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Out of this World Desktop Pictures
from NASA and Others

July 15, 2002
by Steve Wood


I often post photos from NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day Archive (APOD) on Educators' News with the suggestion of using them as desktop photos or backgrounds. At one time, it was only the cool computer geek that was able to hack a desktop photo or background onto his or her computer. With operating systems steadily becoming more user friendly, it seems that nearly everyone who isn't forbidden by their IT department has a picture of the grandkids, a breathtaking landscape, drawings, or some other personal photo adorning their computer desktop.

Center of Trifid NebulaThe APOD posting at left, In the Center of the Trifid Nebula, got me started looking at a bunch of NASA shots and doing this feature. It was supposed to be a special Fourth of July column, but I got so swept up in looking around at all the different space photo archives, I thought I'd never get anything posted. Along that line of thinking, this column's listing of sites certainly isn't even close to being complete or exhaustive. It's just what I've found so far.

I liked the Trifid photo so much that I used it as my desktop photo at home for awhile. I find that Desktop pictures used on classroom computers, especially space and astronomy photos, are great conversation starters with students. Put up a new desktop photo and the student questions and comments begin.

The mechanics of adding a desktop photo to a computer are pretty straightforward in recent operating systems. The trick is having a great desktop photo is finding just the right image(s) that suit your setting, your computer, and your work habits. It helps if the dimensions of the photo are rectangular, but that's not absolutely necessary. While most of the photos you'll find on NASA and other space related sites aren't always proportioned properly for your computer display, a little cropping and sizing with your favorite image editor will usually make quick work of prepping a desktop photo. Don't worry about the orientation of the photo either, as you can rotate it however you want. (In space, which way is up?) Many of the NASA Picture of the Day photos that appear on the APOD page are a scaled version of the original photo with the full-size photo available with just a mouse click or two. Remember that very dark photos sometimes can make it difficult to work on you computer, however.

Hey! It's time to look at some pictures!


I personally like shots of nebulae, so here are a few that I like. Most of these shots have caption lines that will need to be deleted. You may wish to rotate the shot. You may also have to size and crop the image to match your screen proportions. Then again, some of the shots download in just the right size and proportion.

The Nebulae page of the European Southern Observatory Public Image Archive has some incredible images for download. Many super high resolution versions are available. I like to download the highest resolution I can (which takes forever on a 56K dial-up modem) and then size it down to suit my purposes.

Eagle EGGs in M16

Inside the Eagle Nebula

Crab Nebula

Dumbell Nebula-NGC6853

Eagle EGGs in M16 (47K)

Inside the Eagle Nebula (172K)
©T. A. Rector & B. A. Wolpa (NOAO/AURA/NSF)

Crab Nebula (838K)

M27, NGC6853, Dumbbell Nebula (205K)
Photo use courtesy: REU program/NOAO/AURA/NSF


NGC 4038/39 Antennae Galaxies

NGC 2613

NGC 3621: Far Beyond the Local Group

Whirlpool Galaxy M51 (222K)

NGC 4038/39

NGC 2613

NGC 3621: Far Beyond the Local Group (116K)

The problem I have in doing galaxies is that you can get lost in the photos of just one galaxy. For example, when I started looking through the European Southern Observatory page on Galaxies, I found four images of Centaurus A that I thought were outstanding. Ah, but since it's my column, and it's already going to take half a lifetime for this page to load if you're like me and using a 56K dial-up modem, why not!

Centaurus A Radio Galaxy

Stars, Dust, & Gas in Centaurus A

Centaurus A Detail

Centaurus A-Central Region

Centaurus A composite image

Centaurus A

Centaurus A Center
(Sorry - download link no longer available!)

Centaurus A
(Sorry - download link no longer available!)

Centaurus A
Central Region
(Sorry - download link no longer available!)

Centaurus A
Color composite image

Note: With updates to the European Southern Observatory site, images links have changed. I've tried to update the ones I could find, add an alternative here and there, but some I just couldn't find! The good news is that with the changes, more image sizes are offered for available images.









Jupiter (2.2 MB)
Note: TIFF format

View of Earth taken by Apollo 11 crewmembers

Mars (352K)
Image Courtesy: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory produced a really cool CD in 1995 called Welcome to the Planets. While the CD may or may not be available anymore, all of the Welcome to the Planets data and photos are still online and updated occasionally. Unfortunately, most of the images are pretty small and may not size well to your screen.

