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Last Updated: Friday, 18 February, 2005, 22:58 GMT
Hubble pics 'like romantic art'
By Paul Rincon
BBC News science reporter, in Washington DC

Eagle Nebula (Nasa)
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An art expert says Hubble telescope images are a modern proxy for romantic 19th Century landscape paintings - carefully balancing art and reality.

Hubble's raw images are carefully processed to produce the stunning colour representations that appear on the front pages of newspapers.

Elizabeth Kessler says the scientists who do this often make choices that suggest geological features on Earth.

She presented her ideas at a major science conference in Washington DC.

"The aesthetic choices made result in a sense of majesty and wonder about nature and how spectacular it can be, just as the paintings of the American West did," argued Ms Kessler.

Hubble (Nasa)
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"The Hubble images are part of the romantic landscape tradition. They fit that popular, familiar model of what the natural world should look like."

The raw data that the Hubble transmits consist of black-and-white electronic images with little definition or detail.

A team of astronomers takes three raw Hubble filters - which each record a different wavelength of light - combines them, and then interprets their meaning, applying colour to each filtered image, removing streaks and cropping the image.

Ms Kessler said this process required making "subjective choices regarding contrast, composition and colour".

As scientifically based as the photos are, she continued, there is a wide range of possible interpretations for each image.

Hourglass Nebula (Nasa)
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The interpretations often chosen, Ms Kessler believes, are ones that suggest cliff faces and erosion - adding that some look strikingly like pictures from Yellowstone National Park, or paintings of the old West by artists Albert Bierstadt or Thomas Moran.

The Chicago doctoral student arrived at her conclusions after spending several months interviewing members of the Hubble Heritage Project, the body of astronomers that creates the popular space telescope pictures.

She claims that the goals in creating the pictures are as much educational as scientific.

"Scientists really want some kin to have a poster of this on their wall, as they did pictures of the Moon.

"They want science to invoke a sense of frontier and discovery."

Cat's Eye Nebula (Nasa)
The Cat's Eye Nebula: Science with some post-production
Hubble's remarkable pictures will be with us for as long as we care to look at them - the telescope itself will not.

The US space agency (Nasa) has made it clear it will not service the observatory again and what some have called "the greatest scientific instrument since the invention of the very first telescope" will be left to decay and fail.

Robots will be sent on a "kill mission" to bring Hubble down to Earth once its pointing gyroscopes have ceased working.

Elizabeth Kessler was speaking here at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's 2005 meeting.


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