Peter Rubin/JPL/ASU

The Artist Who’s Helping NASA Get to an Asteroid

NASA called in a Hollywood illustrator to visualize its next big target: the metal-filled asteroid 16 Psyche.

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Feb 1 2017, 3:51pm

Peter Rubin/JPL/ASU

Artist Peter Rubin, a prolific cinematic illustrator, has lent his talents to Hollywood movies ranging from Roland Emmerich's 1994 epic Stargate to the upcoming reboot Spider-Man: Homecoming. 

But when NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) asked him to bring his brand of filmic flare to the agency's roster of candidate space missions, Rubin, a self-described space and science geek, jumped at the opportunity. 

"The thinking was that it would behoove JPL, in these times when funding for projects is harder to come by, to take advantage of the fact that they are in the Los Angeles area and there's all this cinematic talent around," Rubin, who began working with NASA in 2013, told me over the phone. 

The fruits of this collaboration include gorgeous concept art, illustrations, and animations promoting a mission to 16 Psyche, or simply Psyche, one of the crown jewels of the asteroid belt. For the project, Rubin worked closely with Arizona State University (ASU) planetary scientist Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the mission lead for Psyche, to translate the observational data on this weird metal-rich world into captivating visual representations like this mission trailer. 

"The overall shape of the asteroid, including the positioning of those two large craters, is pretty accurate," Rubin told me. "I was given ASU's newly-acquired radar shape data which I translated into a digital mesh. That data is very rough. Then, over that, I sculpted features like the very deep scarps, cliff sides, sulfur fields, volcanoes, craters, and things that might be perceived from a closer vantage point. The overall shape, and positioning of the camera reflects  how Psyche, more or less, would look from our point of view."

The interdisciplinary efforts of the entire Psyche team paid off, because NASA recently greenlit the mission to this "new type of world," as Elkins-Tanton described it in a teleconference

Measuring about 210 kilometers (130 miles) in diameter, the object is thought to be the raw exposed core of a Mars-sized protoplanet that may have been stripped of its outer layers by devastating collisions with other celestial bodies. This makes it a tantalizing destination for planetary scientists and for commercial interests alike, given Psyche's vast deposits of iron, nickel, and other valuable resources. The announcement of the mission kicked-off a fresh wave of stories about asteroid mining, and there are several organizations actively pursuing such off-planet extractions.  

But what does this bizarre asteroid actually look like up close? We'll find out when the Psyche spacecraft reaches its target circa 2030, but for the moment, there is much speculation about its appearance. To bridge that gap, Rubin and Elkins-Tanton worked together to interweave hard science with the creative flourish and eye-catching imagery Rubin is known for in the film world.

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"What you're seeing when you're looking at the visualization of Psyche is every imagining that [Elkins-Tanton's team] had about what Psyche might be," Rubin told me. "Some of those things may or may not exist. If they do, they may look nothing my art, but we were working with the best information we had, from spectrographic analysis, the reflective properties of the surface, and radar shape models."

Psyche's origins

Rubin's artwork depicting Psyche's potential origins. Image: Peter Rubin for JPL. 

In this way, Rubin balanced observations of the asteroid with the dramatic visual language of movies. He has employed similar film-centric techniques to other NASA mission concepts, including proposed trips to Mars and Saturn's moons Enceladus and Pandora, drawing inspiration from other vivid science illustrators, such as space art pioneer Chesley Bonestell.

"What I was bringing to the project was a cinematic sensibility," Rubin said. "It requires finish. It's carrying something through from the purely objective to something more natural and emotional. I worked very hard on the Psyche project, in order to get that kind of engagement. To make you feel, as you watch the video, anticipation, a little bit of tension, and some surprise." 

Hopefully, NASA continues to channel the instincts of film insiders in mission concept artwork. Not only does it inspire public engagement, it makes the anticipation of discovering what these distant objects really look like, compared to our imaginings, that much more exciting.  

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