From the beginning, NASA understood that space photography played a vital role in its missions. Releasing public domain images of a lonely blue planet or footage of astronauts on spacewalks elegantly communicate their accomplishments to the public while inspiring future engineers and scientists.
Over time, photography techniques grew from pointing a camera out of a window to using powerful mirrors and telescopes to capture impossibly distant subjects. To share these images with the world, NASA needed to solve photographic and data challenges. From the original Blue Marble image to the brand new James Webb Space Telescope images, space exploration visual identity has always been powered by data.
UV, infrared, and radio waves, oh my!
Space is a volatile place full of harsh environments and unpredictable factors. To capture such a variable subject requires multiple techniques. For example, large swaths of the Milky Way galaxy are unseeable in the visible light spectrum, hidden by cosmic dust. Most attempts to capture those celestial bodies turn out black, but radio waves pass right through the cosmic dust.
Discoveries like radio wave imagery power many of the most common techniques used in space photography. Ultraviolet photography reveals extragalactic planets and stars by creating two-dimensional images of UV radiation. To capture images at the extremes of the light spectrum, infrared cameras focus on electrons emitting infrared radiation. And radio imaging constructs images by scanning across space, assigning each pixel image data to create a mosaic of space.
These techniques require an immense amount of imaging data to construct even a single photograph. This image of the center of the Milky Way, captured by the MeerKAT Radio Telescope in South Africa, is a composition of 20 separate radio wave observations. The 1,000 by 600 lightyear panorama required 70 terabytes of radio wave imagery data and three years of processing for the single image.
There, and back again
70 terabytes are a lot of data, and that’s just for one image. Ongoing missions generate that kind of data consistently, sometimes up to 100 terabytes a day. Storing data locally during space missions, and then transmitting them to Earth for processing are key processes in space photography.
The data from satellites and cameras is captured and stored locally. Yaniv Iarovici, director of IoT segment marketing at Western Digital, explored the unique challenges of storing data in space in a contributed article for VentureBeat. Iarovici highlights the importance of reliability and data integrity in these use cases. A mission like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) costs so much money, time, and labor, it would be crushing to lose the data collected to a corrupted drive, drifting along somewhere in the Milky Way. Similarly, because these missions capture something that humanity may never get a shot at replicating, it’s critical that the data are useable upon their return to Earth.
That level of performance also needs to stand up to the forces of a rocket launch, leaving the atmosphere, the harsh temperatures of space, and phenomena like galactic cosmic rays. These goals and hurdles are at the core of an approach known as Design for Reliability, writes Iarovici. Design for Reliability is a NASA standard for equipment that Western Digital is working to implement in its storage devices to ensure they are “space-grade” quality.
Once the data is securely stored, the various space missions wait to transmit them back to Earth via radio waves. Even here, reliability and integrity are important considerations. Mission control carefully monitors the transmission rate and volume to ensure data integrity. It’s an exercise in balance; the data must not exceed the storage capacity of the satellite while preventing losses during transmission.
To visualize and share this careful operation, NASA created Deep Space Network Now through its NASA’s Eye program. Deep Space Network Now allows the public to see the real-time communication and data transmission with the various ongoing NASA missions by displaying a dashboard of the three major communications dishes in Spain, Australia, and the U.S. Distance, roundtrip time, bitrate, and other metrics paint a vivid image of the perilous journey the data travel.
Shoot for the stars
Beyond the benefits for business and science alike, the space photography is crucial to communicating the mission of NASA. While science can be hard to communicate, obfuscated by technical industry language and complex mathematics, photographs are universal. These images tell the narrative of where we’re looking and what we see out there. It’s the story of the hard work of countless engineers and scientists, and the origin story of many more. The images from the JWST and others inspire people today to keep pushing forward, to keep imagining and exploring. That wonder is the genesis of many careers in science, whether that person is an astrophysicist or an ecologist. They may not land in space, but those people still land among the scientific stars.