Picturing Planets

by Bill Retherford '14JRN Published Winter 2017
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This artist’s concept depicts Kepler-186f, which resides in the Kepler-186 system, about five hundred light years from Earth. / Photograph by NASA AMES / SETI Institute / JPL-Caltech

The images you see of these alien worlds are imaginative renderings created by multimedia artists in collaboration with NASA astronomers. The depictions are largely speculative, drawing a fine line between scientific precision and artistic inspiration. Typically, the designers have minimal information to go on — the exoplanet’s size, if it’s rocky or gaseous, the distance from the star it orbits, and perhaps a rough idea of its temperature. Scientists work with the artists to rein in creative overreach and ensure as much accuracy as possible. Color choice is critical. Generally, shades of blue or green are eschewed, since blue may be too suggestive of an exoplanet with abundant water, and green can suggest plant life. Rocky worlds with visible surface features are the most difficult to design, and often require several days’ work. Gas giants, blistering balls of fire, usually take less. Either way, these otherworldly illustrations, seen in virtually all media worldwide, continue to captivate millions.


Read the related article entitled Brave New Worlds:

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