What Does Space Really Look Like?

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?

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.

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.

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

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?

6 Replies to “What Does Space Really Look Like?”

  1. I do believe you mispoke about the length of time the eye can integrate photons from the sky. It is 15 to 20 milliseconds or the inverse of the 24 frames per second which through persistence of vision allows old fashioned film movies to appear continous. If our eyes could integrate light from a single object for 15 seconds, the instant we moved our eye to something else moving about in the dark, say a bear, everything would be a blur.

  2. “When you see the beautiful pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope, you’re looking at a lie.”

    It’s no more a lie than reading a translation from one language which you do not understand into a language which you do understand. Would you say that an accurate translation from French to English was a lie simply because you had to read it in English and not its original language?

  3. I’d like to see a happening supernova in extreme slow motion and up close (without getting fried, of course 😉 ). So I could see the “mechanics” behind it all… what goes on at each second… step by step?

  4. I’d like to see the rings of Saturn up close or from within. Or the surroundings of a black hole. Or the lake shores on Titan. The upper clouds of Venus where the temperatures are like in Florida. (This list goes on and on…)
    And yes, I totally agree with Paul Gracey. The eyes process around 25 pics per second. So it’s even less photons in each picture an eye can let you see. Let a camera make a picture for 30 seconds, set it to ISO 800 or 1600, and you’ll get approx. 900 “eye-pictures” in a single photo.
    I agree with geckzilla, too. XMM Newton and the JWST are designed to see X-rays and infrared. No human eye kann see this, but the pictures these instruments create are no lies. Just conversions from a spectrum part we can’t see into another one we can.

  5. Frasier, I generally enjoy your work and the great output of the Universe Today. Thanks for NOT being the tabloid journalists for astronomy and space topics.

    But, your video about astrophotography lying (“What Does Space Really Look Like?”) is wrong, wrong, wrong. You owe NASA and all astrophotographers an apology.

    Let’s step back and review the concept of photography. It’s the recording of light in a two-dimensional form. Most photos strive to provide a viewer with the closest possible substitute for the view from the site. So a portrait captures and renders the face of the subject to allow people in the future to enjoy the same sight as the camera. A photo of the Grand Canyon captures the colors, features, and shadows that surround the camera. I hope you agree those photographs are not lies. However, a human and the Grand Canyon look very different in photos than in person. That difference between the photos and the personal vision reveals a gap in technology — not a deception by the photographer. If technology was perfect we could eliminate that gap so that we could view a recorded face or landscape with no difference from the in-person experience. The fact that we aren’t there yet is not a deception. I hope you’re still in agreement.

    But what about photos that go beyond the limits of our eyes to give us a view we can not possibly observe in real life? When hummingbirds hover near my feeders, the birds’ wings are a blur to my eyes. However, my camera can snap a photo at 1/4000 second which freezes the wings. That lets me enjoy the beautiful detail of the wings and the grace of the bird. Is the camera image a lie? Or is my blurry wing view a lie? I hope you agree that each view — camera or eye — is a true view.

    Let’s consider long exposure astrophotos. Typically these involve multiple long exposures. The individual images are heavily massaged by computers to remove electronic contaminations. Next the individual images are statistically combined to remove more noise. That combined image is artistically enhanced by the astronomer to suit his/her tastes. Most of us astrophotographers don’t consider any of those steps to be part of a lie. As in the above scenarios, the gap between a natural, unaided view and the photograph is undeniable. I leave it to you to point out which steps — collection, data cleaning, data combination, and final processing — are lies.

    Finally, let me point out a closer-to-home example for your consideration. I trust that you intend for all your videos to be as innocent, real, and lie-free as possible. But what if a viewer suggested your video was a lie because no one could view the exact images of you as recorded by you camera? That accusing viewer could point out that your camera uses a monochrome light sensor (covered by a set of color micro-filters) which has its electronic signal artificially amplified to produce the image — nothing near the optical system in humans. According the rules-of-engagement you applied to astrophotographers, that viewer might charge you with the same level of deception you attached to the astrophotography community.

    I think you were very unfair to some hard working people in the astrophotography world. Maybe you should go after the real deceivers. Do you know that weathermen show maps of storms in various colors? The storm clouds overhead are never the reds, yellows, blues, and green depicted in those maps. Maybe we could team-up to get the FCC to investigate these lies.

    Clear skies, Joe

    1. Nice analogy at the end with the weather maps, Joe. People are confused about what is being presented to them. I think a common response upon realizing that space does not “really” look like this, that they could never see it with their own eyes, is to immediately feel deceived. This is an unfortunate happening and something I battle with frequently. There are times when some imagers take significant liberties. It is important for everyone to explain what they did so that viewers at least have the possibility of understanding even if many do not put forth much effort.

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