Space photography produces stunning, otherworldly displays of intricate shapes and fiery colors, but it has also become essential in astronomers’ attempts to understand the universe. Since the first astronomical photo was taken of the moon in 1840, technology has advanced to allow scientists to snap the clearest and most accurate cosmic images.
Wide-field cameras enable orbiting cameras to shoot an extended area, while capturing objects in infrared, X-ray and other wavelengths reveals the fine details of explosions, collisions and other cosmic events. For example, by observing space using only visible light, astronomers would be unable to identify the high-energy features within the universe such as black holes. Using X-ray photography, scientists can watch as black holes steal energy from their surroundings and re-emit it in the form of high-energy jets.
Visible light has short wavelengths, meaning that it is more likely to bounce off surrounding particles and scatter. When observing space images using infrared telescopes, the longer wavelengths detected can travel more effectively through dustier parts of space. Infrared radiation can be emitted by material that isn’t bright enough to view using visible light, and shows the viewer regions that were previously invisible.
Here, we explain how some of our favorite space images were taken.