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Archive for May, 2009

Schaumburg Prairie Arts Festival

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

Schaumburg Prairie Arts Festival
Schaumburg Prairie Arts Festival

Saturday the kids and I attended the Schaumburg Prairie Arts Festival. It was beautiful weather for an outdoor fair. This is the 22nd year for this annual juried fine art festival. Over 150 artists and artisans participated in this year’s festival.

My prime motivation for attending was to see what other artists were up to. I confess to having largely ignored the artists specializing in sculpture, blown glass, jewelry, and pottery. My focus was on the work of the photographers and painters.

With respect to photography, one thing was evident: digital photography has become the dominant form of photography. Photographic works came in three basic forms. The first form was what I would call pure photography which consists of photographs with no apparent digital manipulation. The second category would be photographs in which various types of digital manipulation were evident – at least to someone experienced in such matters. The third category would be photographs that had been digitally altered to resemble paintings – a path most frequently taken by those working with Adobe Photoshop or Corel Painter.

I have no personal bias either for or against any of the three aforementioned categories. Rather, the only thing that matters to me is the end product. If someone can take a well composed photograph and skillfully manipulate it to create a convincing painting that is superior to the original photograph, then kudos to that photographer-artist. After all, the final image is what counts.

There were a number of traditional painters present at the art fair as well but for the most part their work, mostly executed on large canvases, was uninspiring. I found this to be particularly true of the abstract artists – though there were a few whose work was inspired.

Thinking back, one thing I don’t recall seeing were any purely digital paintings. Nor were there any artists whose work was the result of a 3D render. Being a fan of space art and astronomy, I was also disappointed to see no space art nor any astronomical art. The closest was a digital photograph of the Aurora Borealis.

Speaking of space art, the reason I am writing this entry so late (oops make that early) is because I spent Memorial Day and this evening (now yesterday) preparing artwork for the Space Art Show at the International Space Development Conference in Orlando Florida. I also created a 13 x 19 inch congratulatory space art card for Peter Kokh, the recipient of the National Space Society’s 2009 Gerard K. O’Neill Award For Space Settlement Advocacy. I do hope that Peter enjoys the card/artwork.

Until next time, Ad Astra

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New Space Art: Titan Landscape

Monday, May 18th, 2009

Titan Landscape Space Art
Titan Landscape Space Art by Jim Plaxco

I’ve just added another work of space art to my web site. Titled Titan Landscape, this is an artistic impression of the surface of Titan as seen from a low altitude. Prominent in the piece are a number of lakes and pools of liquid ethane. Their presence is based on analysis of data from the VIMS (Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer) instrument on Cassini and reported on in the July 31 2008 issue of Nature. For more information on this instrument, see the Cassini Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer web page.

Titan Landscape is something of a departure for me. As a rule I have stuck to working with either the inner solar system, specifically Mars and our Moon, or extrasolar objects. For a more complete description of Titan Landscape and to view a wallpaper version of the art, visit the Titan Landscape Gallery Page.

Ad Astra, Jim

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Remembering Apollo

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

Remembering Apollo digital painting
A section of the Remembering Apollo digital painting

I was recently reading about the NASA pull back on its plan to send humans back to the Moon (see NASA may abandon plans for moon base) and could only shake my head in dismay.

A few weeks ago I had the chance to speak to the high school students from three high schools all of whom were members of the Space Exploration Club. My presentation was about what it takes to design and build a lunar base. As a parallel, I used the Army’s experiences with planning, building, and maintaining Camp Century. Camp Century is/was the fabled nuclear powered city under the ice. Today the name Camp Century is probably best known for its ice core samples which have played a prominent role in helping us to understand the Earth’s climate record. Camp Century was abandoned in 1966 due to the shifting movement of the glacial ice cap. This city was eventually crushed by that slow, steady movement.

I spoke to this group of 50 high school students about Camp Century and lunar bases for a solid hour and then answered questions for maybe another half hour. For me, it was a very enjoyable experience seeing how interested these students were in space exploration, science, and energy.

And then I read that NASA may not build a lunar outpost. That plus the news that Orion will be sized to carry only 4 instead of 6 astronauts is a clear indication that NASA’s fortunes have taken a turn for the worse. I find it hard to understand how the political leaders who spend so much time and effort telling us that we must be graduating more engineers and scientists can simultaneously scale back the one program that is such a source of inspiration to students wanting to become engineers and scientists. Does the left brain know what the right brain is up to in Washington?

This got me to thinking about the Apollo missions and the large influence that they had on my life from a philosophical perspective. The quest to understand and know the universe combined with our efforts to grow humanity so that it can exist beyond the confines of Planet Earth is a noble adventure that should be emphasized rather than trivialized. It was the contrast between what is and what could be that led me to create Remembering Apollo because right now memories of man on the Moon is all we have. I wonder just how long we can survive living off memories.

