The Aesthetics & Astronomy (A&A) group consist of a unique combination of professional astronomy communicators, astrophysicists, and aesthetics experts from the discipline of psychology. We conduct online studies, exhibit studies, and in-person focus groups. The research questions are designed to test such issues as:
  • How much do variations in presentation of color, explanation, and scale affect  comprehension of astronomical images?
  • What are the differences between various populations (experts, novices, students) in  terms of what they learn from the images?
  • What misconceptions do the non-experts have about astronomy and the images they  are exposed to?

Every year, hundreds of astronomical images are released to the public by the full range of telescopes on the ground and in space. This represents a considerable investment—in both human and monetary terms—by the astronomical community. A small cottage industry, so to speak, straddling the worlds of astronomy and science communication has grown to produce and disseminate these images. Today, more than ever, these images are shared via traditional media and science museums, but also through websites, Twitter, and the blogosphere, directly to the public.

This research project studies how well our choices in our image pipelines—from processing to dissemination—are in reaching the greater public. The original A&A study was designed to find out how effective our choices (or compromises) are when it comes to expressing both the science and aesthetics in astronomical images.

View the published papers on A&A and related programs.

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Over 8,000 usable responses were collected in just over a week in the online 2008 survey. The full results on the project were accepted to the Journal of Science Communication in August 2010. Visit for the full publication, which includes the methodology, data limitations, descriptive statistics of the study and a full reference list.

The online participants ranked themselves along a scale from "novice" to "expert". There were some predictable differences among the groups. For example, the novices indicated that variations in presentation of color, explanation, and scale affected their comprehension of the imagery. Those who identified as expert, on the other hand, wanted shorter, more technical explanations (with scale information). Other less obvious results also emerged, including that the novices said their aesthetic enjoyment increased solely based on their ability to access the information in the accompanying caption.

Some additional outcomes include:

  • Providing a context for the image is critical to comprehending it, particularly for novices.
  • Experts prefer text that is shorter and to the point; novices prefer a more narrative expository style for the text that accompanies images.
  • Experts are much more likely to see blue as hot than are novices; about 80% of novices see red as hot compared to 60% of experts.
  • Experts and novices view space images in remarkably differently. Novices begin with more of a sense of awe and wonder, and focus first more on the aesthetic qualities of the image. Experts wonder how the image was produced, what information is being presented in the image, and what the creators of the image wanted to convey.
  • Providing a sense of scale to go with objects is helpful for comprehension at all levels of expertise.
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A&A results were put into practice on the Chandra web site (, with added bulleted text for each new image release, interactive labeling, and "Wikipedia-style" links. These changes came out of the feedback received during the online survey and focus groups. Additionally, an interactive multiwavelength image feature was implemented that allows the user to move from one energy band to another, seemingly "building" the composite. A sample of this can be found at

The Chandra team has also built an interactive, question-based text script into the Chandra photo pages with click-tracking methods to count the user clicks per question and per image, and to compare totals. We have done a similar implementation with a series of print products that includes posters featuring multiwavelength astronomical images and the common questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how. The text highlights some of the content that was commonly asked during the focus groups including how the images were made, the historical importance of the object, the location in the night sky, etc.

Other recommendations from the original A&A findings showed that it is useful (and not overwhelming) to provide color code keys and physical scales in images intended for the public. Another useful finding has been that many novices want to understand how the experts—the astrophysicists—view the images. This type of information is being provided with images by having a "rollover" on the image that annotates the items of interest from the scientists point of view, and/or by including text, video or audio commentary from astronomers as supplementary digital materials.

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In the first of two follow-up Aesthetics & Astronomy studies from 2010, an online survey and focus groups were used to explore whether mobile platforms affect perception of astronomy images. In the online study, participants on their mobile devices were randomly assigned to view astronomy images. Two focus groups were also conducted with experts and non-expert volunteers. Both groups were presented with deep space images across platforms- a large projection screen, an iPad, and an iPhone. Results indicated that there was support for Smith & Smith's 2001 concept of facsimile accommodation in that, as might be expected, bigger was better except in the absence of a comparison, where participants adapted to the platform size. The results, which raise questions as to both size and quality of images on mobile platforms in a rapidly changing technological world, were accepted to the JCOM Science Communication journal.

The second follow-up study was a travelling exhibition for 6 museums/sites designed to explore what type of information in labels that accompany deep space images will most enhance understanding and aesthetic appreciation of those images. A secondary aim of the study was to explore affective responses to deep space images, using an adjective checklist. Data analysis is being finalized and a manuscript prepared for submission.