AUSTIN (KXAN) – For the first time, the public is gaining access to data from the James Webb Space Telescope. Why? To create art!

The release is part of NASA’s Astrophoto Challenge; an annual competition to see who can create interesting art using data collected from telescopes both in space and on Earth.

This year, participants will be creating art from one of the most famous space objects: the Pillars of Creation.

The 2023 Astrophoto Challenge asks the public to create art using the James Webb Space Telescope and others. (This image was created using the tools provided by the Center of Astrophyiscs by KXAN Reporter Eric Henrikson)

Telescopes include the Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer, Herschel and for the first time the James Webb Space Telescope. That telescope launched last year and is capable of seeing light from the very beginning of the universe.

“This data that comes back from these telescopes, is really numbers, right? It’s not an image,” said Mary Dussault, Science Education Program Manager at the Center for Astrophysics. The CFA, which manages the challenge in partnership with NASA’s Universe of Learning, is a collaborative lab run by Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institute.

Understanding space telescope data and cosmic pictures

Creating an image with the data collected by telescopes is usually done by professional image visualizers, who are both artists and scientists. The Astrophoto Challenge allows the public to the do same. “People get to use the same tools and techniques that professionals use,” Dussault said.

The Pillars of Creation, located in the Eagle Nebula, are one of the most famous celestial objects. A nursery for newly born stars, the Pillars were first photographed by Hubble in 1995. They were photographed again in 2022 by the Webb Telescope.

By doing the competition, Dussault said that people will get a better understanding on how these images are made and the details of the nebula.

“To work with the raw image data for the public is to learn the nature of data itself. That is true not only for astronomy, but across all STEM fields.”

How does the 2023 Astrophoto Challenge work?

Using a special web portal, the public is shown a collection of data from the telescopes. Each data set shows different wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum.

“With these other wavelengths of light that we start to see through [celestial bodies] and start to see what’s inside of them,” Dussault said.

New details about the Pillars of Creation can be discovered by altering the colors of the data provided by the James Webb Space Telescope. (This image was created by KXAN Reporter Eric Henrikson as part of the 2023 Astrophoto Challenge)

Hubble telescope data, for instance, shows visible light. Visible light is section of the electromagnetic spectrum that our eyes can see.

The Chandra Space Telescope, however, uses x-ray data. X-rays are some of the hottest types of light and are emitted by exploding stars.

The James Webb Space Telescope can see infrared light, which is cooler than visible light but travels further. “This is the first time that we’ve been able to offer the public real access to the raw data from the JWST telescope to play with,” Dussault said.

Creating art using telescope data

The web portal for the Astrophoto Challenge starts with some video tutorials. Users are then given the ability to color the different data sets. “You might choose bluer colors to represent the hotter temperature.”

Color isn’t the only thing users are given access to. The web portal offers a full suite of photo editing options. Mixing and matching various images, colors and altering the images in different ways can highlight different parts of the Pillars of Creation.

“When you combine those wavelengths on top of each other, you can kind of see how these shapes are created,” Dussault said.

By playing with images, Dussault said, you start to see things you wouldn’t normally see.

Once users are finished creating their pictures, they will receive a copy they can print. “They look great on glossy paper, actually.”

They will then be able to submit their work to the Challenge. Scientists and educators with NASA will judge the work. “We don’t pick winners, but we do pick standout entries.”

30 to 40 submissions will be highlighted and displayed on the Center for Astrophysics website. All participants will receive a certificate.

The challenge runs now through the end of February. You can join the 2023 Astrophysics Challenge at their website.