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Should this be community wiki? I can imagine a number of answers that each provide a valid set of links. –  Warrick Feb 29 '12 at 12:34
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5 Answers 5

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Any NASA image is in the public domain, although it's common practice to provide attribution back to NASA. (I often see people trying to make copyright claims on images that I know are NASA provided images) I believe that other images provided by US government funded observatories are also public domain, but you occassionally get a PI institution trying to assert a claim.

The issue is going to be how you want to look for the images. The two main places that I know, without going to a specific mission archive are:

However, these are often calibrated and cleaned up in ways that make 'em useless for scientific analysis. If you want the really good stuff, you'll want to go to use the National Virtual Observatory (NVO), but then you'll need a FITS reader, and have to colorize the images yourself to make 'em pretty.

update : a few more sources of NASA images:

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APOD images are often linked to higher-res versions. Occasionally scientific-grade "raw" images. –  Andrew Jul 1 '11 at 3:42
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Beware, though: many images on APOD come from sources outside NASA, and are not in the public domain (or even freely licensed). –  Ilmari Karonen Mar 1 '12 at 18:52
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If you want to search for images and see them as a layer against the sky (that is, in context), WikiSky.org is a great, community supported site.

If you want to search through a database of observations have a look at Las Cumbres Observatory's observations.

This is a public archive of automatically (that is, by a computer pipeline, not a person) processed astronomical images, but you can download the real data files and have a go at your own processing :)

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Besides WikiSky, there's also Google Sky and Microsoft's World Wide Telescope. For science quality data, I'd still recommend NVO, as they search multiple observatories as part of IVOA –  Joe Jun 2 '11 at 15:08
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Typically you could try images at NASA which are mostly (if not all) public domain. You could start your exploration at:

http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/index.html

At NASA they explicitly mention that their images are public domain so you can use them as you wish. Similarly you could try some other big astronomical institutions around the world where they might also have those "copy waved" images.

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Another very simple answer is to use a google image search with

astronomy +"public domain"

as the search term. This will give you a wide range of images.

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You might've also mentioned Google's advanced image search, which has the option to filter the search results according to usage rights. –  Ilmari Karonen Mar 1 '12 at 18:51
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As one more option, all the pictures on Wikimedia Commons are freely licensed or in the public domain. In particular, you're free to distribute, modify and/or even sell them, although you may be required to credit the author(s) and possibly to release any derivative works under the same license. They have plenty of high-quality astronomy pictures, both from NASA and from other sources.

You can start with their featured astronomy pictures or the astronomy category, or just search for the type of images you want. Or you can just click on the images in Wikipedia; just about all of their astronomy images are free and hosted on Commons.


Another very useful starting point is the Creative Commons search tool, which lets you search specifically for freely licensed content from a number of sources, including Google, Flickr and Wikimedia Commons.

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