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FEATURE ARTICLE

Photoshopping the Universe

Astronomers produce beautiful images by manipulating raw telescope data, but such processing makes images more accurate, not misrepresentative of reality.

Travis A. Rector, Kimberly Arcand, Megan Watzke

2017-01ExcerptRectorF1.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageWhen people interact with cosmic images, nearly all of their first questions are about authenticity: Are the images real? Is this what I would see standing next to this? In a world made surreal with the magic of science-fiction special effects and digital image manipulation, there is a need to know that what we are seeing is real, and that these fantastic cosmic starscapes are places that truly existed. These images are of real objects in outer space. They aren’t creations of a graphic artist’s imagination. But how a telescope “sees” is radically different from how our eyes see. Telescopes give us superhuman vision. In most cases they literally make the invisible visible. All astronomical images are translations of what the telescope can see into something that our human eyes can see. But how is it done? This is a question that has challenged astronomers and astrophotographers for decades. Many people have developed and refined techniques to take the data generated by professional-grade telescopes and turn them into color images. Along the way we’ve worked to develop a visual language to better convey an understanding of what these pictures show.


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