NASA reveals ‘galaxy of horrors’ exoplanet posters in time for Halloween

Posted at 12:22 PM, Oct 30, 2019

Welcome to the sinister side of space, where “no one can hear you scream,” as the original “Alien” movie poster warned.

Just in time for Halloween, NASA released two new posters on Tuesday showcasing exoplanets HD 189733 b and PSR B1257+12 c, existing in “a place only sophisticated telescopes” could reach in a “galaxy of horrors.”

The release of the colorful posters sheds light on dangerous worlds in the universe. Previous posters have highlighted the wonders of our own solar system as well as potentially habitable exoplanets, or planets outside of our solar system, where they imagine how humans might one day visit these faraway places.

The two new posters imagine a darker journey where travelers would have to fight to stay alive. The scientists and artists involved wanted to consider tropes from famous horror movie posters and pair them p with extreme exoplanets, said Tiffany Kataria, an exoplanet scientist who consulted on some of the posters.

In one poster, potential travelers are advised to prepare for “rains of terror” on the “nightmare world” of HD 189733 b, dubbed “the killer you never see coming.” Discovered in 2005, this gas giant is 65 light-years from Earth and completes an orbit around its star every 2.2 Earth days.

It’s bright blue color is a ruse easily mistaken for the inviting color of our own planet when seen from space. But the weather will slice and dice you.

Winds can reach 5,400 mph — seven times the speed of sound — on this exoplanet, according to NASA. Travelers would be whipped all around “in a sickening spiral around the planet,” according to NASA. But the rain cuts just as deep. Exoplanet scientists believe its possible that glass-like silicate particles could rain sideways from its high clouds, cutting and piercing anyone that dares to visit.

Kataria was pleased to see the planet finally get its due. It was one of the first exoplanets to be characterized in great detail and since it’s been imaged in visible light, scientists know the planet is blue.

“This planet set the stage for our understanding of a lot of planets like it,” Kataria said.

The second poster warns of zombie worlds, where nothing could live, like Poltergeist (or PSR B1257+12 c) and its planetary companions Draugr and Phobetor. One is an undead creature from Norse mythology and the latter is the Greek god for nightmares. They’re 1,957 light-years from Earth and were discovered in 1994.

The system is populated by three cores of dead planets trapped in the magnetic fields of the collapsed core of a star, nicknamed Lich, that exploded. And while it sounds like there isn’t much to Lich, it’s the deadliest part of the system.

The dead star sends out twin beams of blasting radiation, called a pulsar, which would destroy any spacecraft that tried to reach one of the planets. And that radiation falls onto the planets, creating auroras that appear more sickly than brilliant.

The posters differ stylistically from previous releases by the Studio at NASA, which was a conscious decision by the artists. They want each planet, and the unique science that accompanies them, to stand out. Details like color form around what’s going on scientifically, said Joby Harris, visual strategist at the Studio and artist on the new posters.

Harris had to use his imagination to determine how to draw frightening physics at work.

“It’s a shift from inspiring and fascinating awe to the sublime and fear, and feeling very small,” Harris said.

Exoplanet travel bureau

The posters created by the Studio at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena combine imaginative artistic renderings with intriguing science. Teams of artists and scientists have been collaborating on them since 2014. But the posters weren’t initially designed to be shared with the public.

It started with a dark hallway in a new building that housed the exoplanet office at JPL, a blank canvas with spots waiting to be filled by poster-sized objects. Currently, there are no detailed photographic images of exoplanets. They’re too distant and faint.

But the exoplanet office was filled with scientists processing a wealth of data from NASA’s planet hunting mission, Kepler, at the time. They were learning about the location and size of these planets beyond our solar system. But any ideas as to the appearance of the planets lay locked up in data.

NASA wanted to fill the empty hallways at JPLwith exoplanet imagery. Artists in The Studio who assisted with media releases were asked to come up with ideas to represent the diversity of planets found outside of our solar system.

