Hubble's Universe Unfiltered

  • October 3, 2015

    My Favorite Martian (Movie)

    by Frank Summers

    In 1982, I went to see the film "Blade Runner" without many expectations. It was just a sci-fi movie starring Harrison Ford, who, at the time, was known only for his role in "Star Wars." I came away enthralled with the depth of both the thought-provoking story and the detailed artistic vision. After recognizing that the director, Ridley Scott, had also done the 1979 film "Alien," he immediately rose to being a favorite. In subsequent years, the words "directed by Ridley Scott" were reason enough to go see a film.

    However, as an astronomer, I approached his new film "The Martian" with a bit of trepidation. While still in the category of science fiction, the story of an astronaut stranded on Mars is ripe for massive clashes against science fact. Previous astronauts on Mars stories have not thrilled me. Such movies generally pay homage to the scientific aspects by providing various reasonable justifications and using lots of jargon to make things sound technical and complicated. Then, in typical Holywood fashion, the movie veers off into something jarringly non-scientific to advance a storyline or provide a twist.  

    I am certainly not the type who tries to hold a work of fiction to the standards of reality. I truly bellieve in the audience's "willing suspension of disbelief" that is vital to capturing someone into a good yarn. I can suppress my analytic brain and forgive lots of small points that advance the narrative but really don't make sense. Even unexplained phenomena, used judiciously, can be quite enjoyable. However, as in the "Harry Potter" world, there are some unforgivable curses where basic facts, forces, or fallacies are ignored. These points can jolt my intellect and pull me straight out of the story.

    With that preface, let me say that "The Martian" did not disappoint. I watched the entire film staying inside the bubble of the narrative. The plot, characters, visuals, and direction kept me focused and empathetic, without startling my astronomical subconscious. That may not sound like high praise, but it is a rare experience for me on a film of this nature.

    Are there mistakes in the movie? Of course. Do they matter? Not much. I can discuss those points in another post (with proper spolier alerts). In this post, let me focus on the good stuff. Without giving away anything not already in the advertisements, here are three aspects I particularly liked.

    First, the computer graphics of Mars are wonderful. The views of what is really a rather bland and desolate planet are filled with warmth and majestic vistas. The mostly rock and dirt landscape of Mars was showcased in a wide variety of formations that gave it considerable grandeur. The scenes harken back to Scott's Monument Valley shots in "Thelma and Louise."

    Second, the fictional astronauts behave like real astronauts. I have interacted with a dozen or so astronauts, and observed some of them for long hours during the Hubble servicing missions. These people are part of our best and brightest. They are cool-under-pressure problem solvers who can attempt and accomplish audacious goals. Astronauts do have emotions and a sense of humor, and that is also captured in the film. But, overall, the characters exude proper competence, skill, and acumen, without soap-opera histrionics.

    Finally, the movie is a really good story, and is really well told. This tale has out-of-this-world dilemmas, strong and sympathetic characters, and action that is emotionally, intellectually, and visually engaging. Even before its release, I heard jokes comparing this movie to "Apollo 13." Now that I've seen it, I'd say the comparison is apt on many levels, and this film should garner similar acclaim and awards.

    Back in the year 2000, Neil Tyson and I started chatting about Ridley Scott's film "Gladiator." I gave that film perhaps the highest accolade by telling him nothing about it. I said something like "Don't read anything, just go see it with no expectations." I'm not sure I would go that far with "The Martian," but if the advertisements pique your interest, the film delivers on multiple fronts. I can heartily reccommend that folks see this picture, both as an astrophysicist and as a film enthusiast.

  • March 12, 2015

    Revisiting a Legend

    by Frank Summers

    As discussed in a previous blog post, "Twenty-Five Years of Hubble," this year marks the silver anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope. We have plans for a full year of festivities and kicked it off by revisiting a legend.

    One of our most famous images of all time is the 1995 view of three gaseous pillars in the Eagle Nebula nicknamed "The Pillars of Creation." The "creation" aspect derives from the fact that new stars are being born within the dark, dense clouds at the tops of the pillars. That greenish, irregularly shaped image (on the left in the montage image above) was taken with Hubble's Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 instrument that was installed during Servicing Mission 1 in 1993.

    An updated insturment, Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3), was installed as a replacement during Servicing Mission 4 in 2009. Our first press release of the 25th anniversary year was a remarkable new WFC3 view of the same region. This new image (center in the montage) has twice the resolution, about six times the sky coverage, and more than twenty times the pixels of the previous version. The broader context and innumerable fine details combine to make a compelling updated portrait.

    Yet Hubble took it one step further. The greatly improved infrared-light sensitivity of WFC3 enabled a striking infrared image of the Eagle pillars (on the right in the montage). The longer wavelengths of infrared light can penetrate through much of the gas and dust clouds, bringing out both the nebula and a panoply of background stars in stark contrast. The pillars, seemingly solid dark columns in visible light, are revealed in infrared light as a combination of dense clouds and the shadows they cast.


    The contrast between Hubble's two new views is best seen in a cross-fade between the visible-light and the infrared-light images. The animated GIF displayed above has both images cropped to the same region. One can instantly pick out the visible gas that disappears in the infrared, as well as the bright infrared stars that have no visible counterparts.


    The pillars in the Eagle Nebula are the primary topic of this Hubble Hangout.


    There are so many interesting details to discuss in these images that it would fill a bunch of blog posts. Instead, let me point you to a Hubble Hangout that I did with Tony Darnell in late January. We call this series of hangouts "News from Hubble and Across the Universe." Usually, we cover three or four stories, but this time we spent the entire hour examining and comparing the Eagle pillar images. Have a look, as there are some rather intriguing and beautiful features to explore.

  • March 5, 2015

    Twenty-Five Years of Hubble

    by Frank Summers

    The Hubble Space Telescope was launched into Earth orbit on April 24, 1990, aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. While that event is a fond memory for many of us, it is now a quarter of a century, 25 years, in the past. When I give talks to schools, it is sobering to remember that Hubble was launched before any of the current elementary, high school, and college students were born. They have never known a time when there wasn't a Hubble. All their lives, the telescope has been a fixture and symbol of astronomy.

    For most scientific instruments, even ambitious and exceptional ones, their continued existence is scant cause for popular notice. Other billion-dollar projects, say, particle accelerators, note the passage of milestones without significant fanfare. However, Hubble's images and discoveries have permeated into the global consciousness to the point that we feel a bit of public revelry is worthy. Throughout all of 2015, we will be celebrating Hubble's 25th anniversary.

    For my part, I have spent some significant time reviewing every Hubble press release ever created. Although I have been working on Hubble outreach for 14 years, I tried to take a fresh approach that would provide persepctive, context, and a flow of events across the decades. Most importantly, I wanted to identify the science story threads woven through the fabric of Hubble's many and diverse discoveries. There are so many great stories to tell. I'll be presenting some of them in this blog, and quite a number of other venues, over the coming weeks and months.



    Some of my perspective on Hubble's remarkable history is presented in my public lecture from January 13, 2015. Entitled "25 Years of Hubble," the talk winds its way across the important events, ground-breaking discoveries, and astounding imagery of what is perhaps the most important telescope ever. Join me — and the rest of the Hubble team at the Space Telescope Science Intitute, at the Goddard Space Flight Center, across NASA, and at our European partner ESA — in this presentation, and throughout 2015, for a celestial silver celebration.