How Does NASA Take Pictures of Space?

June 6, 2019

Without the atmosphere in the way, NASA can take some of the most precise pictures available from space. The technology behind space photography must surpass that of Earth-bound cameras. Photography equipment in outer space is harder to get serviced. To ensure everything is ready to be a part of a space exploration program, devices must go through extensive testing. Discover more about the cameras and other equipment used in space and the rigorous standards they must stand up to.

What Things in Space Has NASA Taken Pictures Of?

Over the years, NASA has taken pictures of various bodies in space, some from the Earth and others from orbit. Among the best-known are images that have captured the public imagination by showing objects in ways most people on Earth cannot imagine. Many of these images have become cultural icons that helped change people’s perspective of the Earth and its place in the universe.

nasa space pictures

1. Earthrise

Apollo 8 astronauts snapped this famous picture in 1968 while orbiting the moon. It shows Earth rising over the lunar horizon like a waxing gibbous moon over the Earth. This image put into perspective how small our planet appears from space. Until the picture, few could imagine the Earth as something so small that a single photograph could capture it.

Shortly after the public saw the image, the environmental movement launched. Author Jeffrey Kluger and many others credit the picture of Earthrise with this event. Only two years after Apollo 8’s crew took the picture, environmental advocates established the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.

2. Astronauts

Long before selfies with cellphones, astronauts have taken pictures of themselves and each other during their work in space. Whether floating on a space station or taking steps on the moon, astronauts have documented their efforts in images NASA has shared with the public.

Some images — such as human footprints on the moon — inspire. Others — like those of astronauts sleeping upside down on the International Space Station — show the realities of living in space. Through these pictures, people on Earth can see the lives astronauts live, while giving them an idea of what humans traveling through space will experience in the future.

3. Nebulas

Photos taken from the Hubble Space Telescope’s advanced camera for surveys — HST’s ACS — show a wide range of wavelengths from ultraviolet to visible, allowing for photographs of nebulas. These bodies are the birthplaces of stars. Seeing these star nurseries puts a celestial figure like the Sun into the perspective of any other medium-sized star.

The nebula photographs serve another purpose than philosophical, though. Shapes of nebulas appear vaguely similar, yet remain drastically different from anything on Earth. The names of these bodies hint at their possible likenesses, such as the Pillars of Eternity, which is only a portion of the Eagle Nebula. Photos of these bodies give witness to the stunning, unexpected beauty beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.

4. Planetary Surfaces

Rovers sent to other planets and moons have captured photographs of the landscapes and sent those images back to Earth. For example, Sojourner and Pathfinder sent pictures to NASA from the Mars surface in 1997. As detailed as satellite imagery has become, viewing planets and moons directly from the surface allows images to more accurately show relative heights of mountains and depths of craters.

The first images of the Martian surface shocked many who expected views of an alien civilization. But those photographs also illustrated the vastness of a world without the weathering effects of the rain we have here on Earth. The dry, dusty Martian landscape continues to fascinate those on Earth who pore over images sent from the most recent lander mission.

5. Close Orbital Views

Images from space probes, such as Voyager 1 and 2, showed much higher details of planets and moons in the solar system than Earth-bound telescopes could see. In 1979, Voyager 1 passed Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io and captured a coincidental volcanic eruption that created a plume high above the surface. Though NASA did not set out to take such imagery, it became the first picture of a volcano anywhere outside the Earth.

6. Deep Space Images

In 2004, Hubble Space Telescope spent 1 million seconds to capture an exposure of deep space showing more than 10,000 galaxies. The telescope required 400 orbits of the Earth to fully capture the image. Though it needed a long exposure, this image captured the imagination of viewers around the world.

Just as the Earthrise image showed the planet small enough to fit into a single photo, the HST’s famed image showed the vastness of the universe and the insignificance of our own Milky Way galaxy. The Earth revolves around a star that is one of the billions in the universe. This photo inspires continued and further space exploration in search of other Earth-like planets that likely exist beyond the solar system.

7. Background Images

Not all pictures involve visible light. In 1992, NASA’s Cosmic Background Explorer showed microwave radiation, a remnant of the Big Bang. This image won NASA a Nobel Prize in 2006 for its contributions to science. While other photos show only what humans can see, the image of microwaves in the universe displayed the spectrum beyond visible light. It showed vestiges of the Big Bang remain today, all around the universe, waiting for a camera with the right lens to view them.

8. Comets

NASA has not only taken images of passing comets, but also captured close-ups of these bodies. On July 4, 2005, NASA made a photo of a projectile hitting the rocky core of Comet Tempel 1. It also captured Comet Shoemaker-Levy striking Jupiter in 1994.

The close-up view of a comet changed many people’s opinions of these celestial bodies. While we generally see them from Earth as only bright streaks, seeing the rock that makes the core gives a clearer picture of what comets are.

