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They give us deep insights into the universe in a new quality. However, the breathtaking images from the Webb telescope are not photos in the strict sense of the word.

Shining stars, glowing planets, colorful nebulae: the universe is often depicted in photographs as a mystical place with many colors. How do these fascinating space images that the “James Webb” telescope recently sent us come about?

The “James Webb Space Telescope”, as it is called in full, has various instruments on board for this purpose. These register different electromagnetic frequency ranges in the near infrared range, which are usually invisible to the human eye.

This data “is stored in a digital format with ones and zeros,” said Joe DePasquale on the Nasa Podcast. It is essentially a black and white image. The Senior Data Image Developer of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, and his team are responsible for publishing the space images from the “Webb” telescope, among others.

These data from the telescope must first be cleaned of instrumental effects, explains astrophysicist Kai Noeske of the European Space Agency (ESA). Then comes the color: Roughly different areas are assigned the primary colors red, green and blue.

Because it’s not like the scientists create an image with the colors they’ve chosen. DePasquale explains, “We respect the data from start to finish. And we make the data in color.”

The road to the final product – the photo

Objects in space such as stars or gases are visible in different wavelengths. In order to be able to record these, the Webb telescope has several filters on board. Astrophysicist Noeske illustrates the work in the image processing program, where color comes into the picture: “As a rule, the image in the shortest wave filter is the blue channel, in the middle filter the green channel, and the image in the longest wave filter is the red channel. “

This approach is not much different from normal digital or smartphone cameras in this regard. They also use tricks to render colors. There, sensors measure the proportions of red, green and blue in the respective image areas. The monochrome image information is merged into a color image directly in the camera or smartphone.

In the case of the images from the “Webb” telescope, this step is performed later. In addition, the published recordings are sometimes composed of hundreds of individual images.

Conspiracy Theorists Against Science

There is image processing in many disciplines, including microscopy. And yet, when photos from space are published, conspiracy theorists often feel called to the stage. For example, they believe that the moon landing took place about 50 years ago or that aliens left a human-like face on the surface of Mars. Recently, they have also focused on the images from the Webb telescope. Your claim: The photos are fake. Why is there no faith here too?

“We often speak of conspiracy ideology when people develop a worldview in which an alleged conspiracy is suspected behind everything,” political scientist Josef Holnburger explains to dpa. He is one of the directors of Cemas (Center for Monitoring, Analysis and Strategy) in Berlin, which monitors, among other things, radicalization trends and the spread of conspiracy stories on social media.

These conspiracy ideologies often lead to taking an anti-everything stance, for example believing that climate change does not exist, that the Earth is actually flat and that humanity has never been on the moon. “All new findings are subordinate to this worldview: images from the James Webb telescope must therefore be fake in this worldview, precisely because they come from scientists,” explains Holnburger. In the worldview of a conspiracy ideology, research collaborates with the alleged conspirators.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) devoted a recently published study to the Webb data. The results suggest that the tools currently used to decode light signals may not be sufficient to accurately interpret the Webb telescope data. “Currently, the model (…) does not match the precision and quality of the data available to us from the James Webb telescope,” one researcher said in a statement. Current evaluations could be more accurate.

the successor

The James Webb telescope was launched on December 25, 2021 aboard an Ariane launch vehicle. Previously, there were explosions in costs and repeated shifts. The space agencies of the US, Canada and Europe are collaborating on the project. Behind this is 30 years of development and costs of about ten billion dollars (about 8.8 billion euros).

The Webb telescope follows the Hubble telescope, which has been in use for more than 30 years. While “Hubble” works in the optical and ultraviolet range, “James Webb” investigates in the near infrared range.

The “James Webb” telescope provides new images from the early universe with the help of a 25-square-meter mirror, among other things. Science hopes the recordings will provide insight into the time after the Big Bang, about 13.8 billion years ago — and possibly even evidence of a second Earth.


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