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The Art of Exoplanets

How two Caltech visual artists transform data points into dramatic imagery

Recently, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope helped reveal that a star called TRAPPIST-1 is circled by seven Earth-size planets—the first system of this kind found to date. The data collected by Spitzer and other telescopes reveal the exoplanets' sizes and distances to their stars, while theoretical models predict additional information about the planets' atmospheres and surfaces. But what do these planets really look like? Do they have continents, lava, or oceans?

Astronomers do not know what exoplanets look like to this level of detail, so they enlist artists like Robert Hurt and Tim Pyle of Caltech's IPAC, a science and data center for astronomy, to help imagine the worlds. Hurt, a visualization scientist and astronomer, and Pyle, a multimedia producer, teamed up to create a suite of images and videos of the TRAPPIST-1 system that are both eye-catching and scientifically plausible. One of the graphics—a lineup of all seven sunlit worlds—adorned the front page of The New York Times on February 23, 2017, the day after the discovery was announced.

In addition to exoplanets, Hurt and Pyle have created artwork of everything from asteroids to brown dwarfs to dead pulsing stars. To learn more about Caltech's space artists, check out a new video and feature story from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is managed by Caltech for NASA.


Written by Whitney Clavin

Whitney Clavin
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