Exciting New Photoshop Plugin for ESA, NASA Space Images

Imaging scientists at the European Space Agency (ESA) have created and generously provided a free Photoshop plugin, the ESA/ESO/NASA Photoshop FITS Liberator v1.01, to allow all of us to work with FITS images1 from the European Southern Observatory and NASA. Although optimized for 16-bit support in Photoshop CS, this free plugin for Windows PCs and Macs will also work in Photoshop 7 and Photoshop Elements 2. As I meandered around, I also found alternatives to opening their FITS images for those who don’t have Photoshop.

[An example of how a colour image is constructed from four broad-band filters - image credit and courtesy of: ESA, ESO and NASA]

I was fascinated watching a couple of short presentations on how their images are processed into the incredibly spectacular color images we see online and elsewhere. I highly recommend How the Hubble Images are Made (Flash required), based on a composite image of the galaxy NGC1512 (Quicktime required for watching the videos on that page), and A short introduction to astronomical image processing. Reading these and watching a few videos gives helpful insight, not only for working with the FITS images but also to get a glimpse of how different light and filters help more image aspects to appear, as they explain:

The clean clusters are readily seen in ultraviolet and visible light, appearing as bright, blue clumps in the image. However the dusty clusters are revealed only by the glow of the gas clouds in which they are hidden, as detected in red and infrared wavelengths by the Hubble cameras. This glow can be seen as red light permeating the dark, dusty lanes in the ring.

I’ve always loved star-gazing, and I’ve loved using Photoshop for many years, too. The combination of having access to NASA’s raw images, easily processed in Photoshop with this new free plugin, is more than a little exciting to me. I downloaded the plugin, installed it, opened a couple of FITS images in Photoshop, and it works just as they explain at their website. Too much fun!

You can download FITS images and Photoshop PSD files already composited with the FITS Liberator from their webpage, Datasets for education and for fun.

The public is invited to submit FITS images created with the new FITS Liberator for display at their FITS Images Users Gallery.

Here’s their press release from July 8th about this new Photoshop plugin:

HEIC0412: FOR RELEASE 15:00 (CEST)/9:00 AM EDT 08 July, 2004

News release: FITS format liberation—DIY astronomical images with the expert touch

08-July-2004 For many years astronomical images from the world’s telescopes were reserved for an elite of astronomers and technical people. Now anyone with a desktop computer running Adobe® Photoshop® software can try their hand at crafting astronomical images as beautiful as those from the Hubble Space Telescope. A free software plug-in, released today, makes a treasure trove of archival astronomical images and spectra from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton X-ray observatory, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and many other famous telescopes accessible to home astronomy enthusiasts.

If there is anything that unites astronomy, it is the worldwide use of a single file format—nearly all the images of stars and galaxies produced by telescopes on the ground and in space are stored as so-called FITS files. Unfortunately this file format has been accessible to very few people other than professional scientists using highly specialised image-processing tools.

Now a new and unique tool—the ESA/ESO/NASA Photoshop FITS Liberator—developed by imaging scientists at the European Space Agency, the European Southern Observatory and NASA makes the immense wealth of astronomical images and spectra stored in data archives around the world accessible to the layman. The only thing required is access to either Adobe Photoshop® or Adobe Photoshop Elements®, both leading image software packages.

For the professional creators of astronomical colour images, the plug-in revolutionises the workflow of the creation of colour images from raw data and gives a huge boost to the image quality by giving access to the full 16 bit (65536 colours) range of the observations. In addition the plug in may be used as a powerful educational tool when teaching about light, colour and digital images. Some examples of educational material are available at the web page below.

The ESA/ESO/NASA Photoshop FITS Liberator will be released today and is freely available for download from:

Head of the development team, Lars Holm Nielsen from Denmark, says, “FITS is much more than just an image format. It is an extremely flexible file format that allows astronomers to share images and spectra in many different ways. This very versatility has made the job of producing a plug-in for Photoshop challenging. Compared to formats like JPEG, FITS files can be incredibly diverse.”

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hat tip: Thanks to Shel Belinkoff sending a post about the new FITS image Photoshop plugin to the Photoshop Discussion List.

1“FITS is an abbreviation for Flexible Image Transport System and has been a standard since 1982 and is recognized by the International Astronomical Union.” Quoted from the above press release, News—heic0412: FITS format liberation—DIY astronomical images with the expert touch.

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