As NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope continues to capture and release groundbreaking images from space, artist, graphic designer and citizen scientist Judy Schmidt uses her artistic background to translate raw data into stunning images.
Each image processed by the James Webb Telescope and its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, represents a translation of the telescope’s raw data based on different observations, many of which require light that is not visible to the human eye. NASA and its partners employ visual developers dedicated to the task of developing these images, but (as the data is publicly available from the Barbara A Mikulski Archives for Space Telescopes) amateurs have also attempted to process the images. One of these amateurs, Judy Schmidt of Modesto, California, helped create some of the official Webb images released by the space agency.
Although he doesn’t have a formal degree in astronomy, Schmidt has been processing astronomical images using NASA data for about a decade. It started by winning third place in a “Hubble’s Hidden Treasures” competition a decade ago, which asked entrants to create images using unprocessed Hubble data.
What started as a simple contest turned into a real passion for Schmidt, who was profiled by Nasa for his work in 2018. “Something about it has stuck with me, and I can’t stop,” Schmidt said in a statement. “I try to make it look natural, even if it’s not close to what your eye can see.”
Since the release of the Webb images, Schmidt has created a new album about her Flickr account devoted to his work with the raw data from the telescope. Two of Schmidt’s images were later adopted by NASA as it slowly begins releasing more official images of Webb. For example, Schmidt inspired Webb’s new vision of the phantom galaxy, a spiral galaxy about 32 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Pisces. Webb explains the colormapping credit on Twitter, saying, “When I’m in an ESA recon it means they used the same colormapping or a similar colormapping that I did, or were inspired by my work in their own treatment.”
Schmidt also handled a spectacular view of Jupiter based on infrared imagery, which is a challenge because Jupiter is particularly close to the telescope. His proximity to Webb means he spins quickly, making it difficult to combine multiple sightings into a single shot. Regarding the significance of this shot, Thierry Fouchet of the Paris Observatory, who co-led Webb’s observations of the planet, said in a statement“This image summarizes the science of our Jupiter System program, which studies the dynamics and chemistry of Jupiter itself, its rings, and its satellite system.
No, I don’t know what it is. A kind of spiral nebula around WR140. I’m sure we’ll find out more later.
—Judy Schmidt (@SpaceGeck) August 29, 2022
Data from a never-before-seen image of W140, a binary pair of stars about 5,600 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus, was also processed by Schmidt. Webb’s images allowed scientists to observe a series of odd concentric rings, a phenomenon that appears to be caused by the intersection of two stars every eight years. Schmidt also made it public standard image editing processallowing this crossroads between art and science to be accessible to other amateur astronomers.
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