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Archive for the ‘Astronomical Art’ Category

Space Settlement Student Art Contest

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2016

Earth and Moon Digital Art Wallpaper
Earth and Moon Digital Artwork

Once again I’ve been asked to be an art judge for the National Space Society’s Roadmap to Space Settlement International Student Art Contest with this year’s theme being People Living and Working in Space Settlements. The objective for the student artists is the creation of realistic illustrations of some aspect of what life would be like in a space settlement – whether it be on the Moon, Mars, an asteroid, or in free space. The artwork must include at least one person and a view or perspective that clearly establishes the setting for the space settlement. This means interior-only views are out – unless it includes a grand window view of the world outside. The "realistic" includes not only scientific and engineering realism, but also representational realism, aka photorealistic.

I find judging these art contests to be a rewarding, yet challenging, adventure. What is particularly challenging is the back and forth between individual judges over the pros and cons of the individual artworks submitted. Picking winners can be difficult in a crowded field of submissions. FYI, the grand prize winner of last year’s contest was an artwork titled Lunar Outpost Construction by Hidayat Saad of Malaysia.

In order to enter the contest, the artist must be a full-time student between the ages of 13 and 25. Artists not yet 18 years old must have parental permission to participate in the art contest. And it goes without saying that the artwork must be the original work of the artist (yes the contest has received a few entries over the years that were plagiarized works).

The contest will have one Grand Prize winner and up to twelve First Prize winners based on student grade level. There may also be Honorable Mention prizes award. I must point out that if no entries are judged to be suitable, then no prizes will be awarded.

Two of the prizes that will be awarded to the Grand Prize winner are having their art published on the cover of Ad Astra magazine, the official magazine of the National Space Society, and complimentary registration to the 2016 International Space Development Conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico (does not include trip expenses) The deadline for submitting art to the contest is March 16, 2016. For complete details, visit Roadmap to Space Settlement 2016 International Student Art Contest.

The Earth and Moon Illustration

The art I used to illustrate this post is The Earth and Moon, which is a generative artwork I recently completed. I cropped out most of the Earth in order to use this art as a masthead for the post so I’ve included the uncropped version below. I have also made this artwork available for purchase at Redbubble and CRATED.

Earth and Moon Generative Space Art on Redbubble
Earth and Moon Generative Space Art on CRATED

Earth and Moon Generative Digital Painting by Jim Plaxco
Earth and Moon Generative Digital Painting

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Orion Nebula Sans Stars Astronomical Art

Friday, January 22nd, 2016

Orion Nebula Sans Stars Astronomical Art
Orion Nebula Sans Stars Astronomical Art

Orion Nebula Sans Stars is my newest work of generative astronomical art – created using one of the generative art programs I’ve written. This is actually my second version of this artwork. I was working on the first one, had finished it, keyed in the save command and watched as my program went belly up with an out of memory error. Certainly a problem traditional artists don’t have to deal with. That version of my generative painting was 12000 by 7800 pixels. Restarting I went with a scaled down canvas size of 10200 by 6600 pixels. Upon completion, I held my breath as I entered the save command and let out a sigh of relief once the save successfully completed.

As a long time fan of space and astronomy, I’ve always been fascinated by the visual wonders of our universe and the Orion Nebula has always been a favorite of mine. What is most aesthetically appealing to me is the structure and colors of the dust and gases that comprise the nebula. It is for that reason that I created this version of the nebula without any stars. For me, they’re a distraction. Of course without those stars there wouldn’t be an Orion Nebula.

If you are interested in purchasing an unwatermarked, signed, limited edition print of Orion Nebula Sans Stars, please contact me. Alternatively you can purchase an open edition print of Orion Nebula Sans Stars from crated.com. Note that the open edition print is 85% of the size of the limited edition version.

About the Orion Nebula

Nebula come in several flavors. The Orion Nebula is an emission nebula meaning it is sort of a neon light in the sky. This is because the gases we are seeing have been radiatively excited by ultraviolet radiation emitted by nearby hot young stars. The Orion Nebula is also referred to as a reflection nebula and a diffuse nebula. The Orion Nebula is about 40 light years wide and is just over 1,300 light years away from us. It’s location in our sky makes it a part of the constellation Orion. In the map of the Orion Constellation below, the Orion Nebula is located at the center of the red circle.