For me Remembering Apollo captures the most important features of the Apollo missions. There is the barren lunar landscape so aptly described as "magnificient desolation" by Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin. There is the Lunar Module – the machine that made it possible for the astronauts to land on and return from the Moon. Then there is the Astronaut – the most important element that made the Apollo missions distinct from all the other space exploration missions, mostly forgotten robotic missions to the Moon. In the book Robots in Space: Technology, Evolution, and Interplanetary Travel, an unnamed NASA official is quoted as saying “We don’t give ticker tape parades for robots.” We remember Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, but who remembers Ranger, Lunar Orbiter, or Surveyor? The last element is the United States flag, the symbol of the nation that went to the Moon in peace "for all mankind." I must say how fortunate I consider myself to be in being a witness to this, humanity’s first small step into the wider cosmos.

Creating the Remembering Apollo digital painting

The Remembering Apollo digital painting is 5580 pixels wide by 3412 pixels tall and was digitally painted using the same technique that I developed for Quantum Moon. The digital tools that I used were a Wacom tablet, Adobe Photoshop, and a digital painter program of my own design. For other details on the picture, as well as to see both the complete picture and a full size section of the art, see the Remembering Apollo gallery page.

Ad Astra, Jim

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Congressman Kirk and Space Solar Power

Sunday, May 10th, 2009

space based solar power satellite
Space Based Solar Power Satellite Illustration from NSSO Report

Yesterday I attended a Candidate and Issue Forum sponsored by the Schaumburg Township Republican Organization. The featured speaker was U.S. Representative Mark Kirk. Congressman Kirk is a member of the House Committee on Appropriations as well as the House Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus and the Congressional Climate Change Caucus. Congressman Kirk represents the 10th District and is a popular representative here in Illinois.

Because of the congressman’s membership on the House Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus, I was interested in learning about his position on space solar power. The question that I asked of Congressman Kirk was if during his time on the Renewable Energy Caucus the general subject of space solar power had been discussed and if the caucus had specifically considered the findings and recommendations of the National Space Security Office Space-Based Solar Power As an Opportunity for Strategic Security Feasibility Study. The congressman quickly described the SSP concept at a very high level as large structures in space beaming energy to Earth and referred to it as an exotic energy source which he readily dismissed by quoting one number: launch costs of $10,000 per pound. Congressman Kirk then went on to discuss a variety of other alternative and renewable energy options.

While I was disappointed by his dismissive attitude, he did correctly identify the Achilles’ Heel of Space Solar Power: the cost of access to space. It should be noted that the cost of access to orbit is not the best single number to use in quantifying the cost of space solar power. Rather the discussion should concentrate on the mass required to produce a kilowatt of electricity (kg/kw) and the total system cost to produce a kilowatt of electricity (cost/kw)

Some thirty years ago, Gerard K. O’Neill recognized that launch costs were the central problem associated with the construction of a system of solar power satellites. In his paper Space Colonies and Energy Supply to the Earth (Science, 5 Dec 1975), O’Neill also identified the increasing demand for power as well as the environmental impacts of its production. His visionary solution was to propose the creation of a Space Manufacturing Facility at either the L4 or L5 Libration points which would be supplied by raw materials mined from the Moon. This would drastically reduce over the long term the amount of mass that had to be delivered to space from Earth. More importantly, it would be the first step in the creation of a spacefaring civilization. While this may sound like science fiction, recall that powered flight, space travel, submarines, and nuclear power were all once science fiction. Following are two quotes regarding nuclear power from a couple of visionary scientists.

There is not the slightest indication that (nuclear) energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will. – Albert Einstein, 1932

Anyone who looks for a source of power in the transformation of the atom is talking moonshine. – Ernest Rutherford, 1936

In other space solar power related news, I will be participating in the Space Solar Power track of programs at the upcoming International Space Development Conference in Florida. I will be a member of the USA and International Strategic, Policy and Technology Issues panel. My co-panelist Kent Tobiska of Space Environment Technologies will give a short presentation on Terrestrial and Space-based Solar Power Systems for Desalination in S. California and Ben Shelef of Spaceward Foundation will give a short presentation on Tie-in between SBSP and the Space Elevator architecture. The title of my segment is The Strategic and Policy Issues of SSP. This will not be a formal presentation. Instead I will share my views with the audience and my co-panelists and solicit their input with respect to my observations. Not being an engineer, I am not in a position to speculate on the engineering aspects of space solar power. However, as a reasonably well informed citizen, I can attempt to understand the social and political objections to space solar power in light of growing world demand for energy – especially green energy. Understanding the societal and political obstacles to space solar power will make it possible to formulate an effective response to those objections, something that lies within the realm of the capabilities of activist organizations.

I have also taken on the job of serving as administrator for the SSAFE (Space Solar Alliance for Future Energy) web site and blog. That is one way in which I can contribute to the dissemination of knowledge about space solar power.

