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Colors in Planetary Imaging

Posted by Travis Rector

08-12-2015 8:26 CST

Topics: pretty pictures, explaining image processing

If you’re reading this article, you probably love astronomy images. When looking at an image of, say, a galaxy, have you ever wondered to yourself, “Is this real?” or maybe “Is this what it really looks like?” The first question is easy to answer. Yes, everything you are seeing is real. Unless it is “space art,” these images are of real objects in outer space. They aren't creations of a graphic artist's imagination. But answering the second question is not as simple. How a telescope “sees” is radically different than how our eyes see. Telescopes give us super-human vision. In most cases they literally make the invisible visible.

Horsehead Nebula

T. A. Rector (NOAO / AURA / NSF) and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI / AURA / NASA)

Horsehead Nebula
The iconic Horsehead Nebula is part of a dense cloud of gas in front of an active star-forming region known as IC 434.

Let’s look an example. The picture above captures the famous Horsehead Nebula, which gets its name from the distinctive dark shape at the center of the image. It is part of a large nebula in the constellation of Orion. The image was taken with an advanced digital camera from a telescope at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in southern Arizona. This is what the telescope and its camera can see. But let’s pretend you had the ability to board a spaceship and fly to the Horsehead Nebula – what would you see? After a journey of more than a thousand light years, you look out of the window of your spaceship at this same scene. You’re now at a distance of one hundred times closer than before, when you were standing on the Earth. Here’s your view now.

Hersehend Nebula...

T. A. Rector (NOAO / AURA / NSF)

Hersehend Nebula...
The same area of the sky as shown in the first image of the Horsehead Nebula, but shown as you would see it with your naked eye.

You’d see some of the brighter stars but none of the dust and gas in the nebula, including the horse head shape. Why?

Three Things a Telescope Does

To better understand what’s going on, it helps to know what a telescope does. Just as a pair of binoculars can make the upper-level seats in an arena almost as good as courtside, a telescope can make a distant object appear much closer. But a telescope does more than this. It doesn’t just magnify an object; it also amplifies it. It makes something faint appear much brighter.

Some people think the reason why a telescope can see objects our eyes can’t is because it magnifies something that is too small for us to see. And this is often true. But the Horsehead Nebula is actually not that small. The fields of view of these images of the Horsehead are about twice the size of the full Moon on the sky. You can’t see it because it is too faint, not because it is too small.

So why couldn’t you see the Horsehead Nebula even if you were much closer? For objects that appear to be larger than a point of light (e.g., galaxies and nebulae, but not stars), how bright it appears has little to do with how far away it is. Moving closer to it will make it bigger, but not brighter. This may seem counterintuitive, but you can try it at home. Walk towards a wall. As you approach you’ll notice that the wall is getting bigger but otherwise is the same brightness. The same is true of the Horsehead Nebula. If you can’t see it with your eyes while standing on Earth, you still won’t see it from your spaceship.

Why then can a telescope see it? A telescope offers several advantages over our eyes. As marvelous as the human eye is, it’s not that well suited for nighttime observing. First, our eyes are tiny. The opening that allows light to enter, known as the pupil (the black area at the center of the eye), is only about one-quarter of an inch wide when fully open.

What can our eyes see?

Petr Novák, Wikipedia CC License v2.5.

What can our eyes see?
We can gaze at the night sky but beyond picking out the constellations, we need specialized equipment to help us see faint objects in any detail, or to see other kinds of light beyond a small range of visible light.

In comparison, the mirror that collects light for the Gemini North telescope, one of the professional observatories atop Mauna Kea in Hawai‘i, is over 8 meters across. What this means is that, at any given moment, this mirror is collecting more than a million times more light than your eye. The more light you collect, the fainter an object you can see.

Gemini North telescope mirror

Gemini Observatory / AURA

Gemini North telescope mirror
A specialist in a white “clean suit” sits at the center of the light-collecting mirror that was later installed in the Gemini North telescope in Hawai‘i. The mirror is 27 feet wide but only 8 inches thick.

Human eyes also don’t collect light for long. Our eyes function like a video camera, taking images about 30 times every second. So the exposure time for each image captured by the human eye is only one thirtieth of a second. With digital cameras attached to the telescope we can collect light for as long as we like. The longer the exposure, the more light the telescope collects.

Typically a single exposure is not more than 10 to 20 minutes; but multiple exposures can be added together to make a single image with an exposure time that is, in effect, much longer. To create the most sensitive image ever made, astronomers collected over 50 days worth of observation time with the Hubble Space Telescope of a single portion of the sky. Known as the Hubble eXtreme Deep Field (XDF), this image represents a cumulative exposure time of about 2 million seconds! 