Orion Constellation Skychart Map
Orion Constellation Skychart

At magnitude 4, the Orion Nebula is one of the brightest nebulae in our night sky and is even visible to the naked eye (unless you happen to live in a major city). The Orion Nebula was discovered independently by several astronomers in the 1600’s, the most prominent being Christiaan Huygens. It was given the designation M42 by Charles Messier when he added it to his catalog of objects in 1769.

In closing I must say that the Orion Nebula, minus its stars, makes for a wonderful work of abstract art. What do you think?

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Dust Storm on Planet Dune Science Fiction Art

Saturday, January 2nd, 2016

Dust Storm on Planet Dune
Cropped version of Dust Storm on Planet Dune

To ring in the new year, my first work of art for 2016 wound up being a work of astronomical art with a science fiction setting. Titled Dust Storm on Planet Dune, it depicts the science fiction planet Arrakis, from the Hugo and Nebula award winning novel Dune by Frank Herbert. The scene is that of Dune experiencing a global dust storm, not unlike the global dust storms that Mars regularly experiences.

In this case I did not set out to create Arrakis but rather simply a desert planet. As I worked on the piece my thoughts drifted to Herbert’s Dune novel which I first read many years ago. It was at this point that I decided to create the planet with a specific objective in mind.

Initially planet Dune was set against a nice solid darkish blue backdrop – thinking that might make for an interesting alternative to the standard starfield background. But the more I looked at it the more I felt the need to add those stars to the scene. So after completing work on the planet, I went back and added in a starfield for the background.

My next consideration was whether or not to convert the planet into a crescent planet – with some fraction in light and some fraction in darkness. You may be surprised to learn that when I create a planet, I always create the entire hemisphere. I then use a masking technique to play with the positioning of the terminator (the line that divides the day side from the night side). Having a completed planet gives me the freedom to fully experiment with the terminator’s placement, altering the amount and orientation of the day/night sides. In this case I decided to go with the hemisphere facing the viewer as being fully lit so as to fully communicate the global nature of the desert surface.

At this time, prints of Dust Storm on Planet Dune are only available on Redbubble and Crated. Follow the links below to see the product offerings that are available on each site.

"Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic."
Frank Herbert, author of Dune.

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Pluto, New Horizons Pluto-Palooza: Art and Talk

Saturday, June 13th, 2015

Art version of the dwarf planet Pluto and its moon Charon
Artistic representation of the dwarf planet Pluto and its moon Charon

Next month I’ll be doing some talks on the dwarf planet Pluto, its moons, and the NASA New Horizons mission which will make its closest approach to Pluto on Tuesday, July 14 at 11:49:57 UTC. At that time it will pass Pluto at a distance of some 12,500 kilometers. In fact, New Horizons became the mission of closest approach to Pluto on December 2, 2011 – some three and a half years ago. The previous record holder was Voyager I, which got to within 1.58 billion kilometers of Pluto.

As a part of working on my presentation, I decided to create some original artwork. The result is the art used to illustrate this story. Titled Pluto and Charon, I tried to present a reasonably accurate depiction of the pair in terms of relative size in the artwork with respect to Charon’s orbital distance from Pluto. I took some small latitude with the overall coloring and albedos but as to surface features, well at this point that is anybody’s guess.

New Horizons Lorri Image of Pluto Taken June 11, 2015
New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (Lorri) Image of Pluto Taken May 28, 2015

With respect to the surface features of Pluto, the image above is probably the best image to date of the dwarf planet. It was taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (Lorri) on May 28, 2015 when New Horizons was about 56 million kilometers from Pluto.

My artist’s print version of Pluto and Charon is 18 by 14 inches. By comparison, the version shown here would be about 2.8 by 1.9 inches if printed. I do plan on adding this digital painting to my web site but I’m not sure when exactly that will be as I have a number of other projects consuming my time. However, I have made this artwork available for purchase on Redbubble both as a print and as product artwork:

Dwarf Planet Pluto and its moon Charon on Redbubble

As to my Pluto/New Horizons presentation, I am currently slated to give my talk at the following venues:

When: Sunday, July 19, 2015 at 1:00pm
Where: Schaumburg Township District Library Adult Classroom
for the meeting of the Chicago Society for Space Studies
Address:130 South Roselle Road, Schaumburg, IL 60193
 
When: Tuesday, July 21, 2015 at 6:30 pm
Where: Roden Branch, Chicago Public Library
Address: 6083 N. Northwest Highway, Chicago, IL 60631

I will also be appearing in Streator IL on July 5th with time and venue to be determined. The city is including Pluto in its Fourth of July celebration as Streator is the birthplace of Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer at Lowell Observatory who discovered Pluto in 1930. I am fortunate in that I had the opportunity to attend a lecture about Pluto by Mr. Tombaugh and to briefly meet him afterwards. Mr. Tombaugh passed away in 1997.

