APOD: more than just pretty pictures

The Astronomy Picture of the Day is more than just a pretty photo. In fact, each of the featured images may well have more than a thousand words packed into it. You just need to drill down deeper into the site.

John McLaren, a NASA Solar System Ambassador and treasurer of the Seattle Astronomical Society, gave a presentation about APOD at the society’s meeting last week. He said the key to finding a wealth of information about celestial objects is dragging your eyes away from the pretty pictures long enough to notice the explanation of the photo and, more importantly, the submenu below it. McLaren uses this information when preparing presentations about astronomy for various groups.

“You can build a more complete story,” he explained. “There are good links here for education, for outreach, and home-schooling groups.”

You’ve probably noticed that the explanations of the photos use plenty of links to further information. Below the explanation there’s typically a set of “more on” links about objects or content. The real prize, though is in the index, a fully searchable listing of what’s on the APOD site.

That’s a lot of stuff. McLaren noted that the site was started by Robert Nemiroff and Jerry Bonnell when both worked at the Goddard Space Flight Center. The first posts were in June of 1995, and there have been more than eight thousand of them since. McLaren pointed out that when you look at the site, it is very 1995. There’s no flash or fancy moving menus. It’s pretty straight HTML, and the authors figured that changing things would run the risk of breaking a zillion links to APOD information.

Earth from Apollo 17

The Earth from Apollo 17
Picture Credit: NASA, Apollo 17, NSSDC

They don’t update the photos published, either. Clicking on each photo gives you the best version of it that they have. The one at left, a photo of Earth taken from Apollo 17 in 1972, was posted in the first week of APOD’s operation. When McLaren showed this photo on the big screen during his presentation, there was some laughter about its low resolution. He reminded us that in 1995 we were probably dialing in to the Internet with a 2400 baud modem, and that wouldn’t deliver the high-res goods in the manner to which we’ve become accustomed in our broadband world.

Click the “archive” link on each page and you’ll find a long scroll, day by day, of every APOD ever. The “index” link takes you to a menu of stars, galaxies, and nebulae, solar system objects, space technology, people, and the sky. Clicking on these will give you a handful of “editors’ choice” photos they consider to be the most educational on the chosen subject.

McLaren found this photo, the APOD of October 20, 2002, of the space shuttle docked with the Russian Mir space station in 1995. It made him wonder who took it. Was it the first known selfie?

Shuttle and Mir

The Space Shuttle Docked with Mir. Credit: Nikolai Budarin, Russian Space Research Institute, NASA

“Since it was the first docking, they wanted to get good information about how the two spacecraft functioned together,” McLaren explained. “So one of the Soyuz crews on Mir actually undocked their Soyuz spacecraft, did a fly-around, and observed the combination.” All of that was found by following the links on the photo page.

Astrophotographers who aspire to be published on APOD may well wish to check out its index of Messier objects. McLaren points out that many of the objects in the index are represented by numbers, not pictures.

“They don’t have photos of all the Messier objects posted yet, so if you submit a good color picture of them you may get your photo as the astronomy photo of the day,” he noted, which could lead to fame and fortune or at least bragging rights.

The search engine for the index is useful. Type in “Saturn rings” and it will find 200 items.

“There’s a wealth of information in there if you’re looking for something,” McLaren said.

So the next time you’re checking out the Astronomy Picture of the Day, remember that there’s a whole lot of knowledge lurking beneath those gorgeous photos.

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