Slideshow: NASA Images As Much Art As Science

on Tuesday, Apr. 5th

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Science is empirical and quantifiable, and art is subjective. They are opposites, right? Not so for NASA, which has been mixing art and science for decades, at least since the time when Neal Armstrong waxed poetic on the surface of the moon.

When astronauts describe orbiting earth, it’s not the nuts and bolts of science experimentation they first describe, but the spectacle and beauty of seeing everything they’ve ever known spinning before them in miniature. Former US astronaut John Glenn summarized one space journey this way, “I don’t know what you could say about a day in which you have seen four beautiful sunsets.”

Last week, NASA’s MESSENGER satellite transmitted the first image taken from orbit around Mercury, the closest planet to the sun. The MESSENGER photo reminded me of how much I love space photos, how many beautiful images exist in NASA’s collection, and how deliberate NASA is about making sure they create aesthetically pleasing images.

The above image reminds me a bit of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. A NASA caption describes the image as an artist’s illustration of the ever-brightening-and-fading star Epsilon Aurigae. Many of of NASA’s photographs also bear the hand of an artist.

The spectacular color photographs created by the Hubble Telescope are co-creations with image specialists back on earth. The images are actually composites of many black & white photographs stitched together and colorized. In a September 2002 article in the journal Sky and Telescope, the news office at the Space Science Telescope Institute (STScI), which has prepared hundreds of pictures from the Hubble Telescope, calls the photos “as much art as science.”

STScI writes, “The techniques we use to enhance color, emphasize contrast, or show specific details are almost always selected with “the story” in mind.” By story, they mean that every image should reveal some scientific narrative, and the thinking goes that if an image is pretty and more digestible, than the narrative will be more digestible.

Please enjoy the following photo gallery of thoroughly digestible images.


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