Hubble and the Amateurs - the public's role in the 25-year-old space telescope

You can make images like this with data from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Source: Nasa/Esa Processed by Chris Casper

The Hubble Space Telescope’s 25th Anniversary produced a wave of media coverage. The scientists, engineers, and astronauts responsible for Hubble’s legacy deserve every bit of that praise, but the media didn’t pay much attention to Hubble’s role in amateur astronomy. Read on to learn how amateurs work with Hubble astronomers and even use Hubble data themselves.

Professionals and Amateurs Working Together

Collaboration between amateur and professional observers has a long-established tradition in astronomy. The Space Telescope Science Institute manages Hubble for Nasa. Its leadership wanted to extend the pro-am tradition into space by setting aside a small amount of Hubble observing time for amateurs. To ensure the observatory’s valuable time wasn’t wasted on trivial requests, the amateurs’ proposals went through an application process as stringent as the professionals’ proposals. Amateurs had to propose observations that were:

  • Scientifically valuable
  • Not being done by professionals
  • Only possible with the Hubble Space Telescope 

The Hubble science team awarded fourteen amateur astronomers during Hubble's early years. Unfortunately budget cuts forced the STScI to shutter the program. But that wasn’t the end of amateur collaboration with the Hubble project.

Competition for observing time at professional ground- and space-based observatories is fierce - there’s only enough observing time on Hubble to support fewer than 20% of the proposals astronomers submit. Amateur astronomers like those with the American Association of Variable Star Observers regularly help astronomers by making ground-based observations that supplement the space-based observations or that let astronomers time their use of Hubble so the rare opportunity doesn't go to waste.

Amateurs can also turn the tables when they make discoveries of their own. In 2009 amateur astronomer Anthony Wesley was taking pictures of Jupiter from his observatory in Australia. He saw a dark smudge near the planet’s south pole that looked similar to the impact scars left by the comet Shoemaker Levy 9 several years earlier. Wesley’s news swept through the planetary science community. A Space Shuttle mission had just upgraded Hubble. The STScI was still checking out the instruments, but this was an important enough discovery to make the Jupiter among the first science observations. Heidi Hammel, the lead scientist on the resulting study, said at the time:

This event beautifully illustrates how amateur and professional astronomers can work together.

Amateurs are Raiding the Archives

In addition to playing a role in Hubble’s observing programs, amateurs benefit from the project’s open data policy. Crowdsourced citizen science programs let the public produce real science by analysing images from the Hubble archive. The Andromeda Project, for example, let people search Hubble’s detailed map of our neighboring galaxy for star clusters. Almost 30,000 people submitted 1,200,000 classifications to produce a catalog of 2,753 star clusters. You can read the scientists' paper to get the full details (arXiv: 1501.04966) This catalog will let scientists study stellar evolution as well as the evolution of star clusters.

Hubble Image Processors even lets the public make their own spectacular images from Hubble data. The American hubblesite hosts video tutorials that show how to process galactic images. It also operates a Hubble Image Processors Facebook Group where amateurs can share their Hubble images. The European spacetelescope site distributes FITS Liberator - an app that can process the special file format astronomers use - as well as tutorials for processing space data.

I decided to give Hubble image processing a shot by creating my own version of this Saturn Nebula image scientists released to illustrate the physical processes surrounding a star’s death. 

Nasa published this 1997 image of the Saturn Nebula to illustrate how the Hubble Space Telescope had overturned astronomers' assumptions about the death of Sun-like stars. The expand-to-a-red-giant-shrink-to-a-white-dwarf process is far from placid. (and tell me you can't see the eyes and mouth of a space demon trapped within)

Credit: Nasa/Esa/Bruce Balick (University of Washington), Jason Alexander (University of Washington), Arsen Hajian (U.S. Naval Observatory), Yervant Terzian (Cornell University), Mario Perinotto (University of Florence, Italy), Patrizio Patriarchi (Arcetri Observatory, Italy)

An aging Sun-like star suffered a series of convulsions as its fusion engine sputtered through its final days. Clouds of gas blasted from the star’s surface formed an expanding series of concentric shells around the dying star. When the fusion reactions finally died, the star’s core collapsed to form a rapidly spinning, searing-hot white dwarf. The star is so hot that ultraviolet radiation streams from the its surface, carving the surrounding shells of gas into intricate, glowing shapes. Jets of particles shooting from the white dwarf’s poles stretched the shells cylindrically before crashing into an outer shell to form the red ansae at either end.

Rather than try to duplicate the original work, I decided to portray the violent energy released as the star died. 

My fiery take on the Saturn Nebula uses the same data as the original scientists' work. Two decades of Moore's Law in action gives amateurs like me powerful processing in cheap computers.

Source: Nasa/Esa Processed by Chris Casper

The scientists used data from three different filters to show the distribution of hydrogen (red), oxygen (green), and helium (blue) gas within the nebula. The Hubble archive has data from twice as many filters ranging from the infrared to the ultraviolet. I mixed and matched those data to create an image that’s less science-y but more fiery. The intense light from the white dwarf sears into the closest shell, twisting the gas into tortured white-hot filaments that cool towards the edges. I made the outer shells more prominent, bringing out the turbulence within. The faint ansae at the edges are distant reflections of the intense fury at the nebula's heart.

What do you think of my take on the Saturn Nebula? Have you created your own Hubble images? Let me know in the comments. Or if you have feedback on Small Steps to Space, contact me directly. Thanks!