Visualization Depicting the Universe

Visualization and Reality

Artist's impression of the planet Kepler-78b and its host star. Art by Karen Teramura (UHIfA)

Artist’s visualization of the planet Kepler-78b and its host star. The artist extrapolated what this planet might be like based on data about the parent star and the planet’s position around it. Art by Karen Teramura (UHIfA)

A planetarium colleague of mine posted a comment on Facebook about how he was accused of “faking data” as he described immersive storytelling on their institution’s dome through visualization.  Essentially, he was using star motion as a metaphor for the passage of time (as he explained it). Since I write and produce fulldome shows, the accusation and his explanation piqued my interest. I use visualizations in all my work (fulldome, books, articles, etc.) and it never once occurred to me to think of it as “fake”. If it’s based on data, what’s fake? What’s real?

OF COURSE, ALL of what we show on the dome is not real. It’s based on data.  Every planetarium instrument (whether opto-mechanical or digital) does this. Whether they show pinpoints of light recreating the positions of stars in the actual sky or something as complex as a flight through a nebula, planetariums are among the vanguard of the theaters using data to recreate reality. The minute I take my Digistar and put it into traveling mode, I’m recreating what it might be like if I could engage my starship at Warp 9 (or whatever speed limit the Federation is allowing now) and fly among the stars. I’m simulating flight through space AND time. Just as my colleague was intending to communicate with his video clip and demonstration. So, I guess I’m a little puzzled by the accusation, especially since it came from another planetarian presumably used to seeing star motion on a dome.

It’s also intriguing because this week I’m judging a group of videos for a science film festival, and without their good visualizations  of everything from weather events to dinosaurs and comets, these films wouldn’t be nearly as interesting (both scientifically and as vehicles for storytelling) as most of them are. So, let’s talk about visualization.

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Hubble Space Telescope: 26 Years of Cosmic Wonder

Exploring Hubble Space Telescope’s Cosmos

Hubble Space Telescope launch.

Hubble Space Telescope on its way to orbit aboard space shuttle Discovery. Courtesy NASA.

It doesn’t seem all that long ago that Hubble Space Telescope roared into space in the cargo hold of the space shuttle Discovery, but the decades have flown by since that day in 1990.  It’s still going strong and, along with its sister observatories in orbit, teaching us about the cosmos.

I remember reading about the telescope back before I decided to go back to grad school, but never dreamed it would become part of MY life. That changed when I took a job at the University of Colorado Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, under the tutelage of Dr. Jack Brandt (who was Co-PI of the ultraviolet-sensitive Goddard High Resolution Spectrograph onboard HST). As part of my job interview, he mentioned sort of offhandedly that if all went well I’d be working with him and the other students on his team on Hubble “stuff”.

That was in 1988. In 1990, HST was on its way, and a year or so later, I was working with the team on various aspects of dealing with our instrument. It was affected by the spherical aberration, and folks at the Space Telescope Science Institute had figured out ways to “deconvolve” the data to help get rid of the worst effects from the mirror problems.

Fast-forward 26 years, and it seems like HST has always been there and those early problems are now just a footnote in history. The telescope has been repaired and refurbished five times, and continues to crank out observations, essentially on a 24/7/365 schedule. Each week it sends back about 140 gigabytes of data, covering observations of everything from solar system objects to the most distant galaxies and other objects in the universe.

Hubble and Me, Redux

I’ve written before about my experiences with HST before, and the role it played in my life. I have a lot to thank the telescope for, including the things it has shown us. But, also, I got to meet and work with a LOT of really cool and amazing people connected to Hubble. We’re all part of an amazing army of scientists, astronauts, graduate students, technicians and others who have had something to do with the telescope over the years. My job was small — but it paid off with experiences of a lifetime. Not to mention, it was the topic of my master’s thesis!

During the first years the telescope was on orbit, I started working on a book about the scope’s scientific achievements. Together, Jack Brandt and I published three books about HST science between 1995 and 2003. Our book, Hubble Vision was the first one to focus on the science (others had focused on the political and technical problems). We published a second edition a few years later, featuring more great images and science explanations.

Based on that, I then created a series of fulldome (planetarium) shows of the same name, each focused on science delivered by HST.  The latest one, Hubble Vision 2, remains popular with the fulldome community.

My relationship with HST these days is simply to proudly report its findings and privately exult that it’s still flying and delivering great science. Long may she orbit!

My Favorite HST Targets

a Hubble Space Telescope view of the Orion Nebula.

The Orion Nebula as seen by Hubble Space Telescope. Courtesy NASA/ESA/STScI

You would think I’d have an overall favorite HST image put of the many, many that have been published over the years.   It’s tough. Each year, I see new and more fabulous images from the telescope and think, “Wow, it doesn’t get better than this”.  Then, she delivers another one… and another one.

Oh, there are some that really knock my socks off, such as any image of the Orion Nebula. Hubble has peered into the depths of Orion many times during the past 26 years, and each time it delivers another amazing view of starbirth and the possibilities of planets orbiting in the protoplanetary disks surrounding newborn stars. That’s only the nearest of the starbirth factories Hubble has studied, but it’s the one that catches my imagination the most. And don’t even get me started on the views of distant galaxies that this telescope routinely delivers. It blows my mind to think about how each of those galaxies contains worlds with life on them, life that looks back at US and wonders what wonders OUR galaxy contains.

Hubble view of the Bubble Nebula.

The Bubble Nebula, a planetary nebula imaged by Hubble Space Telescope. Courtesy NASA/ESA/STScI

And then, just when I think I’ve seen it all, the telescope delivers another knockout image and I have to reset my list. Like this one of the Bubble Nebula released in time for the 26th anniversary of the launch.

Beyond the pretty pictures, however, HST also delivers the unseen universe to us. Its data contain the ones and zeroes of ultraviolet and infrared emissions, which tell us a complete tale of what’s happening to the objects that are emitting those wavelengths of light. If you want to learn everything there is to know about an object, you have to look at it in all the light it emits — and, you should do it over a long period of time.

That’s what HST supplies for us — at least in optical, infrared, and ultraviolet. Through its eyes, we are seeing out to the most distant reaches of the universe and that’s pretty darned amazing!

Happy Birthday, Hubble Space Telescope!