The picture on the computer screen looked like someone forgot to take the lens cap off - black with a few specks of white.
After a few clicks with the mouse, the black turned to gray and small white blobs appeared. A few more clicks and the screen had transformed from nothingness to a color picture of a nebula surrounded by stars, thousands of light years away from earth.
The enhanced picture was created at Casper Planetarium using NASA software and tools, as part of the "Capture the Colorful Cosmos" program. The program celebrates the International Year of Astronomy and is funded by a $1,000 grant from the Association of Science-Technology Centers. The software enables amateur astronomers to create pictures similar to those of the Hubble Space Telescope. Students in the astronomy class at Kelly Walsh High School were the first to try it.
Senior Kristen Hite chose the moon. She ordered pictures of the celestial body from NASA microbservatory robotic telescopes in Hawaii, Massachusetts and Arizona. The best of the three images is sent. Sometimes the weather prevents getting a good result.
Using the software, Hite played with color filters to isolate and enhance light in some areas. She repeated that step until satisfied with the final result: an eerie, blood-red moon.
"I was surprised there was so much to just one picture," Hite said. "It takes a lot of time to do this."
The students struggled with the technology, said Michelle Wistisen, director of the Casper Planetarium. What she expected to be a one- to two-day project took weeks. Even though the activity only scratched the surface of what can be done with images, Wistisen hoped the students learned more by doing the manipulations instead of looking at them in class.
The students' images are on display at the planetarium. Younger students from the Boys and Girls Club of Natrona County will play with the software next. In a few weeks, patrons will be able to create and print their own pictures from space on a high quality printer. The whole process takes less time than a one-hour photo service.
Hite and senior Mariah Dieriex created a three-minute program about the process, which will be shown during public events at the planetarium. In addition to the tools used to make the images, Hite and Dieriex learned production software to piece together the presentation - skills that they said could be applied to fields besides astronomy.