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What Does Space Really Look Like?

Posted December 12, 2014

When you see the beautiful pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope, you’re looking at a lie. They’re specially colored images, done for science. But what does space really look like?

Our eyes would never see the Crab Nebula as this Hubble image shows it. Image credit: NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University)

Our eyes would never see the Crab Nebula as this Hubble image shows it. Image credit: NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University)

Do you love the beautiful pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope? Do you ever wonder what it would look like to fly through space and see places like the Orion Nebula up close? Just imagine hiding the Enterprise in the Mutara Nebula, and getting the jump on Khan? Have you ever wondered… what does this stuff actually look like? Looks like we’re back to wrecking sci-fi Christmas again, as I’ve got some bad news.

Nothing, nothing will ever look as cool as the pictures you see on your computer, or even have the same colors. If you were flying right through the Orion Nebula, it wouldn’t look anything like the pictures. In fact, it would kinda suck.

When looking out into the night sky with your own eyeballs, you don’t see any beautiful nebulousness. Just the stars and the faint glow of the Milky Way. You might be able to see a few fuzzy bits, hint of nebulae, galaxies and star clusters. We’re back to a familiar problem, which those of you who are considering Venus as a vacation spot know too well. We’re made out of meat, and in this case, it’s certainly not doing us any favors.

Imagine building a camera out of meat. Pop into a deli, grab a fistful of cold cuts, a pickled egg, and a light sensor, and make that into a camera. Well, that’s your eyes. With the modern advances in camera technologies, we’ve learned that apparently meat cameras are not great cameras.

Charged Coupled Devices (CCD) for Ultra-Violet and Visible Detection. Credit: NASA

Charged Coupled Devices (CCD) for Ultra-Violet and Visible Detection. Credit: NASA

The biggest advantage to the inorganic kind is that they can gather light for minutes and even hours, soaking up all the photons streaming from a distant object. They, do however, make terrible sandwiches. For example, the famous Hubble Deep Field photograph, which peered into a seemingly empty part of space, turned up thousands of galaxies. Hubble stared for more than 130 hours to create this image.

Our meat cameras refresh themselves every few seconds. Even in the darkest skies, with the most perfectly light-adjusted eyes, if you keep your eyes perfectly still and stare at a spot in space, you can’t gather more than 15-20 seconds of light with your eyes. So we’ll never see these objects because they’re so faint and deliver such a tiny amount of light for every second you stare at them.

But sure, what if you got close? What if I stuck my meat camera on a tripod right outside one of these gaseous structures. Here’s the crazy part. Nebulae never get any brighter even as you get closer. In optics, there’s a rule called “the conservation of surface brightness”. As you get closer to a nebula, it also gets bigger in the sky. The increased brightness is spread out over a larger area, and the average brightness remains exactly the same. You could be right beside the Orion Nebula, and it wouldn’t look any brighter or majestic than we see it from here on Earth. In other words… it would still suck.

But what about the colors? Here’s where astronomers are lying to you in a grand conspiracy of Roswellian proportions. So, watch out for those black helicopters, it’s time for another meeting of the Guide To Space Tinfoil Hat Society.

Astronomers generally use black-and-white CCD cameras to make their observations. Then they’ll put filters in front of their cameras to only let through very specific wavelengths of light. Those filters can match the specific colors that make up the visible spectrum: red, blue and green. But usually they’re using filters that reveal scientific information. For example, astronomers want to detect the presence of hydrogen, oxygen and sulfur in a nebula. They’ll use one filter that reveals each one of the elements. And then in a program like Photoshop, they’ll assign red to hydrogen, blue to oxygen and green to sulfur. The resulting image can look beautiful, but the colors have nothing to do with reality. That’s right, your inspirational desktop of the week is a lie.

True color images typically have no value for astronomers, but occasionally they’ll throw us a bone. They’ll produce an image using red, blue, and green filters which roughly match the capabilities of the human eye. And NASA’s Curiosity rover has a pair of color cameras, which allow it to capture images of the surface of Mars that match what you might see if you were standing on the surface of the planet… Because that robot gets us, I mean, he really gets us.

I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news. You’ll never be able to see a nebula more beautifully with your own eyes than you do right now. But good news! Those pictures are amazingly beautiful and you don’t have to wait to see them up close!

You tell us. Even though we’ve revealed this terrible secret, what would you still want to see up close?

Source: Universe Today, written by Fraser Cain

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