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Archive for August, 2015

Pluto New Horizons Program Update

Monday, August 31st, 2015

New Horizons mission to Pluto talk
The New Horizons Mission to Pluto

Last week I gave my Pluto – New Horizons presentation to a joint meeting of the Von Braun Astronomical Society and the Huntsville Alabama L5 chapter of the National Space Society. The event was held at the Von Braun Planetarium in Monte Sano State Park, Huntsville AL. In doing this particular presentation I was wearing my NASA JPL Solar System Ambassador hat. I have served as a Solar System Ambassador for a number of years and in that guise give talks about planetary science and the various NASA JPL robotic missions to the planets. In recent years the focus of my space-related outreach activities has been on the subjects of space commercialization and space development. For example, last November I gave a presentation on newSpace at the Gateway to Space conference in St. Louis while in October I served as a panelist for a space exploration symposium held at the Museum of Science and Industry. The subject of that panel was the economics of deep space exploration and was moderated by former NASA astronaut and ATK Flight Systems Group Vice President Charlie Precourt. And, of course, I speak frequently on the subject of digital art and related topics. You can see a list of these presentations on my art lectures and presentations page.

For the most part my presentations are relatively static due to the nature of their subject matter. The changes I do make are primarily to improve the quality of the content and flow of the presentation. My Pluto talk is quite another matter. The challenge I face going forward is that new data and images are going to be regularly released from now until October 2016. This means that the backstory I tell, which serves as a foundation for the science and spacecraft, is going to be continually cut. In fact I can foresee a time when all discussion of the history of planetary science and details about the New Horizons spacecraft will be removed from my presentation in order to make room for the newest images and science results. For my talk at the Von Braun Planetarium I removed about 15 percent of the backstory slides in order to add slides that addressed the newest images and data returned from the New Horizons encounter with Pluto. And the next time I give this talk – at Maker Faire Milwaukee – I’m going to have to cut more background in order to accommodate the new data being released in September.

In order to add some uniqueness to my presentation’s visuals, I created several custom 3D global views of both Pluto and Charon. As sources I used the global cylindrical projection maps of Pluto and Charon released by Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. I slightly enhanced the contrast and sharpness of the source images, colorized the images, and smoothed out individual image frame borders. I then did something I haven’t done in years – I fired up Bryce and used it to render my globes of Pluto and Charon. I used Bryce because it was the fastest and easiest way to produce simple 3D screen-sized renders.

3D render of Tombaugh Regio, Pluto
3D render of Tombaugh Regio, Pluto (cropped here)

Using custom views turned out to be particularly useful in, for example, highlighting the differences between the eastern and western lobes of Tombaugh Regio. The western lobe of Tombaugh Regio contains Sputnik Planum, which appears to be a reservoir of ices, principally nitrogen (N2), methane(CH4), and carbon monoxide(CO). Sputnik Planum appears to be the source of the ices that thinly veil the eastern lobe of Tombaugh Regio.

Global Map of Pluto
Global Map of Pluto

I also assembled my own annotated map of Pluto that includes feature names and a latitude/longitude grid. I find such maps quite useful in helping the audience understand where features are not just on Pluto/Charon but also in relationship to one another.

In closing, while our knowledge of Pluto and Charon is a work in progress being continually reshaped by the arrival of new data and images, so too is my Pluto talk a work in progress.

Reference Links

Upcoming Pluto Presentations

For Plutophiles(1), I am scheduled to give my Pluto talk two times in September. First up is an abbreviated version for a Rotary Club meeting. Next I will be giving the full talk at Maker Faire Milwaukee held the weekend of Sept. 25-26. In addition, I will also be teaching my class Creating Digital Spirographs and Harmonographs with Processing.

Note 1: According to Wordspy, a plutophile is "a person who likes the dwarf planet Pluto, particularly one who objects to Pluto’s status as a dwarf planet". While the first half of this definition applies to me, the second half does not. I am one of those folks who supported the IAU’s (International Astronomical Union) decision to reclassify Pluto.

