth is that although Mother Nature dots outer space with stunning subject matter, she has a clever way of hiding it. Myriad cosmic wonders lurk to either side of the visible spectrum's thin sliver. Pulsars, for example, beam their powerful signals in radio energy, while the dust-choked galactic core of the Milky Way is revealed almost exclusively in the infrared.

The universe is also a pretty dim place, making nebulae, galaxies and distant moons appear grayish to the naked eye -- even through powerful telescopes. "If you hopped in a starship and traveled to these objects, they'd still look gray," Villard said. "These are things that we can never see with the limitations of the retina."

NASA set out to reveal the hidden universe by arming the bus-sized Hubble Space Telescope with an array of infrared, ultraviolet and visible light detectors. The telescope was launched in 1990 and placed into an orbit 380 miles above the Earth, where it is not affected by the light-distorting atmosphere.

Hubble's 8-foot mirror allows it to peer nearly all the way across the 13.7-billion-year-old universe and see distant objects as they existed less than a billion years after the Big Bang. The collision of galaxies hundreds of millions of light-years away appears so clearly that astronomers can see the long arms of glowing dust being yanked in a monumental tug of war.

The bounty of images from the visible and invisible universe posed a dilemma for NASA's scientists: How do they show their discoveries to the taxpayers who foot the $250-million annual bill for the telescope?

"It's like translating poetry from another language," said Keith Noll, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. "Hubble speaks 50 different languages, and we only speak one, the language of our eyes."

Levay is Hubble's translator.

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