The art of astronomy

Zoltan Levay makes distant galaxies beautiful

ICON To celebrate the Hubble telescope’s 25th anniversary, Zoltan Levay and other astronomers reimaged the famous Pillars of Creation.

Hubble Heritage Team/Hubble/NASA, ESA

Pat Izzo/Goddard Space Flight Center/NASA
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An astronomer by training but a photographer at heart, Zoltan Levay creates images of the cosmos with one of humankind’s most advanced optical instruments: the Hubble Space Telescope. Producing photos with the telescope, he says, is not that different from shooting mountains and rivers in national parks. “We’re just shooting landscapes of the universe instead,” he says.

Levay, 62, heads Hubble’s imaging group and is part of the Hubble Heritage Team, which works to share the telescope’s images with the public. Born in Pakistan, Levay moved with his parents to the United States in 1956. In high school, he built his own telescope to take pictures of planets and stars. He studied astronomy and astrophysics, and in 1983 he joined the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore as a programmer for Hubble. A few years after the telescope launched in 1990, he began working with its photos.

Levay transforms Hubble’s raw data into iconic images. Hubble’s cameras take black-and-white shots and record color with filters. Levay converts the data into reds, greens and blues of space. (For more on Hubble, see “25 years of Hubble.”)

A famous Hubble image is the Pillars of Creation, released in 1995. Its fingerlike projections show where stars are born. Using newer infrared cameras on Hubble, Levay and his team have now refashioned the image with greater clarity and a view inside the cloudy pillars (SN Online: 1/6/15).“It was a nice way to bookend Hubble’s mission,” he says.

The Pillars of Creation is an iconic Hubble image, showing fingerlike projections of gas where new stars are born. It was originally released in 1995. J. Hester and P. Scowen/ASU, STScI/NASA, ESA
In 2015, NASA released a new version of the Pillars of Creation, taken using updated instruments on Hubble. It reveals a sharper, wider view of the pillars. Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), NASA, ESA
In infrared light, stars hidden inside and behind the pillars shine through, and the landscape becomes even more spectacular. NASA released this Pillars of Creation image in 2015. Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), NASA, ESA

Ashley Yeager is the associate news editor at Science News. She has worked at The Scientist, the Simons Foundation, Duke University and the W.M. Keck Observatory, and was the web producer for Science News from 2013 to 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.

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