Mark Thompson / NASA / JPL-Caltech / STScI
These side-by-side images show the Orion Nebula as it would look to the human eye through a telescope (left image) and how it looks to a digital camera through a telescope once the image undergoes additional processing (right).
updated 10/13/2010 9:50:10 PM ET 2010-10-14T01:50:10

A couple across the coffee shop from me have just picked on a poor unsuspecting passerby to take their photograph. They must be tourists, hopefully having a great time in my home city of Norwich. But I bet that when they see the picture, they'll regret not having turned on the red-eye reduction function (those annoying multiple flashes that go off before the real flash).

Fortunately, with modern computer software, it's easy to get rid of that slightly scary and sinister red-eye effect after a few clicks of the mouse.

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My thoughts turn to Emily Lakdawalla from the Planetary Society, who has recently been the subject of a media frenzy after a conspiracy theorist called the image into question, accusing NASA of "tampering" with a picture of Saturn's moons.

What had she done? Nothing more than the astronomical equivalent to removing red eye. For some reason, it's OK for us all to touch up pictures of ourselves, but not OK for scientists to touch up pictures of the universe.

The Cassini spacecraft that snapped the original raw images of Titan and Dione uses a very standard technique to get a color picture by taking individual shots through red, green and blue filters that are then recombined to make the final color picture.

It's a technique that has been used for decades. Charge-coupled devices, or CCD cameras, come with one of two types of light sensitive receiver: monochrome or color. Employing the technique described above with a monochrome camera with different color filters will give a higher-resolution color image than a standard color camera.

Unfortunately, when using this technique on a moving spacecraft, the red, green and blue images can be out of alignment so Emily had corrected for this. She confesses that it was a pretty quick job just to get the image out to the public, and I am pleased she did. Before the image gets released for proper scientific use, much more time will be spent on the final result.

One of the problems with the night sky is that most stuff actually looks bland to the human eye. Check out the examples of the Orion Nebula as it would look to the human eye through a telescope (left image, above) — I had to do this with Photoshop to simulate it, let it go — and how it looks to a digital camera through a telescope plus some processing work (right image).

As you can see, there is so much more detail in the "enhanced" image. This not only makes it look prettier, but more importantly it allows scientists to learn and deduce so much more about the object under study.

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It's probably surprising to learn that the human eye isn't the most efficient collector of light, and that these enhanced images are much more representative of reality than our dodgy eyes can show us.

So really, should we complain? I think not. After all, nearly every image of the universe released by NASA or indeed anyone (even me) has more than likely had something done to it; be it to sharpen it up a little, remove bits of dust on the lens, bring out more detail or even to correct for a slight misalignment of individual color images.

Conspiracy theorists, give Emily and other space scientists a break. After all, without them, we wouldn't get to see the true glory of the cosmos.

Mark Thompson is astronomy presenter on the BBC's "The One Show," fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and chairman of the Norwich Astronomical Society.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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