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NASA's New Exoplanet Posters Have Us Booking Rockets to Trappist-1

Science can't take us there yet, but artists can.

by Beckett Mufson
Feb 24 2017, 11:11pm

The news of NASA discovering potentially habitable exoplanets a mere 39 light years from Earth, announced Tuesday, is big. The seven-planet Trappist-1 system is exciting not only for both UFO truther, but those who, like Elon Musk, want to get the hell off Earth before we burn it to a crisp

To get the word out that our great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren might grow up on one of the three wet, Earth-sized planets orbiting Trappist-1's star, NASA, the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), and the UK's Institute of Astronomy have commissioned a series of artworks advertising the new planets.

NASA's tradition of releasing retro travel posters with each exoplanet discovery continues thanks to designer Joby Harris. One of the eight visual strategists who make up JPL's The Studio, Harris explains to Creators, "We serve the scientists and engineers at JPL and NASA with design to help them 'think through their thinking' as we say. This could involve data visualization, mission or instrument conceptual development, outreach such as these travel posters, and anything involving ideas coming to fruition." Harris has built replicas of the hatches on space stations, tested astronauts' VR equipment, and even constructed a scale model of a moon with functioning geysers, all in the service of science.

Illustration by Joby Harris, courtesy NASA / JPL

The travel poster's purpose is to convey why the discovery of Trappist-1 is worthy of our attention. Like an alluring travel destination, this poster says,  One day you (yes you!) might be able to go there! 

For inspiration, Harris met with Canadian-American MIT professor Sara Seager who detailed what it might actually be like to stand on one of the new exoplanets. "It was an hour of dreaming about possibilities visually while looking at strong science data Sara and the other scientists had," Harris says. "What if we could go there? What would we do?" 

IoA/Amanda Smith

Along with Seager, the JPL team's input and data helped kept Harris' illustrations honest while allowing minor visual liberties. Setting the poster on Trappist-1e, the fourth planet from the star Trappist-1a, allowed Harris to capture a whole string of planets without sacrificing scientific accuracy. He combined the available scientific data about the star system with research into 40s, 50s, and 60s-style travel posters to nail the color, composition, and title placement. The poster design work of Drew Struzan and advertising and magazine cover legend J.C. Leyendecker are Harris' biggest visual influences. 

Sketching in pencil, he composes the basic structure of the poster, which takes anywhere from a few hours to a day. "This one took some time to get right: fitting in the planets—all of them while looking out a window, with people who I need to make as nondescript in gender and race as possible to make sure there are no roadblocks to people imagining themselves there, before adding color," he says, which is done digitally. The whole process takes about a week.

IoA/Amanda Smith

In addition to Harris' poster, the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge commissioned two more abstract illustrations from their Chief Graphics Technician, Amanda J. Smith. While Harris' post is nostalgic for the future, Smith's contributions feel like Kandinsky in space. "I asked Amanda if she could produced something fresh and bold, a new way to represent exoplanets (and other astronomical objects by extension), that is inspirational and optimist," University of Cambridge Kavli fellow Amaury Triaud tells Creators. 

The result is powerful splashes of color suspended in a friendly, colorful version of outer space. "The primary themes of discovery and the potential for finding earth like planets inspired the use of blues for water, reds for the dwarf star etc," Smith explains. "Amaury's data was also a strong influence in terms of the color coding for each planet." Smith combined physical techniques like collage, screen printing, and mono printing with Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, and Cinema 4d.

Triaud also commissioned a slew of short stories and poetry about the exoplanets to further draw them into the collective consciousness. This is a tactic that Harris believes is a powerful asset to the scientific community. "Most scientists we work with were inspired by art, design, media, TV, films, books, comics, and short stories growing up so there's a huge appreciation for what we do at the studio using design and visual story to inspire others," he says. "It's a full circle of influence."

IoA/Amanda Smith

Learn more about The Studio at JPL here, the Institute of Astronomy here, and check out more art inspired by Trappist-1 here.

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