The human eye is complex. It isn’t as sensitive to faint light; and it only detects amounts that are above a certain threshold. To prevent confusion, our brain filters out the “noise” below that level. In comparison, modern electronics detect nearly all of the light that enters a telescope’s camera, even if it takes hours to collect the light. All of these factors enable telescopes to go far beyond the limits of human vision. The faintest objects in the XDF are about 10 billion times fainter than what the human eye can see.

Finally, the Universe and the amazing objects in it glow in other types of light – from radio waves to gamma rays – that are impossible for our eyes to see. It’s taken the ingenuity of scientists and engineers over the course of many decades to develop our abilities to capture the views of the Universe that we enjoy today. Without these technical tools, many phenomena and objects would simply be invisible to us entirely.

Hubble eXtreme Deep Field

NASA; ESA; G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch, University of California, Santa Cruz; R. Bouwens, Leiden University; and the HUDF09 Team.

Hubble eXtreme Deep Field
The Hubble eXtreme Deep Field represents over fifty days’ worth of observations of a single portion of the sky with a cumulative exposure time of about 2 million seconds. The faintest objects in this image are galaxies about 30 billion light years away.

Show your True Colors

It's no exaggeration to say that telescopes give us super-human vision. Nearly every astronomical image contains objects too small and/or too faint for us to see. And these images often show us kinds of light our eyes can’t detect at all. So how do astronomers take what the telescope sees and convert it into something we can see? This is a question that has challenged astronomers and astrophotographers for decades. There’s no simple answer because it depends on the telescope and camera, the type of light, the filters used, and the object observed.

Each image is therefore made in its own way. Fortunately professional observatories usually provide information about how the image was made. When reading the caption or background information about an image it might be described as shown in “true color,” “false color,” or maybe even “pseudocolor.” What do these terms mean? 

False color and pseudocolor are phrases that unfortunately have not been used consistently. What’s important to know is that these terms do not mean that the image is not real. They simply mean that color is used to show objects in a way that’s different than your eyes. On the other hand, “true color” usually means that what you’re seeing is an attempt to represent how the object would look to your eyes, albeit if they were more sensitive. Astronomers can make color images using filters that are reasonably close to the cones in our eyes. These images are often labeled as true color even though color has an ambiguous meaning for objects too faint for our eyes to naturally see. This is the case for most of the objects in space. 

However, true color is a realistic goal for bright, sunlit objects such as planets and their moons. Spacecraft that land on other planets often carry additional tools for color calibration to account for the effects of the atmosphere. Just as our blue skies (or orange skies at sunset) can change the apparent color of an object, the same effect occurs on other planets with atmospheres. The thick yellow atmosphere of Venus and the dusty brown air on Mars affect the apparent color of the planets’ surfaces. To take this into account, swatches of known color are placed on the spacecraft. By taking pictures of these color swatches with the onboard cameras, the color images from those cameras can be calibrated to show what you would see if you were there. Color-corrected images can also be made to show the “intrinsic” colors of the surface – that is, as it would appear if the Sun and sky were white. Scientists use these intrinsic colors to help identify the kinds of rocks and minerals that are on these distant worlds. 

Mount Everest

NASA / GSFC / Kimberly Casey

Mount Everest
Mount Everest (left peak) as lit by sunset. The snow atop the mountains is intrinsically white, but it appears orange because it is reflecting light from the setting Sun.
Mars Exploration Rovers sundial

NASA / JPL-Caltech / Cornell

Mars Exploration Rovers sundial
A calibration target in the form of a sundial is mounted on the Mars Spirit and Opportunity rovers. Note the four colors in the corners. Pictures taken of the Martian landscape that have the sundial in the image are used to calibrate the color in images taken by the rover cameras. The shadow cast by the sundial also helps to measure the difference in lighting effects from the Sun and atmosphere, allowing the intrinsic color of objects to be determined.
Colors on Mars

NASA / JPL-Caltech / Cornell

Colors on Mars
The top image shows a valley on Mars as you might see it if you were standing there. The dusty haze of the Martian atmosphere makes the ground appear browner than it really is. The bottom image is “white balance” color corrected to remove this effect and show the inherent colors of the rocks and sand.
Colors on Io

NASA / JPL-Caltech / University of Arizona

Colors on Io
The image on the left shows Jupiter’s moon Io (pronounced “eye-oh”) in true color, where the colors have been balanced to best match what your eye might see if you were in a spacecraft nearby. The image on the right is in “enhanced color,” where the differences in color are amplified so that subtle details can be better seen.

