Raptor Rockets and Alien Vistas: The Best Space Art of the Year

Our picks run the gamut from stellar radiation thrashings to SpaceX’s dream machines.

Dec 26 2016, 8:00pm

Image:ESO/M. Kornmesser

One of the perks of covering the space beat is that you get to spend lots of time ogling gorgeous illustrations of exotic cosmic phenomena, futuristic spacecraft concepts, or the imagined landscapes of alien planets.

In contrast to the real, photographic beauty of the universe, captured by sophisticated observatories like the Hubble Space Telescope, the work of space artists bridges the gap between what is empirically known about the cosmos, and what can be realistically imaged from our perspective on our planet. This intersection of astronomical data and artistic imagination sheds light on the universe's hidden corners, and also provides a powerful platform for visualizing the next phases of human space exploration.

We rounded up our favorite concept stills and animations published during 2016, most of which accompanied major news stories. From anthropomorphized spacecraft cartoons to retrofuturist interplanetary tourism ads, the exceptional output of space artists this year will be tough to beat in 2017. (Yes, space artists, that is a challenge.)

Image: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

In February, NASA released these spectacular travel posters advertising a variety of tantalizing off-Earth destinations. Bonus points for Europa's giant alien squid aquariums.

Image: NASA/Wendy Stenzel

This illustration by Wendy Stenzel accompanied a May 10 NASA release announcing the largest haul of exoplanets ever discovered (1,284 new worlds to be exact; good work, Kepler space observatory).

GIF: ESO, ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser

Released in December, this dazzling animation represents a mysterious superluminous event called ASASSN-15lh. Located nearly four billion light years away, this blinding object outshines the entire Milky Way galaxy 50 times over, and is thought to be the death rattle of a Sun-sized star as it is torn apart by a supermassive black hole. The animation is also available in fluorescent colors, for those who like to keep it funky.

HAT-P-7b. Image: University of Warwick/Mark Garlick

This textured illustration of HAT-P-7b, a "hot Jupiter" planet where the stuff of rubies and sapphires permeates the clouds, proves that even an aggressively inhospitable world can still be a "glittering disco ball of a planet," as Motherboard's Kate Lunau put it.

GIF: European Southern Observatory (ESO)/YouTube

Check out this mesmerizing animation of the binary star system AR Scorpii, in which a white dwarf repeatedly thrashes its red dwarf partner with jets of radiation, causing regular pulses every 1.97 minutes. Talk about a disruptive neighbor.

Image: Futurilla

In April, billionaire entrepreneur Yuri Milner and renowned physicist Stephen Hawking announced their joint Breakthrough Starshot project, an ambitious concept mission aimed at sending spacecraft to the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri. This illustration by artist Futurilla beautifully outlines the propulsion mechanism—shooting laser beams at space sails until they reach relativistic speeds.

Image: JAXA

This colorful rendering of Jupiter's aurora and magnetic field captures the complexity of the environment surrounding the solar system's largest planet.

GIF: European Space Agency (ESA)/YouTube

The European Space Agency (ESA) has been killin' it with its adorable series of cartoon shorts chronicling the Rosetta/Philae spacecraft's journey to comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. The mission finally came to an end on September 30, when Rosetta executed a controlled crash into the comet, but the agency was ready with one last retrospective of its adventures and achievements. The full episode, entitled "Once upon a time," is available here, but we warn you, it is a tearjerker.

Image: SpaceX

On September 27, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced his plans to develop an Interplanetary Transport System capable of shuttling 100-200 passengers around the solar system. The entire animated promotional video is worth a watch, but in terms of single shots, we couldn't resist including this illustration of the ship casually driving around Saturn's rings.

Image: ESO

You might think that the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), which is currently in construction in Chile, was given a somewhat hyperbolic name, until you see it stacked against famous buildings and monuments. Turns out it has earned its cred as the largest ground telescope ever built, presuming it stays on track for first light in 2024.

Image: Lion on helium/Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology

This delightfully trippy concept art shows a flotilla of drones exploring Venus's atmosphere, an idea suggested by Alexander Rodin, docent of the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. The artwork was exclusively featured on Motherboard as part of our ode to this nightmarish hellscape of a planet.

Image: Caltech/Robert Hurt

Some astronomers are convinced that there is an undiscovered Neptune-sized "Planet Nine," located way out in the boonies of our solar system, about 20 times farther from the Sun than Neptune. There is a lot of indirect evidence for this hypothetical world, but until we get a direct visual, we will have to make do with concept drawings like this one by Robert Hurt.

Image: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Space artists have no lack of interesting source material to work with, but even so, few realms are more exciting to imagine than the landscapes of alien worlds. That's why we're capping off our list with this lush illustration from artist Martin Kornmesser, which portrays the TRAPPIST-1 star system located 39 light years from Earth. (The cover picture for this article, also by Kornmesser, portrays Proxima b, an Earth-sized planet discovered this year orbiting Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Sun.)

Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.