Visual strategist David Delgado took up the task. “Imagining forward has always been a creative landscape I love to play in,” he said. “And it’s begging to be thought of when you’re talking about different planets out in the galaxy. It sounds so sci-fi. The fact that they’re real is mind boggling.”

They focused on what it would be like to visit these planets and then collaborated with scientists in the exoplanet office to learn as much as they could. The artists wanted to keep it simple in each poster. To suss out the most interesting characteristic of each planet, they asked the scientists what aspect captured their imagination the most.

The artists were attracted to the travel poster format, drawing inspiration from vintage posters like the Works Progress Administration posters of the late 1930s and early 1940s that encouraged people to visit national parks. The posters had a classic style but also showed something attractive about each park.

In turn, the scientists shared the science that should be included with the posters to keep them accurate. While the artists had certain color schemes in mind, the scientists would also offer notes on size, potential colors, the direction of light and even what the sky might look like from the surface.

The collaborative effort produced beautiful, colorful exoplanet posters that were too exciting to remain confined to the hallway.

In 2016, they released a series of posters. The Studio’s “Visions of the Future” posters portrayed places in our solar system being visited by missions, as well as envisioning exoplanets. The posters went viral and the site crashed.

Imagining worlds

Harris said the posters have been motivated by the question “Why would you want to go there?” as well as “Why wouldn’t you want to go there?” It’s about the beauty and horror of physics, at the end of the day. And the whole process is a dance that the scientists lead, Harris said.

Posters focusing on potentially habitable exoplanets, like TRAPPIST-1e, as well as the comfort of our own solar system in a series promoting a “grand tour” of it, showed all of the ways humans might one day visit these planets, acting as a planetary travel bureau.

Eric Mamajek, an exoplanet scientist who collaborated on two of the previous posters, said the designs are a balance of achieving scientific basics for the planet along with “a bit of sci-fi.”

Mamajek helped with the TRAPPIST-1e poster and provided calculations for the size the other planets in the system would appear in the sky, as well as the position of the stars as seen from the planet’s surface.

“You want to fly to these worlds and see what they’re like,” Mamajek said of the posters. “It’s translating science to art and conveying the wonder of discovering these new worlds. We’re finding new worlds that are beyond what people can imagine. These posters can convey some of the excitement of those discoveries.”

But the universe is full of more dangerous, extreme worlds than hospitable ones. Depicting a lava world like 55 Cancri e presented a challenge for the artists because they still wanted to show the planet from a human traveler perspective while showcasing the dangerous side of exoplanets.

“There was an objective that this poster could extend beyond that and explore worlds that aren’t friendly to life,” Kataria said.

Harris began working on a concept with an ’80s neon color scheme and envisioned a train driving past blue and purple waterfalls. He was 75% done when Kataria shared that there was no solid ground on this lava world. Harris tossed out the train idea and asked Kataria for more details.

Kataria shared that the planet had an average sizzling temperature of 2,000 Kelvin and had clouds made of silicate grains, likely creating glittery particles in the air.

That sparked Harris’ imagination. “When a scientist tries to reach for an analogy for the first time, that’s when the magic happens,” he said.

In the finished poster, a protective bubble surrounds the human travelers. If you look closely, the viscosity of the lava is slightly different on one side than the other. That’s because the planet is tidally locked, meaning one side always faces its star while the other is in shadow. Scientists are still trying to determine if that means the lava might be cooler on one side than the other. So on one side, it’s flowing more rapidly.

They also created a VR experience for the planet that includes those dangerously glittering skies.

Kataria said even given all of her research concerning the exoplanet, she had never envisioned what it might look like.

The exoplanet posters usually provide a key scientific takeaway while providing resources for people to research more about it if their interest is sparked. The posters emphasize the strange reality of different worlds in our galaxy and imagine the technology that could take us there.

“One of my favorite things to do, is play in a world of imagination and plausible reality,” Delgado said.