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Amateurs beat space agencies to Titan pictures

January 19, 2005 By Mark Peplow This article courtesy of Nature News.

Online community processed raw images at record speed.

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A group of enthusiastic amateurs managed to process raw images of Titan from the Huygens probe faster that any of the giant space agencies in charge of the mission.

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) usually process images from space missions using sophisticated computer software before being releasing them to the public. Changing the contrast, brightness and even colouring the pictures can help to pick out key features that would otherwise go unnoticed.

But with the Huygens mission (and NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Mission in 2004), the scientists involved released the raw images as soon as they came in.

There are lot of resources available to the scientifically curious.
Mike Zawistowski
Boston, Massachusetts
Once Huygens' mother ship, Cassini, had beamed information from the probe back to radio receivers on Earth on Friday 14 January, the raw images were posted on the descent-imaging team's website, based at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

Computer enthusiasts pounced on the images immediately, and improved them using a range of free or commercially available software before swapping their pictures in Internet chatrooms.

"When we started looking at the raw images, there were marvellous things there that we wanted to share," says Anthony Liekens, a chatroom enthusiast from Borsbeek, Belgium.

When Liekens tuned into the ESA press conference on the morning of Saturday 15 January, he was disappointed by the quality of their images. So he decided to host amateur compositions on his website. The site has quickly turned into a virtual gallery.

Graphic response

Many amateurs have also taken images from the two Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and turned them into detailed topographic maps and panoramic landscapes.

But this is the first time enthusiasts have beaten the space agencies to the punch, says Liekens, who admits he should really be finishing off his PhD in biomedical technology this week.

Liekens does caution that not all of the pictures will be scientifically reliable, something that ESA and NASA obviously have to take care over.

"We're impressed with their ability and enthusiasm, and looked at their images with great interest," says Bashar Rizk, part of the Huygens imaging team from the University of Arizona, Tucson.

Buffing up images

One stunning landscape was produced by Mike Zawistowski, a freelance computer-repair expert based in Boston, Massachusetts, who describes himself as a "casual astronomy buff".

Zawistowski used Terragen, a freeware program that converts the basic brightness data in aerial pictures into a topographical map, to generate the ground-level vista shown at the top of this page.

He used information from one of Huygens' aerial photos (see second picture), and worked out the correct scale based on its resolution - about 20 to 40 metres per pixel. "The final image was adjusted for colour, with some artistic licence for dramatic effect," he says of his Titan landscape.

Zawistowski hopes that when the radar data from the probe are released, his pictures can be adjusted to make them much more accurate.

"There are lot of resources available to the scientifically curious," says Zawistowski. "This permits many talented amateurs who are technically savvy to participate on some level, even if they are not employed in big science."


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