Through a Glass, Darkly

If you’ve ever tried photography, you know that not every picture can be a prize winner. Sometimes, no matter how carefully you prepare, there’s not enough light, or the sun flares in the lens, or the model blinks. Of course, there is some comfort in the fact that even top professionals face the same problems every now and then.

Even when it comes to machines that people have used to create some of the most unforgettable images in history, robotic spacecraft in deep space, not every shot that comes down to Earth is ready for the cover of National Geographic. In fact, some of the better ones still require a little bit of clean-up, whether it’s removing a spot of digital noise or correcting color to more closely match what you’d see with your own eye if you could stand on Mars. Some of the pictures are just disasters.

All photography in space faces challenges. Many of these are the usual questions of exposure, framing, and focus, but complicated by extreme changes in lighting conditions, and cameras mounted on platforms that are traveling at thousands of kilometers per hour relative to their subjects. Others problems are endemic to space travel, such as cosmic rays and other forms of radiation interfering with the camera sensor, not to mention the glitches that can crop up in the custom computer systems on board the spacecraft or somewhere else along the line within the Deep Space Network that carries the signals.

Even so, when you’re talking about our handsome Solar System, even the throw-away pictures offer their own kinds of rewards. Consider the following set of raw or very lightly processed images that I’ve come across in the archives. All of them suffer from one photographic malady or another. I’m still glad I saw them.

The Shores of the Seventh World – Digital noise in this raw Voyager image of Uranus almost looks like electronic surf. Credit: NASA / JPL

I’ll admit it: I actually like images like these. They remind me that the spacecraft are real. These are not excercises in CGI. They are physical machines of aluminum and silicon, built by human hands, graceful, precise, yet flawed.

Blinded by the Light – Saturn not quite eclipsing the Sun, which is overloading the Cassini spacecraft’s cameras. Credit: NASA / JPL / SSI

They fly through physical space at great speed, beset by storms of radiation and the contstant threat of meteorite impact…or just the wear and tear of travel across millions of kilometers and years of time.

Martian Sunshine – The robotic geologist Opportunity faces a low sun on the horizon. Credit: NASA / JPL

The places they reach are also real. Harsh, unforgiving, but only so because reality itself can be harsh and unforgiving. These are not paintings we’re looking at here. It’s not a movie. If you could ride with New Horizons, if there were a window where you could press your nose, you could see the glare of the very real Sun in the glass.

Jupiter’s Rings – The New Horizons probe, passing by Jupiter on its way to Pluto, spied Jupiter’s relatively faint rings (the long, horizontal arc at the center of the image). Credit: NASA / JHUAPL

Flawed, unprocessed images from space also make me think about the collaboration between human and machine. Who takes a picture of the rings of Saturn: Cassini or the people on the Cassini imaging team? Surely it’s some of both. The people who fly the missions overcome terrific technological hurdles just to get the spacecraft to the right place at the right time to make a photograph. When the shots don’t quite turn out, it’s reminder of how stunning it is when they do.

Sparkling Io – The Galileo spacecraft catches a peek at Jupiter’s moon Io in a raw image full of cosmic ray hits and other noise. Credit: NASA / JPL

Besides, just because an image isn’t perfectly pretty, that doesn’t mean it’s not useful. Science and engineering teams can, and routinely do, squeeze knowledge out of every pixel in images that are never widely published.

So I keep looking at these pictures, the throw-aways. I think about the smell of rockets exploded on the launch pad and the silence in a control room after a spacecraft’s signal has unexpectedly gone dead. About how we can’t help but explore anyway, about the way the imperfect mechanical world reaches out to the sublime natural.

The Machine, at the Edge of Forever – A raw image sent by Voyager 2 from Neptune’s moon Triton, just before the spacecraft slipped away into the darkness beyond the planets, never to return. Credit: NASA / JPL

These pictures aren’t perfect. But if you look closely you can see ourselves in them.

Earth Rise – The Kaguya lunar orbiter catches a ray of sunlight as the Earth and Sun emerge from behind the Moon. Credit: JAXA / NHK

This article originally appeared as a guest post on The Planetary Society site.

Not the Only Robot in the Sky: Curiosity’s Cousins

Saturn and its moon Rhea, as seen by Curiosity's robotic cousin Cassini. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

Who could forget the dramatic landing of the Mars Curiosity rover? (Not to mention Mohawk Guy). It’s exciting—if a little surprising—to see such an avalanche of attention heaped on any space mission. With some luck, Curiosity will be exploring Mars and inspiring headlines for years to come.

And that’s not all! The best part? Curiosity is not alone.

In fact, right now more than a dozen robotic spacecraft are exploring almost every corner of the sky. With a few mouse clicks you can ride along with all of them. Each provides regular or even daily dispatches from the mind-blowing places they’re revealing. Some of them sound like they’re straight out of science fiction.

Here are five of the most interesting space robots now roaming the High Frontier (and there are lots of others!)

Mars Exploration Rovers
Official site | Wikipedia

Mars Exploration Rovers

Nearly a decade into what was supposed to be a 90-day mission, the robotic geologist Spirit has finally succumbed to the harsh Martian desert—but its twin, Opportunity, is still going strong! It sends almost daily updates about its travels, half a world away from Curiosity’s landing site.

a Mars-scape

Official site | Wikipedia | Eyes on the Solar System (a 3D simulator)


This orbiter is flying through the mini solar system that is Saturn, its shimmering rings and its family of world-sized moons. It has already discovered geysers on the ice moon Enceladus and an underground ocean beneath the thick haze of Titan.

Saturn and Titan Geysers of water ice erupt from Saturn's enigmatic moon Enceladus

Official site | Wikipedia | Eyes on the Solar System


This is the first mission dedicated to the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter, with two ports of call. Propelled by an ion engine, the spacecraft is just leaving the giant asteroid Vesta, on its way to be the first to explore Ceres, the largest proto-planet in the belt.

asteroid Vesta mineral map of Vesta

Official site | Wikipedia | Eyes on the Solar System


Mysterious Mercury is a little less so, now that this mission has been circling that strange little world. It has revealed a stark beauty all its own.

New Horizons
Official site | Wikipedia | Eyes on the Solar System

New Horizons

Whether you call it a planet or not, Pluto is one of the last uncharted blank spaces on the map. That will all change in 2015, when the New Horizons probe flies by, giving us our first close-up look. What will we see? That’s just it: nobody knows! Meanwhile, the robotic ship took some amazing shots when it buzzed past Jupiter a few years ago. (Yeah, it’s a looong trip.)

Jupiter & Io Jupiter Atmosphere


Bonus mission: Voyager

Official site | Wikipedia | WolframAlpha

Talk about a mission that just keeps on giving. After a spectacular and legendary tour of the outer planets in the 70s and 80s, the twin Voyager 1 and 2 probes are right now on the verge of leaving the solar system and heading out into interstellar space. See a conversation I had with Ed Stone, the mission’s chief scientist.

If anyone tries to tell you that NASA has shut down or that the Space Age is over, remind them of these amazing adventures. Not to mention the fact that many nations are undertaking similar missions.

At the same time, the future of this golden age of discovery is very much under threat. Despite the dramatic successes of NASA’s planetary science programs in recent years, draconian budget cuts in the U.S. disproportionately target this very success. Learn more and get involved!