One site I'd especially recommend you avoid in trying to download planetary photos is NASA's Planetary Photojournal. Currently, their search engine and even their regular download pages refuse to deliver images in the format specified. I finally was able to get some bitmapped images on my Toshiba Satellite and even one JPEG, but typically the server would deliver a file that was unreadable by either a Mac or PC!

Manned Space Mission Photos

Pictures from the Apollo, Space Shuttle, and International Space Station Galleries provide a vast number of choices for desktop photos. While most astronomical images have the drawback of being a bit dark for use as desktop photos, many of the manned mission shots are daylight shots or have some bright object in the background.

While the Apollo Gallery presents many familiar photos of the moon missions, most of the shots are presented in low resolution format, which is better suited for 15" and smaller displays. They tend to come out a bit grainy on a 17" display. The Shuttle Gallery photos are generally offered in both high and low resolution versions. As the Shuttle makes frequent supply and repair visits to the International Space Station, there's considerable overlap in the offerings of the two galleries.

Earth Rising on Moon's Horizon

Apollo 17 Night Scene

Hubble Space Telescope

STS-106 Launch

Earth rising over Moon's horizon

Apollo 17 Night Scene

Hubble Space Telescope
high res (1.0 MB)
low res (77K)

STS-106 Launch
high res (823K)
low res (58K)

STS-110 Launch

Launch of Apollo 17

International Space Station Construction


STS-110 Launch
high res (1.3 MB)
low res (127K)

Launch of Apollo 17

International Space Station Construction
high res (1.4 MB)
low res (113K)

high res (1.2 MB)
low res (81K)

Telescopes and Observatories

When I thought I was winding down the image gathering phase of this column, I stumbled across the National Optical Astronomy Observatory's Telescopes page. There's actually three pages chock full of gorgeous thumbnailed images of various telescopes and observatories (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Unlike many of the space images presented here and elsewhere, many of the landscapes are light enough to use regularly as a desktop picture or background.

Aerial view of Gemini North

Gemini North Detail

Gemini North, Mauna Kea

Aerial view of Gemini North
Photo use courtesy: Richard Wainscoat/Gemini Observatory/AURA/NS

Detail from Aerial view of Gemini North

Gemini North, Mauna Kea
Photo use courtesy: NOAO/AURA/NSF

The observatory links do not give a file size reference, as the the folks who took the shots and allow their use are also good enough to provide those photos in a variety of image resolutions. Clicking on the photo will load a medium to high resolution file size photo, but clicking on the link below each picture will allow you to choose the size best for your requirements. All three Gemini North photos reveal lots of interesting details when downloaded in their maximum resolution. I found myself repeatedly oohing and ahhing as I looked at the full resolution pictures.

I guess you'd really have to have one of those Apple Cinema Displays to use the photo below as your desktop.

Detail from Gemini North Interior

Gemini North Interior
Photo use courtesy: Tom Sebring/AURA/Gemini Observatory/NOAO/NSF

Detail from Gemini North Interior

That's it for the picture samples! All of the images above were found at one of the following archives:

Incidentally, I chose pictures for this column excluding any whose use policy forbade something like this column or use as a desktop picture.

What's on my Desktop Today?

STS-106 LaunchMy Mac wound up with this smashing photo of the launch of Space Shuttle Mission STS-106. Since the picture required no cropping, I'll use my old desktop photo of the Trifid Nebula to tell you how to do your desktop pictures for Mac OS X and a great Space Station shot for my PC laptop.

I did this exercise originally on a Mac running Mac OS X (10.1.5) using just Internet Explorer 5.2 and GraphicConverter 4.4. I replicated it on a Toshiba Satellite running Windows XP Professional with Internet Explorer 6 and Adobe Photoshop Elements. GraphicConverter is a Mac-only shareware graphics manager and image editor that runs about $35, but you could actually do everything I did to set up a picture with the unregistered version. Adobe Photoshop Elements is Adobe's scaled-down version of Photoshop. It currently retails for $75-80.

If I were without a good image editor today, short on cash, and had a good broadband internet connection, I'd use Adobe's new, free, online application, Photoshop Express. It can size, crop, and modify images fairly easily. And you can't beat free!

