New, detailed pictures of planets, moons, and comets are neither photos nor animations - they're made using data from 50 years of NASA missions
D. Finnin/© AMNH
- Visualizing distant planets, moons, and comets in our solar system can be challenging.
- Typically, astronomers use images from NASA missions or artistic renditions to show what space objects look like.
- Now, planetariums like the American Museum of Natural History's Hayden Planetarium are turning to a new method - data visualization - to depict our solar system.
- This helps viewers see planets and moons in unprecedented detail.
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For many years, there were only two ways for astronomers to see distant worlds in our solar system: Either they used a powerful telescope, or they sent spacecraft into the inky blackness to get up close and personal.
But a third option is emerging to offer unprecedented detail and accuracy: data visualization.
At the American Museum of Natural History, a new planetarium show reveals images of Saturn's moon Titan, the 67P comet, and the lunar surface, all generated using data collected during 50 years of space missions.
"We're not making anything up here," Carter Emmart, director of astrovisualization for that show, said at a press conference. "The height, color, and shapes we see come from actual measurements. You get to see these beautiful objects as they actually are, to the best of our abilities."
Carter and his team relied on data gathered by robotic probes, telescopes, and supercomputer simulations from NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and Japan Aerospace Exploration since the 1970s.
"We're taking numbers and turning that into a picture," he told Business Insider. "We've created a 3D world that lives in the computer and can be shown on screen."
Take a look at some of the most impressive visuals from the show,"Worlds Beyond Earth," which opened Tuesday.
"It's not an animation or cartoon," Vivian Trakinski, the new show's producer and director of science visualization, said. "These are authentic digital artifacts of science we can create and experience."
Data from robotic missions like the Apollo 15 lunar module, called "Falcon," helped reveal what the moon's surface looks like in staggering detail.
Ebel and his colleagues also relied on high-resolution maps from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Global Surveyor, as well as the ESA's Mars Express, to reconstruct Mars' surface.
Between 1989 and 1994, NASA's Magellan mission explored the surface of Venus.
Cassini was one of NASA and the ESA's most ambitious missions. The spacecraft orbited Saturn 294 times, exploring the planet's rings and moons for 13 years.
Cassini also carried the Huygens probe, which landed on the surface of Saturn's largest moon, Titan.
Cassini showed astronomers that Saturn's rings are always changing.
Similarly, our solar system started as a cloud of gas, ice, and dust. Gravity caused this cloud to collapse, forging a central star — the sun — and a swirling disc of debris.
The museum's new data visualizations also reveal the surface of Jupiter's moon, Io, which boasts volcanoes so powerful they can be viewed via telescopes on Earth.
"We're vicariously visiting these places with our robots, and that's as close as I personally want to get," Ebel said.
Missions to comets have also unraveled secrets of our solar system. In 2014, the ESA's Rosetta probe landed on a comet 372 million miles from Earth.
"The ability to construct what something looks like without having been there is the next frontier of space exploration," Carter said.
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