It's hard to illustrate articles about exoplanet research. The pictures from deep-space telescopes just doesn't really look the way your readers want it to look. Instead of an image of a mysterious far-off planet that people can imagine themselves visiting, you get a little blip in the light of a distant star and reams of computer modeling data.
That's why space scientists love artistic renderings—man-made illustrations meant to give you an impression of what an exoplanet might look like. But where do those pictures come from? And how accurate are they? To answer those questions, Txchnologist has a really interesting profile of Dr. Robert Hurt and Tim Pyle, the artists behind most of the artistic renderings you see decorating astronomy news.
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 colors 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.
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.)
For the record: Txchnologist is a science news site that's funded by GE, but they aren't strictly an ad for GE. I've chosen to link to them because they have some neat stories that don't seem to be driven by marketing or heavily biased. But I wanted to let you know what's up with the site, in case you stumble across something there that is more promotion-ish.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.