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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

A Conversation with Ed Stone

I had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Ed Stone as part of the Riding with Robots podcast back in 2007. He’s the Project Scientist for the Voyager mission to the outer planets and, now, interstellar space. He was also the director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

(The image-enhanced podcast requires QuickTime to view.)

On Aug 16 & 17, JPL is hosting a lecture about Voyager in person and online with Dr. Alan Cummings.

From the announcement:

“The Voyager mission legacy cannot be understated. The twin spacecraft gave us remarkable views of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, unlike anything we had seen before, and paved the way for further exploration; the Galileo and Cassini spacecraft were direct descendants of the Voyager probes. Approaching their thirty-fifth anniversary, the Voyager twins continue to send us data from the farthest reaches of our solar system, at once enforcing and rewriting theories about this previously unexplored region. As they travel ever further, escaping all but our Sun’s constant but waning gravitational tug, the mission planners look forward to the next 10 – 15 years to hopefully witness the first spacecraft enter true, interstellar space.”

Voyager is one of several amazing ongoing missions in addition to the Mars Curiosity rover.

Long-Distance Call

The Voyager 1 probe, the farthest artificial object from the Earth, is operating at such a distance that the signal takes about 13 hours just to reach the spacecraft, even at the speed of light. Learn more about the Deep Space Network that makes it possible for the Voyagers to phone home.