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The Hubble Space Telescope- like the more recently built Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – is one of those icons of scientific endeavour that captures the imagination of thousands all over the world. Soon after it was launched in 1990, it was discovered that the main mirror, despite having been constructed to within 10 nanometres of all specifications, was incapable of producing sharply defined images. It took an extraordinarily difficult servicing mission to correct the Hubble’s optical flaws; but in the end, it was a complete success.

After that first servicing mission in 1993, The Hubble went on to produce some of the finest and most captivating images of space ever seen. (“Pillars of Creation”, one of the most famous Hubble images, is included here.) The astonishing detail and the nuanced coloration of these images lend them an evocative beauty that often transcends a lack of understanding of their actual subject matter in a way that few other scientific images do.

However, it may come as a surprise to learn that much of the appeal of these images comes not from the telescope itself, but from the astronomers and image processing specialists who- in a sense- “photoshop” the images before releasing them to the public. That’s because the Hubble only sends images in black and white!

Astronomers have to make choices about composition, colour and contrast in order to bring out specific aspects of the data that the Hubble beams down to Earth. And while these decisions often have scientific meaning (just for e.g., hotter stars are usually blue-ish white, whereas cooler ones are redder), they are also occasionally made purely in order to enhance the visual appeal of the images.

For people who’ve never had access to the Hubble’s raw data, it might be hard to rein in a vague sense of disappointment over the fact that the universe may not be quite that pretty, after all; but, looked at another way, it’s a whole lot more mysterious…

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