9. Earth

Satellites in orbit regularly photograph the Earth’s surface. NASA’s Landsat series of satellites have consistently orbited and captured images of the Earth since the program launched in 1972.

Today, the Landsat program is not the only one to take satellite images of Earth. Commercial and security satellites do the same. Often, though, they only share their photos with customers or governments, respectively. These small and medium-sized satellites do not have the long-lasting capacity of a larger body orbiting the planet, but they still need durability and lasting cameras to remain useful for as long as possible.

10. The Sun

To adequately capture images of the Sun, NASA uses special instruments. With these, it can photograph dramatic views of solar flares and sunspots. These images showcase the Sun as more than a lightbulb and heater for the planet. Through monitoring solar photos, researchers can learn more about the operations that create energy for the Sun.

How Do They Take Pictures in Space?

how do they take pictures in space

How do astronauts take pictures in space? The answer depends on the application. On the International Space Station, or ISS, astronauts quickly snap photos outside the window. Because the ISS moves so fast, the astronauts don’t have time to set up a camera for a shot or change lenses. To ensure they capture a great shot, astronauts always keep eight cameras at the ready in the cupola of the space station, so someone can grab a camera and snap a picture when needed.

When it comes to taking photos from the Hubble Space Telescope, the device features multiple cameras to take pictures of space. Instead of acting as a visual telescope like the type astronomers use on Earth, the HST performs more like a digital camera to capture images in the same method as a cell phone camera. Radio waves then transmit these digital images back to Earth. The digital pictures require multiple instruments to take photos, including visible light cameras, infrared sensors and heat detectors.

The types of sensors and cameras on the Hubble Space Telescope are essential because the equipment on the HST needs to last for years. There have only been five planned servicing missions to repair the telescope since its launch in 1993.

What Materials Does the Hubble Space Telescope Use?

Materials on the HST must withstand temperature swings of over 100 degrees every orbit around the Earth. Additionally, the exterior of the Hubble gets bombarded by radiation from the Sun without protection from the atmosphere Earth-bound telescopes have.

hubble space telescope

The structure of the telescope itself is only a thin layer of aluminum, but outside this are layers of insulation. One layer consists of blankets, also known as multilayered insulation, or MLI. Over time, areas of the MLI broke down from radiation exposure and temperature variations. In places where this insulation needed repair or replacement, astronauts patched the HST with New outer blanket layers.

The skeleton truss holds up the skin away from the instruments inside. Made from graphite epoxy, this truss has a lightweight, yet strong, texture. On Earth, sports equipment such as tennis rackets, bicycle frames and golf clubs use graphite epoxy in their construction to combine strength, longevity and low weight.

Instruments other than cameras help the HST move around and target the needed bodies. The fine guidance sensors allow the HST to stay directed at the thing it’s photographing by using distances between the targeted body and nearby guide stars. To study black holes, the HST needs to separate light into its color spectrum with the space telescope imaging spectrograph. Also aboard the HST is a heat sensor called the near-infrared camera and multi-object spectrometer. The cosmic origins spectrograph looks at the parts of ultraviolet radiation to study gases in the universe. In addition to these, HST features space photography cameras to capture images from beyond our solar system.

What Cameras Are on the HST?

cameras on hst

Two main visible light cameras on the HST help capture the best-known pictures from this telescope. Both the advanced camera for surveys, ACS, and the wide-field camera 3, or WFC3, enable scientists from Earth to take photos from space.

The ACS features three cameras — wide-field, solar blind and high-resolution cameras. The high-resolution camera went offline in 2007, and astronauts could not fix it during repairs of the ACS’ cameras in 2009. The wide-field camera takes large images of the universe. When solar radiation interferes with ultraviolet light, scientists use the solar blind camera, which captures hot stars and other ultraviolet-emitting bodies. The high-resolution camera could take pictures inside galaxies. The WFC3 replaces some of this function.

Hubble Space Telescope’s premier camera, the WFC3, can capture images across a range of light spectrums — near-ultraviolet, visible and near-infrared. The imagery from the WFC3 and ACS combine to give astronomers a clearer picture of the universe than either camera can achieve alone. The WFC3, though, has experienced some problems lately. The camera shut down in fall 2018 due to a hardware problem. While Hubble has onboard backup electronics, astronauts have to repair significant issues on the HST.

How Can the Cameras Withstand the Harsh Environment?

adequate protection

To withstand the harsh conditions, the HST features insulating blankets outside its aluminum structure. Both multilayered insulation and new outer blanket layers protect the interior of the telescope. Inside the structure, the instruments have adequate protection to operate safely.

Durable components and backup systems ensure the cameras on the HST can function with as little human intervention as possible. Because these cameras are not the same as an earthly film or digital cameras, they take pictures differently.

