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How stunning images from the James Webb Space Telescope were brought to life for the visually impaired

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When the first batch of images from the James Webb Space Telescope were released to the public last week, people around the world were treated to a flurry of dazzling and colorful glimpses into deep space. They show sparkling swirls of galaxies, the emanating cosmic dust of the Southern Ring Nebula, and the painterly landscape view of so-called cosmic cliffs.

The images are a treat for the eyes. And through a unique and dedicated effort by a team of writers and scientists, they’re also a treat for those unable to see.

The images coming back from the Webb telescope are all being given detailed alternative-text descriptions—word versions of images that are processed into sound by the screen reader software used by people with visual impairments. Alt text is a keystone of inclusive and accessible design on the internet, allowing people to access online resources in multiple ways. The alt text for the new images from the Webb telescope are being heralded as exemplary.

“The image is divided horizontally by an undulating line between a cloudscape forming a nebula along the bottom portion and a comparatively clear upper portion. Speckled across both portions is a starfield, showing innumerable stars of many sizes. The smallest of these are small, distant, and faint points of light. The largest of these appear larger, closer, brighter, and more fully resolved with 8-point diffraction spikes. The upper portion of the image is blueish, and has wispy translucent cloud-like streaks rising from the nebula below. The orangish cloudy formation in the bottom half varies in density and ranges from translucent to opaque. The stars vary in color, the majority of which, have a blue or orange hue. The cloud-like structure of the nebula contains ridges, peaks, and valleys – an appearance very similar to a mountain range. Three long diffraction spikes from the top right edge of the image suggest the presence of a large star just out of view.” [Image: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI]The alt text is being written at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, which leads the science and mission operations for the Webb telescope and partners with NASA. A team of about 15 writers, editors, astronomers, and curators are now actively engaged in a detailed editorial process of analyzing the images coming back from the telescope. They’re now turning them into text that can then be interpreted by the visually impaired into their own visualizations.

Margaret W. Carruthers,........

© Fast Company

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