Ad Astra, Jim

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Judging the NASA Lunar Art Contest

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

Space Art Experiment
A Space Art Experiment just for this post

I spent a good part of the day Sunday judging the art that had been submitted to the NASA Life and Work on the Moon art contest. Last year I served as a judge in this contest and was pleased to be invited back again this year. The contest’s art judges fall into two categories. One category consists of NASA personnel – the techies. The other category is professional artists and educators from outside of NASA. I wrote about my experiences last year in Judging the NASA Life and Work on the Moon Art Contest.

Two things made judging the art contest entries difficult. First, while the contest was open only to full time students, the age of the entrants ran from 6th graders to college graduate-level students. Note that the contest was supposed to be for high school and college students only but given that these younger students had undertaken the effort to create art for the contest, how could they be turned away? My hat is off to NASA for having accepted their entries. A second aspect of the art contest that added difficulty was that entries consisted of 2D art (digital and traditional paintings, drawings, etc), videos, music, sculptures, and dioramas. A very diverse range of art forms from a very diverse range of ages.

Judges were asked to grade the submissions based on three categories. The first was the Artist Statement. The purpose of the Artist Statement was to give the students the opportunity to explain what it was that inspired and motivated them with respect to their submission, what media they chose to use and why, and any additional comments they cared to make about their art submission.

The second category was Creativity and Artistic Expression. This was the most important judging category and also the most subjective. For my part I took into consideration how the artist used composition, color, and line in creating their artwork. I also considered how realistic – or plausible – the subject was. Lastly I considered both the quality of the technical execution involved and the relevance of the art to the contest’s stated theme of living and working on the Moon.

The final category was Validity. For validity, the basic question to be answered was did the artist’s Artist Statement and artwork demonstrate a basic understanding of the lunar environment and the conditions in which people would live and work on the Moon. Some of the student artists demonstrated a surprising degree of knowledge in this respect while others demonstrated some very basic misunderstandings of that environment. In some respects this was the most difficult category to evaluate. The degree to which a contest entrant demonstrated their level of knowledge was very dependent on the nature of their submission. For example, the music submission dealt with the emotions felt by an astronaut returning to the Moon from Earth. Generally for those submissions for which the artist’s level of knowledge regarding the lunar environment could not be determined, I gave them a Validity grade that was in line with the grade I had given them for their Artist Statement and Creativity and Artistic Expression.

For my part I am anxious to see the final results of the contest – if just to find out how well the entries that I gave top scores to did. I will post a follow up here once the winners of the art contest are announced.

The Illustration

To illustrate this post I decided to create a quick work of space art using Adobe Photoshop. One of the books I’m reading right now, a book I highly recommend, is
How to Read a Modern Painting: Lessons from the Modern Masters by Jon Thompson. One of the paintings discussed in this book is Road with Men Walking, Carriage, Cypress, Star, and Crescent Moon by Vincent van Gogh. Being astronomically oriented, my focus was on van Gogh’s portrayal of the sky, star, and Moon.

For my Space Art Experiment picture I experimented by creating a textured background sky from overlapping circles, creating nonuniform stars each with a color gradient, and finally adding a planet and moon created from a series of imperfectly aligned colored circles subsequently shaded to reflect a day/night side to each.

While generally pleased with how this experiment turned out, I don’t know that I am sufficiently excited by it to create a full size print version using the same techniques. What do you think?

Recommended Reading
How to Read a Modern Painting: Lessons from the Modern Masters
by Jon Thompson

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Space Art and Astronomy Day

Saturday, May 2nd, 2009
Astronomy Day at Harper College
Map for Astronomy Day at Harper College

Saturday May 2, the Northwest Suburban Astronomers will be hosting an evening of astronomical activities at Harper College in Palatine IL. Some of what visitors can expect includes:

  • Telescopes on Display
  • Access to the Campus Observatory
  • Astronomy Lectures
  • Displays and Photographs
  • Projects for Children

I will be one of the lecturers and I’ll be talking about space art. The title of my presentation is Art and the Exploration of Space. I provided the following description of my talk to the NSA:

Art has been used as a means of visualizing alien worlds and illustrating science fiction magazines. The arrival of the space age provided art with a new purpose: the visualization of the human exploration of space. This presentation provides a historical overview of the evolution of space art and the means by which art has been used to capture and portray humanity’s first steps into the space frontier.

This is an expanded version of a talk I originally gave in 2008 at the International Space Development Conference in Washington D.C. Note that this Astronomy Day event will be held rain or shine. Most of the activities are inside. If the sky is clear, telescopes will be available for viewing a variety of celestial objects. The event is free and suitable for both adults and children.

Astronomy Day Details
Saturday May 2, 2009 at 5:30 pm
Programs begin on the hour at 6:00, 7:00, and 8:00
The Planetarium Dome admission requires a free ticket available at the information desk

William Rainey Harper College, Building Z
Algonquin Road Entrance, Parking Lots 2 & 3
Palatine, IL

Ad Astra, Jim

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