How Is Taking Pictures in Space Different From Photography on Earth?

taking pictures in space

Space photography has many factors that overlap with Earth picture-taking, and others that differ. In space, the atmosphere does not obscure sunlight, so everything appears brighter and clearer. The speed of the ISS or shuttle also plays a part in how quickly astronauts must capture images. They have seconds before the ship passes the photographed location. There’s no time to change camera lenses or remove lens caps before taking a photo.

When it comes to the HST, the space photography camera does not operate as a standard film-based camera. The HST has a lens that opens to admit light. Scientists use multiple filters to capture information. After the HST transmits this data back to Earth, scientists combine the data and add color based on the filter the light entered through. If seen from afar, the galaxies would not appear as vibrant as the color-corrected photos. However, a viewer closer to some galaxies would likely see colors close to the images from the HST.

What Testing Procedures Would Cameras Have to Undergo Before Being Launched Into Space?

When testing cameras for space, several factors come into play. The devices need to be durable enough to stand up to the rigors of space travel and the conditions in orbit. Like anything destined for space, cameras need to pass through rigorous testing conditions before getting approval for use. Simulating the harsh conditions and testing the materials used to build the cameras both help verify the cameras are ready for use in space.

space testing procedure

At NTS, we provide materials testing to verify the durability of the materials used in making components of spacecraft. Some material testing programs we provide include the following:

  • Composition
  • Corrosion
  • Fatigue
  • Flammability
  • Flexure
  • Impact
  • Ozone and gas exposure
  • Shear
  • Tensile/compression
  • Thermal
  • Thermomechanical analysis

Our facility features the equipment to ensure materials used in the aerospace industry adhere to FAA guidelines and RTCA DO-160. The American Association for Laboratory Accreditation certified our labs under ISO/IEC 17025. By testing the materials for space, you can verify the structures will have the durability to last in the harsh environment.

Another means of making certain materials and finished parts are ready for space is conducting space simulations. A thermal vacuum chamber allows for testing of spacecraft and their components in a setting similar to that of space and the outermost portion of the Earth’s atmosphere. Solar radiation, frigid temperatures and a high vacuum are the conditions the examined materials or devices experience.

These settings may create reactions in the materials of the spacecraft not seen on Earth. For example, elevated temperatures and vacuum increase the chances of outgassing from gas reactions. By recognizing when outgassing occurs, space simulation testing can predict failure in spacecraft. Examination for outgassing is critical, as it’s one of the most common causes of failure in such craft.

Temperature extremes are also crucial because satellites in orbit will experience hot and cold when exposed to sunlight or not. Temperatures in our testing chamber have a range of -320 to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, with the possibility of testing explosions up to 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The craft that can withstand these conditions can easily stand up to the heat and chill of space.

Thermal vacuum testing, such as the kind we conduct, has been a mainstay of the U.S. space program since its inception, and at NTS, we have 50 years of experience testing products for the aerospace industry and others to see how well they can hold up to extreme environments. Conducting test programs in thermal vacuum chambers is not the only thing we do. At NTS, we offer similar testing to push spacecraft and other devices to their limits.

What Similar Testing Does NTS Offer?

For any spacecraft to reach its destination, its propulsion system must work. Testing materials for space requires several component checks. Craft must move as expected, whether they have a crew aboard or not. Part of the process of evaluating propulsion systems requires seeing how they operate in the same conditions in space. Space simulation is vital for propulsion testing, just as it is in verifying the integrity of a craft’s structure.

propulsion testing

Propulsion testing requires the engine to remain still while measuring its power. We use static testing to evaluate the engine’s fundamental performance. Next, the system moves to our thrust measuring system, which is capable of working with systems up to 50,000 pounds of thrust. Because such systems create high levels of noise, we use water-cooled ducts to dampen the sound for a quieter testing facility.

Another critical aspect of spacecraft testing is satellite evaluation. We can test both large and small orbiting craft, though these categories have differing requirements. Larger satellites remain in geostationary orbit for at least 10 years, but smaller craft only last between a few weeks up to four years and orbit at low or medium levels. The shorter lifespans and lower orbits mean small and medium satellites have different environmental exposures compared to those at higher levels.

Low- and medium-Earth orbit satellites will require different settings for space simulation than larger geostationary orbit devices. Our space simulation facilities allow for customization of the conditions to ensure realistic testing before a spacecraft goes into orbit.

Talk to an Expert on Space Photography Camera Testing and Similar Procedures

space expert at NTS

If you have any questions concerning our testing methods, certifications, engineers or management of our supply chain, contact us online through our ask an expert form. Should you decide your company would benefit from our test programs, request a quote from us at NTS. With 50 years of experience developing aerospace testing and simulations, we have the capabilities to ensure your products are ready for aerospace propulsion and the harsh environment beyond the Earth.

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