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Best Art in the Universe? Hubble Space Telescope's Amazing Pics From 2010

Dec 15, 2010 – 5:19 PM
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Ben Muessig

Ben Muessig Contributor

(Dec. 15) -- You might think that taking highly detailed photographs of the darkest corners of the universe would be a purely scientific job. Turns out, there's an art to it.

For the past 20 years
, the Hubble Space Telescope has been orbiting the planet and wowing earthlings with breathtaking images of outer space, from jaw-dropping pictures of clusters of newborn stars to fantastic photos of colliding galaxies.

But it's not just Hubble's cutting-edge optics that are responsible for these stunning photographs. Behind each image is the hard work of a team of researchers in Baltimore, who balance art and astronomy to capture out-of-this-world pictures that further our knowledge of outer space.
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Hubble Photos

A delicate sphere of gas, photographed by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, floats serenely in the depths of space. The pristine shell, or bubble, is the result of gas that is being shocked by the expanding blast wave from a supernova. Photographs like this one are a "blend of science and art," Ray Villard, a spokesman for the Space Telescope Science Institute, told AOL News.

Hubble Photos

This NASA Hubble Space Telescope image shows the distribution of dark matter in the center of the giant galaxy cluster Abell 1689, containing about 1,000 galaxies and trillions of stars.

Hubble Photos

The colliding Antennae galaxies are about 62 million light-years from Earth. This image is a composite from the Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope.

Hubble Photos

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has observed a mysterious X-shaped debris pattern and trailing streamers of dust that suggest a head-on collision between two asteroids.

Hubble Photos

Hubble astronomers have uncovered, for the first time, a population of infant stars in the Milky Way satellite galaxy. The Small Magellanic Cloud is 210,000 light-years away. "The prettiest pictures really do capture a raw sense of creation and destruction," explained Villard.

Hubble Photos

The galaxy, known as NGC 4911, contains rich lanes of dust and gas near its center. These are silhouetted against glowing newborn star clusters and iridescent pink clouds of hydrogen, the existence of which indicates ongoing star formation.

Hubble Photos

Though the universe is chock full of spiral-shaped galaxies, no two look exactly the same. This face-on spiral galaxy, called NGC 3982, is striking for its rich tapestry of star birth, along with its winding arms. The arms are lined with pink star-forming regions of glowing hydrogen, newborn blue star clusters and obscuring dust lanes that provide the raw material for future generations of stars. The bright nucleus is home to an older population of stars, which grow ever more densely packed toward the center.

Hubble Photos

The first image from the Hubble Space Telescope, delivered on May 20, 1990, shows the Carina star cluster. It was better than other images of the cluster, but it hinted at a problem in the new $36 million scope. The flaw was fixed, and Hubble went on to capture dazzling images from the heavens.

Hubble Photos

Hydrogen gas laced with dust rises in the Carina Nebula, one of the largest star-birthing regions that scientists have seen. The pillar of gas is three light-years tall.

Hubble Photos

Scientists once estimated that a blazing star in the cluster Pismis 24 had 200 times the mass of our sun. The star in question is located just to the right of the gas cloud above. Further analysis of Hubble images showed that the bright spot consists of at least three stars. Still, the component stars would weigh about 100 times what our sun does, scientists say.

Hubble Photos


"You are dealing with the most incredible pictures of the universe that have ever been collected, and you do treat these images with reverence," Ray Villard, a spokesman for the Space Telescope Science Institute, told AOL News. "These pictures speak of death and creation, stars blowing up and stars being born -- they become almost spiritual. And they become very evocative to people."

So it's no surprise that the researchers responsible for taking the photos approach them with a scientific mind and an artistic eye.

"It's a combination of science and aesthetics," said Zoltan Levay, imaging team lead at the Space Telescope Science Institute.

"On the one hand, we want to produce scientifically honest images that portray these objects in a way that doesn't mislead. On the other hand, we want to produce nice-looking, attractive, aesthetically pleasing images to draw people in so they can learn more about [the universe]," said Levay, who in his downtime is a more down-to-earth photographer.

Though the heavens are undeniably beautiful, taking a good photo using the Hubble Space Telescope isn't easy.

Hubble has transmitted hundreds of thousands of images back to Earth since its launch in 1990, and most haven't been keepers -- at least from an artistic perspective.

Each image captured by the groundbreaking camera requires a great deal of work. Space is so black and the stars are so bright that researchers at the Space Telescope Science Institute must combine multiple exposures of the same subject to make sure that no one part of the image turns out looking too bright or too dark.

Creating images that show accurate colors is also a challenge.

In order to obtain images of the highest quality, Hubble snaps multiple black-and-white photographs using different color filters. The images are then layered upon one another to create a single color image in a "digital darkroom" using Photoshop.

"Those colors are not artificial -- they are as close to reality as we can get," said Villard.

Though Villard insists his team works hard to "religiously keep the integrity of the image," it's important remember that some of these sights only look so beautiful because they are so far away.

"You can look at a nebula through a telescope and it will look like a little cotton ball. The Hubble picture shows it glowing in reds and magentas and people think, 'Well if I could fly out there, I could see it like that.' But this stuff is so widely distributed and so faint that if you were closer, it would look completely different," he noted.
Carina Nebula
NASA
In celebration of the Hubble Space Telescope's 20th year in space, NASA released a new photo of the Carina Nebula taken with it.

Some photographs taken by Hubble are undeniably eye-catching -- like this remarkable picture of the Carina Nebula. Levay hopes the inherent beauty of these remarkable images will steer more people toward science.

"The content is not something that a lot of people are familiar with," he said. "It's not something that many people can visually relate to -- but if the images are attractive and people can figure out what the photos mean, then maybe they will learn more about them."

While the Hubble project itself has more in common with Galileo than Andreas Gursky, Levay sees his work as a distant relative of the landscapes depicted in Ansel Adams' famed photographs.

"I kind of consider what we do at Hubble as landscape photography," Levay said. "I'm going out and shooting a spectacular landscape and trying to make the best photograph I can."

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