Scientific and Beautiful 

Within the confines of a blog post, we’ve tried to explain what a telescope does and the challenge of making astronomical images with the data they produce. It is a fundamental challenge because our telescopes can show objects in ways that our eyes cannot. That is of course the reason why we build telescopes! There would be no point to building machines like Gemini, Hubble, and Chandra if they didn’t expand our vision.

The images you see are intended to show the science that is being done with these telescopes. The reputations of the observatories, and the scientists who use them, are tied to the truth of what’s in the image. No self-respecting scientist would intentionally do something to create a misleading image from his or her data. Think of a doctor who has taken an X-ray of an ailing patient. They may use techniques to enhance the picture so that more detail can be seen, but they would never add or remove a fracture in a bone. The same is true here. 

There is an artistry to making these images, but ultimately the goal is a scientific one: to share with people the discoveries astronomers are making with these fantastic machines of exploration. With advances in telescopes, cameras, and image-processing software, we continuously improve our ability to see planets, stars, and galaxies. Though each image is a representation, it offers a real view into our real and fascinating Universe. 

To learn more about how astronomers make images we invite you to read our new book, also titled “Coloring the Universe.” The book has over 300 images, and each image has its own story as to how it was created, what it shows, and what scientists learn from it. We hope that, by reading the book, people will better understand and appreciate these beautiful images. The book is available online from several major book sellers.

See other posts from December 2015


Or read more blog entries about: pretty pictures, explaining image processing


Sridhar: 12/08/2015 06:16 CST

The caption for the 5th image from the top, with the Hubble extreme deep field image is incorrect. It refers to the faintest objects in the image being 30 billion light years away. The farthest known object is about 13 billion light years away, I believe. Did you mean 3 billion light years away in that caption?

Saul Cohen: 12/09/2015 12:26 CST

It depends on how you measure it. The light from those galaxies was emitted 13 billion years ago and it traversed 13 billion light-years to get to us. But the galaxy that emitted the light has continued to move away from us. So now it's 30 billion light-years away. I haven't checked the exact numbers, but they seem about right.

AlaskaStarstuff: 12/09/2015 12:35 CST

Sridhar, Light has only had 13.8 billion years in which to travel, but the universe itself is expanding so objects can be more than 13.8 billion light years away. This video does a good job of explaining what is a very tricky concept:

Alderamin: 12/15/2015 08:15 CST

Well written, but I would like to add a little remark: "But a telescope does more than this. It doesn’t just magnify an object; it also amplifies it. It makes something faint appear much brighter." That's perfectly true for point sources like stars, but not for nebulae. A telescope of large aperture collects more light, but it also magnifies, which spreads the light onto a larger area. To feed the light through the human eye pupil, it must be larger than the exit pupil of the telescope (this is the clear patch of light visible at the eyepiece). If the exit pupil is larger than the eye pupil, light is wasted around the eye pupil that never reaches the retina. Only if it's smaller, all the available light can be used. Now, the size of the exit pupil turns out to be "aperture divided by magnification". If we consider e.g. a pair of binoculars with 50 mm aperture and 7x magnification, the exit pupil will be 50/7 mm = 7 mm, which is about the maximum size of a dark adapted eye pupil at young age. A 50 mm lens has 7x the diameter of this pupil, so it captures 7² times more light. But the magnification is also 7 times, so the light is spread onto 7² times the retina area, hence, the photons per unit surface are the same as before. With more magnification, the spread is even larger, with less, you lose light, so the best case is constant surface brightness. This doesn't affect photography, though, as there is no exit pupil involved. The f-stop value is what matters, here.

Garry Harwood: 05/16/2016 04:39 CDT

Hi Travis, thanks for an interesting article. For the information of your readers I'd like to qualify your remark where you allude to 'space art' imagery as being the product of an artist/illustrator's imagination, with the possible implication that such is based solely on fantasy. I'd like to point out that there is a very lengthy tradition of scientifically informed astronomical art/space art wherein the imagery produced by the artist/illustrator makes use of and indeed reflects the current state of knowledge in a given field of study, The goal here being to communicate that knowledge in a way that helps the viewer grasp concepts that otherwise may be difficult to understand, to depict a new discovery, or to show something which cannot or has not yet been seen or photographed -- in fact, the production of anything but just a 'pretty picture'. Hopefully, the image will inspire a sense of wonder and discovery in the viewer. Space art can indeed be both beautiful to look at and scientifically accurate. Regards, Garry L. Harwood Fellow, International Association of Astronomical Artists

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