For the Mac exercise, I'll assume you're like me and found a great shot in the Astronomy Picture of the Day Archive. You don't want to download the photo that appears with the description. It's usually a scaled-down version of the full resolution shot. Click right on the picture in your web browser to load the better version.

It may take several minutes for the image to completely load into your web browser if it's a very high quality image. When it's done loading, hold down the control key and hold down the mouse button on the picture. When a dialog box appears, select "Download Image to Disk." Be sure you keep track of where the downloaded image is going.

Click image

Open the image you just downloaded with your image editor (GraphicConverter, Photoshop Elements, etc.). If you happened to loose track of it, hunt it down with Sherlock. It can search for files by date created.

RotateI didn't like the orientation of the nebula as downloaded, so I rotated it 90o clockwise. SizeIn GraphicConverter, the "Rotate" command is under the "Picture" menu. I also needed to crop the photo and size it for my 1024x768 pixel screen resolution. (You can find your screen resolution in the Displays pane of System Preferences.) Since I wanted the full width of the rotated original, I sized the photo to the 1024 pixel width. The "Size" command is again under the "Picture" menu in GraphicConverter.



Once scaled to 1024x1024, it was just a matter of cutting off the top and bottom of the photo to make it match my 1024x768 screen. Again, in GraphicConverter, it helps if you turn on the "Position" box (under what else, but the "Picture" menu) so that you can read the pixels as you select.

Under the File menu, do a "Save as..." to where you want to keep your photo. It can be anywhere on the drive. You can also save it in the folder where the other desktop pictures are stored. Just open your hard drive, open the Library folder, and then open the Desktop Pictures. You're there.

To put the photo on the desktop in OS X, click on System Preferences in the dock and then select Desktop.

You can drag your desktop photo to the "well," or navigate to your photo through the popup menu.

On the PC side, I went directly to the STS-106 image archive and found a good high resolution shot of the International Space Station (1.8 MB). Some of my sixth graders and I had marveled last spring at several high resolution shots of the ISS on one of those near-the-end-of-school-and-nobody-wants-to-work days ("nobody" there especially included the teacher). Those shots were against a black backdrop of space, but I found one that faced earth and was considerably lighter overall.

Once I found the thumbnail of the image I wanted (on page 28 of 30), I clicked the image and was presented with a page that allowed a choice of a high or low resolution image. While it takes awhile to download the high resolution version, you can always trim it down later. Once the image loads into your web browser, it's just a matter of saving the photo to disk (if you need to size, crop, and/or rotate it) and selecting it in the control panels, or easier still (at least in XP), selecting "Set as Background" from a right click in your web browser will mount your new desktop.

Toshiba w/ ISS background

Well, that's it! I hope I've headed you in the direction of some interesting desktop photos, and possibly some great conversation starters for your classroom.

Update (5/7/2008)

Since this feature still draws a lot of views each month, I went back and checked and updated all the links in the story. You'd think image links for old space photos would be fairly permanent, but somewhere along the line NASA changed their old 8-digit photo ID system to something newer. That took out a lot of the old Apollo links. They should all be fixed now. If you run into an old 8-digit ID NASA URL somewhere else, you can find the new number and URL for the photo on NASA's Photo ID Lookup page.

Shortly after publishing this column, I also started a new page on of free, downloadable Desktop Photos. It's not a big repository and definitely doesn't directly relate to astronomy photos (other than one shot of the moon and Mars), but it has some nice shots in a variety of sizes for use on your desktop. The downloads are free, but only for use as computer desktops.

I've also posted collections of the desktops I used on our classroom iBooks with some download links on Educators' News. See week 85 for more space shots and week 97 for some great general photos from the Educators' News Archive .

My DesktopAnd my desktop took a definite change for the better several years ago when my sweet wife, Annie, got me an Apple 23" Cinema Display. I have my venerable Mac G5 tower, a Mac G4 QuickSilver, and an HP Pavilion hooked up to it via a Dr. Bott Moniswitch KVM box. All of the computers rotate a variety of wide screen photos, many of which appear on the Desktop Photos page for download. Obviously, the photos look a whole lot better on a large, widescreen display.

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Desktop Photos

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©2002 Steven L. Wood