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Seaside Generative Art Rip-off

Friday, August 14th, 2015

Monet Seaside Rip-off generative art
Monet Seaside Rip-off generative art
Monet Seaside Rip-off on Redbubble

Dare I say that I’ve gotten tired of looking at Mona Lisa, at least the digitized version. Just as the Playboy centerfold photograph of Lenna Söderberg became a standard image used by researchers in the field of image processing and just as the Utah Teapot became something of a standard test object for 3D graphics developers (modeling, lighting, texturing, rendering), images of the Mona Lisa have frequently been used as a test of generative art programs. I myself have created quite a few variations of the Mona Lisa – some of which may eventually see the light of day if I ever decide to make them public. But I thought it high time that I find a new work of art against which to test the generative painting programs which I greatly enjoy creating.

For this latest program I’ve been working on, I decided to make use of a painting by Claude Monet titled Morning by the Sea. This is not the first time I’ve used Monet’s work. Some time ago I created a generative art video composed of paintings by Claude Monet (read about it at The Liquified Paintings of Claude Monet).

From my perspective, with respect to all generative art programs the designer faces the challenge of balance between artist control and program freedom/flexibility. In other words, how tightly or loosely do you want to hold the reins on the program? I view the question of control versus freedom as having two components.

First there is the ability of the artist to interact with the process. An example of a large degree of artist control would be that of a digital artist using an advanced brush in Adobe Photoshop. The Photoshop brush engine has a number of parameters available that make it possible for the artist to design a brush that can vary the way in which digital paint is applied to the canvas depending upon brush speed, pressure, direction. At the other extreme is what I’ll call push-button painting. Again using Photoshop as an example, a photograph can be transformed into a non-photorealistic "painting" by simply applying one or more global filters to the photograph. A favorite exercise of mine is reverse engineering digital art that I see – not only figuring out what commercial software was used, but also determining what process was used.

The second aspect of freedom versus control is that of how the program itself is structured. Think determinism versus chaos. For example, let’s say you have the following set of statements in a program:

int red = 256/2;
int green = 256/3;
int blue = 256/4;
color theColor = color(red,green,blue);

No matter how many times the above statements are executed, the color being created will always be the same color. In other words the system is deterministic. Now consider the following statements:

int red = (x % 255);
int green = (y % 255);
int blue = ( (x+y) % 255);
color theColor = color(red,green,blue);

Even though this code will result in a multitude of colors, it is still deterministic in that for any pair of x,y values, the color generated will always be the same. Lastly, there is this:

int red = random(256);
int green = random(256);
int blue = random(256);
color theColor = color(red,green,blue);

This represents a chaotic alternative where the color created could be anything. There is no control here. Any legal color is just as likely as any other legal color to be created.

These code examples are a gross over-simplification but serve to illustrate the challenge the developer faces. At one extreme everything is a foregone conclusion while at the other extreme it’s anything goes. It is the designer’s challenge to figure out where to put the fulcrum of their generative art system.

The generative painting program used to produce the artwork for this post has not one but two hearts (just like a Time Lord). The first heart is a flowfield object that consists of two separate, internal subsidiary flowfields. You can think of these flowfields as being the physics engines that drive the bristles of the paintbrush. These flowfields serve as forces of control in the system. The second heart is the particle system – which I define as a system of brush bristles, with each bristle having its own characteristics – within limits (again that freedom vs control issue).

For testing the program, I began by creating my own version of Monet’s painting Morning By The Sea using Photoshop. The process was fairly straight forward. The lines of the painting are clear and the visual elements relatively simple. By digitally creating my own version of Monet’s seaside landscape, I am now one step removed from the original. I can also go back and modify the art to see how those modifications affect the generative process.

The next step was to use my version of the painting as the color source for my generative painting program. I must confess that the first several "paintings" I created with the program weren’t satisfactory but with each painting I would go back and modify the system.

