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Painting by the Numbers
Scientists find beauty in the details of stars
by Liza Gross

The Hubble Heritage Team (L to R): Zolt Levay, Carol Christian, Lisa Frattare, Forrest Hamilton, Keith Noll and Howard Bond
Keith Noll,
Principal Investigator

Sometimes the language of science obscures the true measure of what scientists study. But asteroids streaming through space, nebulas ablaze in orange and blue, and star clouds studded with brilliant beacons speak volumes about the wonders of the universe. That’s why,

once a month, the Heritage Project unveils a new masterwork of technical and aesthetic ingenuity, all captured in a single image.

"Our telescope brings the wild and exotic things in outer space to the front covers of newspapers and magazines," says Heritage image processor Lisa Frattare. "It shows them that there are these really cool things, like the Planetary Nebula (right) that are doing their thing out in space." And a dazzling astral vista, Heritage scientists believe, will surely arouse people’s curiosity about the science behind the phenomena.

The Ant Nebula (Planetary Nebula Mz3), 3,000 light-years from earth.

Thanks to the state-of-the-art Hubble Space Telescope, those images are ever more stunning--and scientifically accurate. Orbiting beyond the distorting effects of earth’s atmosphere, Hubble produces images of unprecedented quality, resolution, and detail, far exceeding the capabilities of ground-based scopes. "Before you could tell that something was a circle, but it

The "Polar Ring" galaxy, chosen by 8,000 Internet voters.

was a fuzzy circle," says Frattare. "Now, with the resolution of HST, you can get in there and say, that’s the start of a solar system, or that’s a star with a jet exploding off of it."

To decide which images to showcase, scientists scour the Hubble archive for the perfect blend of arresting beauty and scientific interest. But the archive doesn’t always satisfy the search. Since visually appealing targets don’t necessarily make compelling research subjects, Heritage scientists sometimes reserve observing time on Hubble to gather their own data. And they ask for public input. So far, Internet voters have picked three Heritage targets.

Once a target is chosen, Hubble’s instruments collect data--stored in long strings of numbers--that breaks down the radiant light into discrete colors to reveal the target’s temperature, motion, composition, and age. Translating those numbers into a visual snapshot of the scientific phenomenon requires the talents of many scientists with different areas of expertise. Star formation experts might lend a hand to create an image of a nebula, or "star nursery," while experts in galactic structures might help determine the appearance and nature of a galaxy.

The Spirograph Nebula (Planetary Nebula IC 418), 2,000 light-years from earth.

Heritage scientists generally assign colors based on what the highly sensitive telescope "sees" rather than on what the human eye could see if it were out in space. We can’t detect ultraviolet radiation or extremely dim light, but the telescope can. These invisible parameters can convey important scientific details that escape notice in the visible spectrum. Reflecting the telescope’s keener vision, Heritage images capture subtle structural and light effects that emphasize scientific phenomena.

The Heritage Project has given astronomers an important tool for educating the public, making the science of the stars more accessible. For astronomer and Heritage creator Keith Noll, that’s the whole point. "The project has always been more about beauty than truth," Noll says. "Beauty has its own form of truth, one that transcends barriers of language and education. It reaches closer to our hearts than to our heads. As Walt Whitman said so beautifully, sometimes it’s okay to leave the darkened lecture hall and simply look up in silence at the stars."

The Keyhole Nebula (NGC 3372), 8,000 light-years from earth.

- Members of the Heritage team are assured telescope time for their images. Not so for research scientists. They have to go through a long proposal process, from which only a fraction of their requests are selected. Read more about how astronomers compete for a peek at the cosmos.

-The Heritage Project:




© 2001 The Exploratorium