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New software for space image enthusiasts New software allows computer users to build space images based on raw data taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.
This image of the planetary nebula NGC 5979 was combined from raw data.
This image of the planetary nebula NGC 5979 was combined from raw data.ESA / ESO / NASA
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Astronomers working with the Hubble Space Telescope often build spectacular space images based on the raw data taken by the orbital instrument. But now thanks to some new software that power can sit in the hands of anyone, not just scientists, equipped with a computer and a digital imaging program.

The software, called FITS Liberator, is actually a plugin application for the imaging software Adobe Photoshop and is now available free at the Hubble's European website. The plugin allows space image enthusiasts to piece together in Photoshop the same raw data that were once reserved for astronomers with highly specialized imaging tools could touch.

FITS Liberator allows computer users to manipulate astronomical images in, not surprisingly, the FITS (Flexible Image Transport System) file format by allowing Photoshop and Photoshop Elements programs to accept the images as if they were simple files like JPEGs or GIFs. Scientists at the European Space Observatory, European Space Agency and NASA developed the software.

The FITS images themselves are available through many publicly available archives, such as those maintained by the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), which operates Hubble for NASA. The data type has long been standard among astronomers because of its ability to store and transfer not just a space image, but also information on a particular space object's sky position and spectrum. Other image files like JPEGs and GIFs also contain image-explaining data, such the number of pixels present, but are not as flexible, Hubble researchers said.

"You still have to know a little bit about the data your getting at," said Zolt Levay, an imaging specialist at STScI who worked on the FITS Liberator project, in a telephone interview. A free guide to FITS image processing is also available through Hubble's European website.

In addition to the HST, FITS files are generated by NASA's Spitzer Telescope, the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton X-ray Telescope and nearly every other space-based and ground instrument scanning the sky.