By Matthew Van Dusen
The year is 2511. Your starship decelerates into orbit around Kepler 16b – a planet dubbed “Tatooine” because of the system’s resemblance to Luke Skywalker’s home in Star Wars – after a journey of 200 light years (though because of time dilation, you have scarcely aged). You watch binary stars chasing each other around and around like playful children, something human eyes have never beheld. Then a nagging thought breaks the reverie: Wait, I’ve seen this before.
For this, you can thank artists Dr. Robert Hurt and Tim Pyle, who have worked with astronomers since the mid-2000s to turn data from telescopes that glimpse objects across unfathomable distances into lush starscapes.
Their art and animations may be among the most widely distributed astronomical images in the world, partly because they are in the public domain and partly because of the burgeoning interest in planets beyond our solar system. The images appear in The New York Times, all of the major television networks and on countless blogs and probably do more to promote the studies that they representing than the painstaking analysis of the data itself.
“We really have that opportunity to use the art to fill in the gaps of the story,” said Hurt from his office at the Spitzer Science centre on the Caltech campus in Pasadena, Calif. “We can show the Kepler light curve of light dipping down due to a [planet’s] transit but people won’t know what that is.”
So Hurt, who received his PhD. in astronomy from U.C.L.A. and dabbles in art, and Pyle, an artist and filmmaker who owns a visual effects company called Hogofilm, create pictures that are grounded in science. Together they’re the Lennon-McCartney of astronomical renderings (or perhaps Luke and Han Solo?).
How to draw outer space
To understand how the artists work it’s helpful to understand what the telescopes can and can’t do: the Kepler spacecraft, for example, is a telescope that is searching for exoplanets (or planets outside our Solar System) by monitoring the light coming from over 145,000 stars in a fixed area of the Milky Way. When a planet transits, or crosses in front, its star, Kepler records the dip in light.
Astronomers must then use computer models to analyse the data about the size of the star in a given system, the size of the planet in orbit and even some details about the planet’s atmosphere and core.
“It’s a very analysis intensive process to get beyond the, ‘Ahhh, we know there’s a planet around the star,'” Hurt said.
If the find is significant, the media representative at the Spitzer centre will enlist Hurt to create graphics and animation to go with a press release. (Other artists whose work has been widely distributed by space agencies, include Martin Kornmesser of the European Southern Observatory and San Francisco-based freelancer Lynette Cook.)
Hurt will try to boil the data down to its visual essence and work with Pyle to make sure the image accords with what science knows about it. It’s often possible to glean the planet’s colours based on the content of its atmosphere but much is left to the artists’ imagination and what they want to convey.
“If you want to sell the idea that the planet is the size of Jupiter, you might give it a Jupiter-like storm,” Hurt said, referring to the Great Red Spot.
Pyle said that the result is a mix between science and fiction.
“Anything that is a “known” element (such as, say, the size, colour, and orbit timings of exoplanets around a distant star) are represented as accurately as possible, while any of the “unknown” elements (e.g. some design elements of the planets, camera motion) are given more artistic licence. In that respect,
there’s a bit of give and take when balancing science with aesthetics,” he wrote in an email.*
Merging Sci-Fi and reality
NASA wanted to link the real binary star system to the fictional Tatooine of Star Wars and even invited a visual effects supervisor who had worked on the movie to the press conference. So at the last minute, the artists decided to switch the position of the suns so the yellow star was higher in the sky, as it is in the movie. The switch meant the lighting pattern on the planet was slightly off, which Hurt heard about from at least one stickler. (There was no scientific reason for the stars to be aligned one way or the other, just artistic preference, Hurt said.)The artists principal work in recent years has been related to the Spitzer Space Telescope, which looks for infrared radiation and can detect what Hurt calls “the construction material of planets,” such as dust.
They have been tasked with rendering buckyballs, made of 60 carbon atoms, floating in space and the solar system Epsilon Eridani, where the TV show Babylon 5 takes place (the artists, fans of the show, hid a spaceship in the image.)
Hurt’s favourite work, however, was his roadmap of the Milky Way, a project that challenged him to imagine stepping outside the galaxy.
“It’s like saying, go into Central Park and describe what New York looks like,” Hurt said.
Click here to see Hurt and Pyle’s images >
Full text can be seen at the Txchnologist: Drawing the Universe: Astronomical Artists Create Faraway Worlds.
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