Hubble's Universe Unfiltered

  • September 23, 2016

    A Hubble Journey from IMAX to 4K UHD

    by Frank Summers

    Way back in 2003, I had a summer intern who demonstrated an abundance of enthusiasm and gumption. As befits such passion, I assigned him a particularly ambitious project: attempt to extract thousands of individual galaxy images from a Hubble image with hundreds of millions of pixels. His excellent work showed that the project was indeed feasible, and that a spectacular visualization could be made with the resulting data set. We also learned that the video resolution of the time (640x480 pixels) was entirely inadequate to handle such high-resolution imagery.

    Thus, in the fall, we embarked on an even more ambitious project: an IMAX short film called "Hubble: Galaxies Across Space and Time." We improved and repeated the galaxy image extraction process on the final image data from the Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey (GOODS), a mosaic of more than 600 megapixels. From the roughly 30 thousand sources in the images, we crunched more than 10 thousand individual galaxies through the production pipeline. The resulting galaxy images, along with distances measured by the GOODS team, enabled us to create a 3D model of the galaxy distribution.

    A flight through this data set provides a visual experience of the changes in galaxies across the cosmos. In addition, because light takes billions of years to cross the intervening space, the distant galaxies are seen as they were when the light left them, billions of years ago. Thus, the journey is both across space and back in time.



    We were tremendously pleased with the result. Our small team, using 100% Hubble images and data, was able to produce a compelling visualization on the largest of screens. When it premiered at the Maryland Science Center in April 2004, I felt an awe-inspiring, "floating through the universe" immersion that was unlike anything I'd experienced before. Fortunately, folks who are not astronomy geeks were also impressed; the film won the Large Format Cinema Association's "Best Short Film" award in 2004.

    I have since shown this film in talks hundreds of times, but always with the disclaimer that it is "just so much better at full resolution." Well, today that changes. Today, we are releasing the film at 4K Ultra High Definition (UHD) resolution (3840 x 2160 pixels) on our HubbleSiteChannel on YouTube with movie file downloads available on the HubbleSite Videos page. This UHD version of the film has about 70% of the width of the master frames used to create the IMAX film prints. It is necessarily cropped in height to fit the now-standard 16x9 aspect ratio (the master frames are closer to the old standard 4x3 aspect ratio). Most importantly, this high-resolution format has 27 times as many pixels as the 640x480 resolution format we released to the public in 2004.

    Watching the film on a large screen at full 4K UHD is the first time I've approached the theater experience. The level of detail and the resulting feel of depth within the galaxy collection pull me into the scene that much more. After all the time spent processing the images, building the 3D models, and choreographing the camera, it is an absolutely wonderful surprise when I can still see something new in the end product. Although this film was completed more than a decade ago, the new technology has brought renewed enthusiasm about the possibilities for these cosmic visual explorations. What more might we do with the current, larger Hubble cosmology projects? We have even created a 6K UHD resolution (5760 x 3240 pixels) version of this film for the NASA Hyperwall that I'm just dying to try out at Goddard Space Flight Center.

    Our team has produced several other 4K UHD visualizations, and will continue to work on new ones. For more, check our Ultra HD Astronomy Visualizations playlist on YouTube or utilize the 4K-UHD Video tag on HubbleSite.