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What Is Amateur Imaging?

To scientists, images are data, measurements of the properties of the surfaces and atmospheres of solar system bodies.  To most of the public, the images are pretty pictures returned from interplanetary voyages. But to space enthusiasts, the images are a treasure trove to be sorted through, studied, processed, and shared. To amateurs, the images are photos returned from interplanetary voyages.  So, for most amateurs, the goal of space image processing is to produce views of other worlds as they might appear to human voyagers.

As with the professionals working with the science data, amateurs may take steps like warping individual images to assemble them into a larger, seamless mosaic; produce color views by aligning several images taken through different-color filters; overlay low-resolution color imagery on higher-resolution black-and-white images; stack numerous images to sharpen a view; or animate time-series of images.

But amateurs can take liberties with image data that scientists do not, though they typically strive to maintain as much fidelity to the data as possible. In the pursuit of aesthetic beauty, they may paint out data gaps or cosmic ray hits; artificially colorize images; cut and paste parts of images to account for motion between the acquisition of image frames; or perform other image manipulation tricks to improve its appearance.  As a result, amateur-produced images are often not usable for scientific interpretation, but they are uniquely valuable for illustration.

Amateurs can also breathe new life into old data.  In the past, only a tiny fraction of spacecraft image data was publicly released. Once a mission's funding  expired, it usually ceased to release any newly processed images.  But in its raw form, the vast majority of image data received on Earth from the dozens of interplanetary missions has been made freely available online, and an increasing number of people have developed the skills and knowledge needed to access and process this older data into previously unappreciated views of our solar system.  There is now an international community of amateur image processors who trawl through the vast data collections of past and present missions, producing spectacular views not seen before by the wider public. One place that has become a major center for this creative activity is UnmannedSpaceflight.com.

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