New Horizons References

The following New Horizons articles contain additional information about the Lorri image of Pluto used in this story:

The main web site for the mission is the New Horizons web site at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

In closing I offer the following quotation:

Most great discoveries in science are preceded by intuitions and followed by simple or crude methods, procedures, and use of inferior equipment. Often a succession of attempts take place in a progressive sequence, just barely missing the discovery. This was especially so in the case of the discovery of the ninth planet, Pluto.

Clyde Tombaugh in Out of the Darkness: The Planet Pluto

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Exoplanet in the Large Magellanic Cloud

Monday, January 20th, 2014

Exoplanet in Large Magellanic Cloud
Exoplanet in the Large Magellanic Cloud (cropped here)

It has been quite some time since I’ve created a work of astronomical art. Strike that. It’s been some time since I’ve finished a work of astronomical art. In fact I’ve not done a very good job of adding such art to my web site. No I didn’t make a new year’s resolution to do more astronomical art. I’m not sure what possessed me to take a break from my other projects and create this piece of art. Last year I had started work on an exoplanet project. I had painted a number of exoplanets and for a while was quite devoted to it. One of the things I did was to create a database of both the exoplanets and their stars. I previously wrote about this initial foray in The Small Stars of Exoplanets.

My plan was to use both my art and an analysis of the data I’d collected to create a presentation on exoplanets. This would be an addition to my current lineup of lectures, talks, and presentations (I should point out that I do space exploration and astronomy presentations in my role as President of the Chicago Society for Space Studies and as a NASA JPL Solar System Ambassador).

Artistic Inspiration

The artwork consists of three main components: the exoplanet, the nebula, and the stars. While the exoplanet was drawn solely from my imagination, the nebula was inspired by NGC 2035. In fact, the specific image that I used as a reference is The star formation region NGC 2035 imaged by the ESO Very Large Telescope. This image is described as:

The Large Magellanic Cloud is one of the closest galaxies to our own. Astronomers have now used the power of the ESO’s Very Large Telescope to explore NGC 2035, one of its lesser known regions, in great detail. This new image shows clouds of gas and dust where hot new stars are being born and are sculpting their surroundings into odd shapes. But the image also shows the effects of stellar death – filaments created by a supernova explosion.

Artistic Process

I created this art using only Adobe Photoshop CS4 and my Wacom tablet. I used a variety of custom brushes I had previously created specifically for painting astronomical art.

My first step was to paint the neublar structure. I did this using a variety of brushes. One feature that greatly increased the flexibility I had was to take advantage of Photoshop’s brush mode option. The mode option makes it possible for your new brush strokes to interact with previous brush strokes in different ways. This is a very useful technique that is most probably greatly underused as I don’t think I’ve ever seen it mentioned in any astronomical art tutorials for Photoshop.

Having completed the nebula, my next step was to create the starfield. I did this on a separate Photoshop layer. Separating the stars from the nebula allows me to work on the two independently. It’s worth pointing out that this is a fictional starfield. For the starfield the main question I had to answer was sharp or soft: did I want stars with sharp edges or soft edges. I opted for soft edges because the first stars I painted were those in front of the nebula.

I created my exoplanet in a separate Photoshop document. I did this for several reasons. First and most important I wanted to create the planet on a scale much larger than the size it would have in the final composition. Second, because the planet involved a number of layers, I wanted to keep them together as a separate document. This path facilitates my ability to reuse all or part of this exoplanet for other projects.

Once I was satisfied with my exoplanet, I copied the planet as a single layer back to my original Photoshop document. I now resized and positioned the exoplanet. Fortunately I knew exactly where I wanted to place the planet and used that knowledge in creating my exoplanet. To better tie the exoplanet to the nebula, I arranged for the cloud structure to continue the nebula’s pattern as can be seen by observing the 3:00 position of the exoplanet’s limb. Okay – that might be a little difficult to observe since the original painting is 20 x 15 inches and what is shown here, if printed, would only be 2 x 1 inches.

Exoplanet in the Large Magellanic Cloud Digital Painting

To see the uncropped version, as well as some small full-size sections, see Exoplanet in the Large Magellanic Cloud Digital Painting. I’ve added this artwork to my Space Art Gallery as well as to my Astronomical Art Gallery. As is my custom, I’ve limited the number of limited edition prints for this piece to five.

