Mixing Art and Astrophysics, Students Explore the Universe

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By Leslie Harris O’Hanlon

For centuries, people have been blending science with art to create new and imaginative creations. Leonardo di Vinci did this most notably with Vitruvian Man, a world-famous sketch that drew on his interest and knowledge of human anatomy. John James Audubon melded his knowledge of art, the wilderness and birds to develop detailed pictures and paintings of North American birds.  And James Calder used engineering to create sculptures and mobiles, huge and small, which grace public spaces in this country and abroad.

Now students, with a few keystrokes on their computer can try their own hand at mixing science with art by controlling small telescopes that take pictures of planets, stars, galaxies, asteroids, nebulas and other astronomical objects. They can then use those images to create their own artistic renditions of the cosmos through the MicroObservatory Robotic Telescope Network, a group of five automated telescopes controlled online.

Users can control field of view, exposure time, and a filter for those telescopes and take pictures of certain targets up at night, including Jupiter and other planets, moons, asteroids and the Milky Way. The pictures are e-mailed to users within 24 to 48 hours. With free downloadable software, users can then process and enhance those images in a number of ways to create astronomical artwork.

“The sky belongs to everyone,” said Mary Dussault, a science education program manager at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Boston, and a presenter at a recent online conference for educators about classroom applications of the micro observatory program. “One of the nice things about having a telescope of your own online to use at any time is that you start to develop a relationship with the sky that I imagine people have always had in the past. It’s neat to develop that relationship through technology.”


The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics controls the three-feet tall telescopes located in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Amado, Arizona. The telescopes use six-inch mirrors to capture light from distant objects in space.


Lindsay Bartholomew, a science curator at the Miami Science Museum in Florida, said high school students at the museum used the program can deepen their learning about astronomy and art. She broke her program into three different days. On the first day, the students became familiar with how to use the software to enhance images that were already on file at the micro observatory’s database. After that, students then requested their own images from the observatory that were e-mailed to them the following day. On day two, the students experimented with their images, enhancing them using the software. On the third day, they presented their artwork to museum visitors.

“One of the main things I found really fun in watching students participating in this program was this connection between science, arts, and creativity,” Bartholomew said. “Kids don’t see science as having a lot of creative and artistic aspects to it.”

In creating their images, students made all sorts of connections to science, Bartholomew said. For example, they learned about different astronomical objects, how far they are from Earth and their structure. They also learned about how such objects can be viewed.  And in those conversations, students talked about optics, mirrors, the nature of light, color, and wavelength.  They even learned some math concepts when deciding how to rearrange their images with the software.

“Students are used to computer programs that have instructions and directions. With this, they were able to use the telescopes and the software with complete creative freedom,” Bartholomew explained. “Invariably, they ended up creating something that no one had ever seen before, which was the greatest thing.”

Bartholomew wove in other skills into this project, including presentation and research skills. Students also gave thought about how they wanted their artwork to be displayed. In their displays, which were hung on the museum walls, students included both their final, enhanced image along with the black and white images they originally took with the telescopes. They also researched their astronomical objects to write captions for their pictures.

“We wanted to give visitors to the museum a sense of what the students started with, not just what they ended with, so people could see that the students often started out with what appeared to be a black or blank image, and they ended up processing this using software to create this amazing piece of scientific artwork,” Bartholomew said.

In addition to making printed pictures, some students also made animated videos within the software. Also, Bartholomew challenged students to create a 30-second video with sound effects, captions and music, using I-movie or Movie Maker, which explained what they did and what they learned in the program.

Another project students can do, Dussault said, is using the image processing software to load multiple images taken on separate occasions and animating those images to see how those images change over time. For example, students can take pictures of the moon over time and animate those pictures to study the moon’s rotation around the Earth.

The website for the Harvard Smithsonian micro observatory program provides teachers with lots of curriculum and teaching activities about how to use the telescopes in their classrooms. Also, the website includes several tutorials on how to use the software to enhance single images, how to combine multiple pictures into one picture and how to animate images.

One of the values of this program, Bartholomew said, is that students create real products by working with real telescopes. And this excites students.


“In my experience the students, especially high school students who are hard to impress sometimes, when you tell them the word 'real' and that they get to do it (something real),  their eyes get wide and you have to shove them out of room at end of time because they don’t want to leave,” she said.