AAS 207th Meeting, 8-12 January 2006
Session 93 Planetary Nebulae and Supernova Remnants
Oral, Tuesday, 10:00-11:30am, January 10, 2006, Balcony C/D

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[93.01] The Red Rectangle: An Astronomical Example of Mach Bands?

K. Brecher (Boston U.)

Recently, the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) produced spectacular images of the "Red Rectangle". This appears to be a binary star system undergoing recurrent mass loss episodes. The image-processed HST photographs display distinctive diagonal lightness enhancements. Some of the visual appearance undoubtedly arises from actual variations in the luminosity distribution of the light of the nebula itself, i.e., due to limb brightening. Psychophysical enhancement similar to the Vasarely or pyramid effect also seems to be involved in the visual impression conveyed by the HST images. This effect is related to Mach bands (as well as to the Chevreul and Craik-O’Brien-Cornsweet effects). The effect can be produced by stacking concentric squares (or other geometrical figures such as rectangles or hexagons) of linearly increasing or decreasing size and lightness, one on top of another. We have constructed controllable Flash applets of this effect as part of the NSF supported "Project LITE: Light Inquiry Through Experiments". They can be found in the vision section of the LITE web site at http://lite.bu.edu. Mach band effects have previously been seen in medical x-ray images. Here we report for the first time the possibility that such effects play a role in the interpretation of astronomical images. Specifically, we examine to what extent the visual impressions of the Red Rectangle and other extended astronomical objects are purely physical (photometric) in origin and to what degree they are enhanced by psychophysical processes. To help assess the relative physical and psychophysical contributions to the perceived lightness effects, we have made use of a center-surround (Difference of Gaussians) filter we developed for MatLab. We conclude that local (lateral inhibition) and longer range human visual perception effects probably do contribute to the lightness features seen in astronomical objects like the Red Rectangle. Project LITE is supported by NSF Grant # DUE-0125992.

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