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Improve Your Image

Roger Harris

"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 Chronicle, lamented:

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.

About 10 kilometers above Titan's surface...Click to Enlarge Image

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.

Amateur image analysts...Click to Enlarge Image

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 ( and protein folding (Folding@home).

"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

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