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The Small Stars of Exoplanets

Monday, July 29th, 2013

Exoplanet Stars Smaller Than Sun
Exoplanet Stars As Large As Or Smaller Than Our Sun (Yellow in center of image)

Last month I decided to do a series of paintings of exoplanets. It’s been a while since I’ve done any astronomical art and little of what I’ve done is actually on my web site. A series on exoplanets appealed to me. The complexity of my exoplanet art project has greatly increased since that initial idea.

First I wanted to only paint actual confirmed exoplanets – which meant doing research on specific exoplanets. Fortunately a treasure trove of data is available online. I next began painting some exoplanets. It then occurred to me that it would be worthwhile to paint a number of these exoplanets with the planet’s central star in the field of view. The downside of this approach is that geometry dictates that much of the planet would be in darkness from the observer’s point of view. Still, I decided to proceed. To do this accurately meant that I’d need even more information. Information on the star’s spectral type is needed to accurately represent the star’s color. Information on the planet’s orbital radius and the star’s radius is needed to accurately size the star in the painting. This is even more crucial for planets in binary star systems.

Fortunately the necessary information is widely and freely available. Not only are there multiple star catalogs, there are also multiple exoplanet catalogs from which all the basic data can be obtained. The next step was to integrate the data from the separate catalogs and produce my own unified star/exoplanet database limited to confirmed exoplanets. This integration is still a work in progress.

You will note that I have emphasized confirmed exoplanets. This is because there is a far larger number of exoplanet candidates – a few thousand in fact. A number of these have been found by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, whose mission is to search our Milky Way galaxy for Earth-sized planets in or near their star’s habitable zone

As part of my piecemeal development approach, I exported some of the star data into a csv file. I then wrote a Processing program that would parse the file, create an array of star objects, and do some basic analysis. To test several of the routines, I had the program output some very basic information about the stars:

  • Record count = 910 (note: I did not remove duplicate entries for this run)
  • The most massive star is HD 13189 with a mass 4.5 times greater than the Sun
  • The hottest star is NY Vir with an effective temperature of 33,000.0 Kelvin
  • The largest star is HD 208527 with a radius 51.1 times greater than the Sun’s
  • The smallest star is 2M 0746+20 with a radius 0.089 times the Sun’s

Out of curiosity, I decided to create a routine that would draw all these stars to the same scale. The first and hardest step was to figure out how to automatically draw them – I certainly wasn’t about to manually place them. I developed a modified circle packing algorithm to place the stars on screen without overlapping. Unfortunately given the number of stars and the range of sizes (0.09 to 51 times Sol’s radius) I knew there was no way that I could create a graphic that would easily fit on a web page. So my first pass was to only draw the stars that were no larger than the Sun. This resulted in a drawing of 239 stars the size of our Sun or smaller. Think about that. Out of the 910 stars (some being duplicates) in the file, only 239 are the size of our Sun or smaller. The graphic of these small exoplanet stars is used to illustrate this post. The yellow star at the center of the graphic is Sol – our Sun. My next step will be to add color information so that star color is accurately represented for all the stars.

Given all the research that I am doing on the subject of exoplanets and their stars, I’ve decided to put together a presentation on exoplanets, their stars, and exoplanet search techniques. I’ve proposed the idea of making this a component of a teachers workshop to a contact at Yerkes Observatory. FYI, earlier this year I had the opportunity to participate in a Yerkes teachers workshop dealing with the exploration of Mars. For details, see A Day at Yerkes Observatory: Mars and Astronomical Art

Exoplanet Under Construction

Exoplanet digital painting under construction
Exoplanet digital painting under construction

Above is an example of one of the exoplanet paintings I am working on. You will note the absence of a background (no stars, no nebulaes, etc.) My creative process for my exoplanet series is to first work out the appearance of the exoplanet. Once the exoplanet is complete, I then begin work on the background elements, which includes moon(s), central star(s), distant stars, and any nebula.

Exoplanet Resources

Following are links to some exoplanet resources if you would like to explore this topic further.

I’ll close with a bit of levity courtesy of Douglas Adams and his The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy wherein master planet builder Slartibartfast informs a thoroughly befuddled Arthur Dent: "Earthman, the planet you lived on was commissioned, paid for, and run by mice."

Until next time, happy planet hunting. Jim.

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