Improve Your Image
"Image is everything," goes the advertising adage. A
curious twist of that notion emerged following the landing in
January of the European Space Agency's (ESA) probe Huygens on Titan,
Saturn's largest moon. The first images beamed from the probe via
the Cassini spacecraft thrilled scientists but barely inspired most
of the public. Peter Hartlaub, writing in the San Francisco
While children once huddled in front of their radios and
television sets, waiting for the latest updates on the fates of
heroes such as John Glenn and Neil Armstrong, modern space missions
all seem to end the same way: with indistinct pictures of orange
rocks, followed by impassioned hyperbole from scientist types
attempting to convince us how totally awesome the images are.
Yet, thanks to a few amateur image analysts, "awesome"
images of Titan were available on the Internet within hours of the
release of the raw data.
How did this happen? Were the scientists "scooped?" Well,
yes and no. It turns out that scientists had meant to release the
raw data but, according to ESA Huygens project manager, Jean-Pierre
Lebreton, not quite so quickly. Apparently the University of Arizona
server onto which the information from Huygens's cameras was
uploaded was "made accessible [to the public] by mistake."
The Huygens data were therefore available before the scientists had
a chance even to look them over. And the public was waiting. Not the
public whom, Hartlaub writes, consider "space
exploration… really boring," but a loose-knit cadre of
space-imaging enthusiasts who convene via Internet chat rooms and
who showcase pictures on personal Web pages. One of these Web sites
is run by Anthony Liekens, a doctoral student in biomedical imaging
at the University of Eindhoven in the Netherlands.
Liekens's chat group was anticipating the Huygens data after they'd
read a University of Arizona announcement that raw pictures would be
available soon after the landing. But events unfolded much faster
than Liekens expected. Within hours, his amateur group had used
standard image-manipulation software, such as Photoshop and
Terragen, to render ESA's low-resolution grayscale composites into
serene landscapes complete with coastline, clouds and
islands—scenery recognizable to earthlings.
Were the amateurs doing science, or just prettying up the pictures?
Perhaps a bit of both. While the rendered photos were
attractive, interpreting the raw images and using software to create
realistic views of Titan required a sophisticated understanding of
image analysis and some knowledge of planetary science. As the
Huygens probe parachuted down to the surface, the Descent Imager
Spectral Radiometer (DISR) designed by scientists at the University
of Arizona captured about 350 triplet images, using three cameras at
different angles and magnifications. These low-resolution images
overlap to create larger mosaics that look rather like aerial
photographs. After compiling mosaics of Titan's surface from the
triplets, the amateurs converted these from two-dimensional
monochrome to three-dimensional color. However, as Liekens himself
pointed out, the professionals are best equipped to render the most
realistic views, as they have the expertise to interpret nonvisual
data that may provide clues to features not evident from the DISR pictures.
In any case, the Titan landscapes ended up widely distributed across
the Internet, although, Liekens noted, "The big media outlets
like CNN and BBC didn't pick it up right away." The pictures
first made their way to "nerd Web sites and blogs" and
then filtered across cyberspace to the media giants.
The rapidity and scope of the images' distribution gave the strong
impression that the amateurs had beaten scientists to the punch.
Lebreton says his team was impressed: "Our scientists here [at
ESA] looked at the images and said, 'Wow, they're beautiful.' Their
beauty was not matched by the images we released."
There seem to be no hard feelings. Lebreton says the amateurs should
be given credit for clearly stating up front that their
embellishments were not necessarily accurate but meant to be enjoyed
for what they represented. In fact, he says ESA is looking to hire
some of the amateurs who worked on the images. Lebreton thinks that
the release of the raw data has been an unexpected public-relations
success. ESA officials will meet shortly to discuss the implications
of the unintended experiment for future public relations.
The implications go far beyond the ESA offices. These events suggest
amateurs are poised to contribute in significant and unexpected
ways. New technology and access to cheap computing promise to
dramatically change the amateur-professional interaction.
Although technology has moved astronomy into the category of
"big science," amateurs still participate extensively.
Astronomy has long been a favorite discipline of amateur scientists
(among whom birding is the most popular), and amateur astronomers
are often the first to detect comets or supernovae. For this reason,
professional astronomers tend to value the contribution of amateurs.
"Generally, the attitude [toward amateurs] is positive,"
says Robert Milkey, executive officer of the American Astronomical
Society, "Many professionals are eager to collaborate and want
to write amateur contributors into research projects and
proposals.… The distinction between professionals and the
best-qualified amateurs is that the professional is paid."
Ed Flaspoehler, president of the American Amateur Astronomical
Association, who has worked as a data-processing consultant
for major corporations, perceives the professional community
differently, as "generally diffident toward amateurs."
"Some professionals view amateurs as a pool of graduate
students who do the work while [the professionals] get the
credit," he says. "Professionals have not yet figured how
to put this [resource] to good use."
Even if only a small proportion of the estimated 250,000 amateurs in
the U.S. want involvement at a higher level, Flaspoehler noted,
that's still a large number compared to the six or seven thousand
professionals. New approaches, such as those demonstrated by
Liekens's chat group, make it possible for greater numbers of
amateurs to be involved in more sophisticated ways.
Milkey thinks that "the technology [now] coming into the hands
of amateurs is capable of doing serious science." Flaspoehler
sees the Huygens imaging chat group as the latest trend in an
evolutionary process. Early amateurs made visual observations, then
graduated to telescopes. In the 1980s, amateurs widely adopted film
as a recording medium. During the 1990s CCD (charge-coupled device)
technology became widespread among observatories and then became
affordable to amateurs in the form of digital cameras. Over the past
few years amateurs have adapted digital cameras to taking
astronomical photographs and therefore became involved in image processing.
Some scientists see that the spread of new, cheap technology,
particularly in information and data management, offers new ways to
interact with the public. One example is so-called distributed
computing. Internet-connected personal computers, while otherwise
idle, perform subsets of calculations that require massive
processing power. Starting with SETI@home, which analyzes radio
telescope data to detect extraterrestrial signals, the use of
distributed computing has extended to processing data from laser
interferometers to detect gravitational waves (Einstein@home) and
running models of global climate-change prediction (climateprediction.net) and protein
"There's a real need for organization to bring amateurs and
professionals together," Robert Milkey remarked. He hopes that
members of the public will see more of what keeps scientists coming
to the observatory or laboratory every day—and have the chance
to participate in scientific research and experience that excitement
for themselves.—Roger Harris