Hubble: The Rosetta Stone

Take a moment to look at some of the stellar images on this page. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

These are adapted photographs of original Hubble telescope images projected with a projector onto a model’s body. Notice the color. Refraction of light at its finest! Though, oddly enough, in some cases those colors are not reflecting what we know of as color at all. Color is only one of the languages cosmic radiation speaks. In these images the colors actually serve as visual translations of a cosmic form of communication that till recently remained illusive to us. Color can function as a language.

“What? That’s crazy talk. How can color be a language?”

Wonderful question. First, let us remember that language is a form communication to convey information. We humans have a tendency to focus on either verbal communication or to the ‘seeing is believing’ philosophy. We are a very visual type of organism (just look at how much of our cortex is dedicated to vision!) and as such we tend to disregard other levels of perception, other languages that fall outside of our scope, and assume there is no information there. Let us refer back to the electromagnetic spectrum, specifically the visible color spectrum, for just a moment.

Remember that energy is all around us, traveling in waves, bombarding us at every moment. It is easy to forget that what we perceive with our eyes is only a small snippet of what is around us. Our measly detector systems can only manage small portions and understand one language. But there are most definitely others. For example, we see the light from the sun, but we can also receive information from the sun in another way. We can feel the ultraviolet radiation in the form of heat—and later in pain if you forgot to put on sunscreen! So what are we to do when other objects, such as celestial bodies, speak in a foreign language beyond our understanding and feeler capabilities? We need to translate their language into a form we understand, in this case the visual color spectrum language.

“How do you translate such a thing?”

With the power of the Hubble of course! The Hubble detectors can perceive and understand the language of radiation that falls outside of our view, such as infrared and ultraviolet radiation. The data is first presented in black and white to provide contrast. Once enough of these observations have been collected, the images can be translated by assigning colors to them. The coloring of these images is 'equal parts art and science' as those at Hubble would say. Talented scient-artists combine separate exposures taken in red, green and blue light. When you lay and mix the three together, they simulate nearly all visible color frequencies, the language our eyes understand. And with this great translation we are now able to interpret and decode another form of cosmic information. The Hubble is a Rosetta Stone for visually translating cosmic radiation!
So next time you look an image of a celestial body, remember you are most likely also seeing different messages in different wavelength languages translated into your language, the visible color spectrum, for you to perceive and enjoy.

Thank you, Hubble! 

Check out the full explanation at Hubble’s Site: Behind the Pictures. It’s awesome and interactive!

Electromagnetic Spectrum (

 Color Enhancement ( 

Color Enhancement ( 

Published on United Academics, May 17th, 2014

Orignial images: STScl