Hubble Observations: From the Ground to Your Computer

This post is the second in a two-part series.

In my last post, “Hubble Observations: From the Sky to the Ground,” I wrote about the route Hubble images take as they are digitally transferred from space to the ground.

This is the story of what happens after that data makes the 30-mile trip over land-lines from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., to the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., and ultimately to your computer as iconic Hubble pictures.

Hubble generates approximately 855 gigabytes of new science data each month. That’s the equivalent of an 8,550-yard-long shelf of books. Astronomers, in turn, typically download six terabytes of data monthly from this growing archive. That would be the equivalent of the printed paper from 300,000 trees. By the beginning of April 2014, Hubble data had been used to publish more than 12,000 peer-reviewed scientific papers.

The raw Frontier Fields data are available to the public immediately from a repository called the Barbara A. Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes, or MAST. However, these data are not the beautiful, color Hubble images we have come to know and love. Raw images from the telescope are black and white, and include distortions introduced by the instruments, as well other unwanted artifacts from Earthshine, occasional Earth-orbiting satellite trails, bad pixels, and random hits by small, charged particles called cosmic rays.

Cosmic ray signatures are removed by combining two exposures in a way that removes everything not in both images. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Lotz, M. Mountain, A. Koekemoer, the HFF Team, and Ann Feild (STScI).

Cosmic ray signatures are removed by combining two exposures in a way that removes everything not in both images. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Lotz, M. Mountain, A. Koekemoer, the HFF Team, and Ann Feild (STScI).

 

It takes a team of about a dozen instrument analysts to “clean” these images by removing the distortions and artifacts. The refined images are posted once a week on MAST. These are the combination of multiple exposures taken in seven different filters, which allow light at specific wavelengths to enter the instruments.

Hubble’s instruments have many filters. The Frontier Fields observations use four in infrared from the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3), and three in visible light from the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS). The final, deep, combined color image for each Frontier Field will have a total of 560 exposures, divided evenly between the main cluster and its parallel field.

To produce a color picture, exposures from the seven filters are assigned the three primary colors of blue, green, and red based on their wavelengths.  Images from the shortest, bluest wavelengths are assigned to blue, while images from the longest, reddest wavelengths are assigned to red, and intermediate wavelengths are assigned to green. These primary color images are then composited to produce the full-color picture so familiar to Hubble followers.

The top row shows the combined exposures through each of the seven filters as single images.  To produce the color pictures, exposures from several, selected filters from Hubble’s WFC3 and ACS were combined into one of three primary colors based on their wavelengths. The primary color images were then composited to produce the full-color image. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Lotz, M. Mountain, A. Koekemoer, the HFF Team, and Ann Feild (STScI).

The top row shows the combined exposures through each of the seven filters as single images. To produce the color pictures, exposures from several selected filters from Hubble’s WFC3 and ACS were combined into one of three primary colors based on their wavelengths. The primary color images were then composited to produce the full-color image. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Lotz, M. Mountain, A. Koekemoer, the HFF Team, and Ann Feild (STScI).

See a large collection of color Hubble images.

Amateur astronomers may want to see the raw Frontier Fields images.

There is a Facebook page  for amateur astronomical image processors to exchange information, tips and techniques, and share their work.

 

Hubble Observations: From the Sky to the Ground

This post is part one in a two-part series.

How does what Hubble sees become what you see? The first part involves moving science data from the sky to the ground—a complicated matter.

When Hubble views an astronomical target, the digital information from that observation is stored onboard the telescope’s solid-state data recorders. The telescope records all of its science data to prevent any possible loss of unique information. Hubble’s flight operations team at Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Maryland manages the content of these recorders.

Four antennae aboard Hubble send and receive information between the telescope and the ground. To communicate with the flight operations team, Hubble uses a group of NASA satellites called the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS). Located in various positions across the sky, the TDRSS satellites provide nearly continuous communications coverage with Hubble.

Hubble’s operators periodically transmit the data from Hubble through TDRSS to TDRSS’s ground terminal at White Sands, New Mexico. From there, the data are sent via landline to Goddard to ensure their completeness and accuracy.

Goddard then transfers the data over landlines to the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland for processing, calibration, and archiving. There, they are translated into scientific information, such as wavelength and brightness, and ultimately into the iconic images that have become the hallmark of Hubble.

We’ll discuss how those images are made in a future post.

Image Credit: Ann Feild, STScI

Image Credit: Ann Feild, STScI