Monet original morning by the sea vs generative seaside
left: Original Monet Morning By The Sea, right: generative version created from my modified version of Morning By The Sea

The version shown above is the first painting produced that I am sufficiently happy with to share. On the left is the actual painting and on the right is the version created using my generative painting program, which used as color input my own recreation of Monet’s Morning By The Sea so you could call this a painting of a painting of a painting. I was sufficiently pleased with the results that I decided to make it available on Redbubble.

I plan to continue to work on my program as I’m still not really happy with the brushwork that my brush bristles are producing. A thought came to me last night in bed – that being to broaden the variety of bristles that I’m currently using with a focus being on the beginning and ending of each individual brush stroke. We’ll see what happens.

About the Source Painting


The French painter Oscar-Claude Monet (1840-1926) was one of the founders of Impressionism and created a very large body of work over the course of his life. Monet completed Morning By The Sea in 1881. The image that I used as my reference source is from WikiArt.org and can be found on the WikiArt page for Claude Monet’s painting Morning By The Sea.

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Musecon Review

Monday, August 10th, 2015

Modified Spirograph program output from Musecon class
Modified Spirograph sample output from a modified Spirograph program

I spent this last weekend attending Musecon which was held at the Westin Chicago Northwest in Itasca, IL. MuseCon is a three day convention for makers, artists, musicians, and other creatives that provides a wide range of creative programming. For my part, Musecon began Friday afternoon with the class I was teaching on how to use the Processing programming language to create a digital spirograph and a digital harmonograph (for more, see Creating Digital Spirographs and Harmonographs with Processing).

The class went quite well and I was surprised by the number of students I had since my class was in the first block of programming – which was Friday at 1:30pm. I can’t complain about the scheduling of the class since I was the one who selected that time slot. Getting my programming done at the very start of the convention meant that I had a worry-free weekend to attend the other programs that interested me without having to carry around the electronic baggage needed for the class. This is the third year that I’ve had the opportunity to participate as a presenter in Musecon’s programming lineup and it was nice having completed my part within the first hours of the convention. If you want to read about what I did last year, check out Generative Art plus Instagram and Pinterest at Musecon.

I spent the rest of the weekend attending programming and chatting with folks I only see maybe once or twice a year. With respect to the programming I attended, my top three favorite programs were:

  • God’s Mechanics: The Religious Life of Techies
  • Physical Properties of Meteorites
  • Photography: Champagne lighting on a grape juice budget

This year the convention had as Guest of Honor Brother Guy Consolmagno. In addition to having his PhD in Planetary Science and having authored a number of excellent books, Brother Guy recently won the Carl Sagan Medal and is now President of the Vatican Observatory Foundation.

The program God’s Mechanics: The Religious Life of Techies was a presentation by Brother Guy about the subject of his book God’s Mechanics: How Scientists and Engineers Make Sense of Religion – which is a fascinating look at how "techies" look at and think about religion and deal with the question of God’s existence.

Musecon Guest of Honor Brother Guy Consolmagno talking about Meteorites
Musecon Guest of Honor Brother Guy Consolmagno talking about Meteorites

My second favorite program was also a presentation by Brother Guy. Physical Properties of Meteorites was an interesting look at the history of meteorites in terms of human understanding of how the solar system works. Brother Guy also discussed some of his own research and its relevance to the larger field of study. Once upon a time my interest in meteorites was keener than it is today – particular since I served as an officer and director of the Planetary Studies Foundation, which at the time had one of the top meteorite collections in the world. The overwhelming bulk of that collection had been received as a donation from the DuPont family. It was in those years that I once had the opportunity to be on a panel about meteorites with Brother Guy at a science fiction convention – though I no longer recall which one it was.

Lastly my third favorite program of the weekend was Photography: Champagne lighting on a grape juice budget which was led by Richard France, Ken Beach, Bruce Medic – all of whom are really excellent photographers whose work I admire. The theme of their program was about taking a DIY (do it yourself) approach to coming up with alternative lighting and equipment solutions. Think in terms of retasking old items or using as substitutes items that could be purchased from your local hardware store.

In closing, Musecon 2015 was a totally enjoyable weekend and one I look forward to repeating in 2016.



God’s Mechanics: How Scientists and Engineers Make Sense
of Religion

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