The work of space artists: visualizing the cosmos

Art that depicts space drives us to explore it. Well before astronauts left Earth, the work of the “father of modern space art” Chesley Bonestell depicted alien landscapes. His thousands of paintings made viewers question if life only exists on earth. He inspired a generation of space artists, astronomers, science fiction writers, including the likes of Carl Sagan and Robert A. Heinlein.

Nowadays, artists continue to play a role in generating public interest in space travel. Of course, we can now see photos of other bodies in our solar system, and we are even beginning to gather images of exoplanets in distant constellations. But artists still help bring data to life. NASA’s art program, for instance, creates still and moving images to inform the public about dramatic mission moments, such as the Cassini spacecraft’s “grand finale” when it plunged into Saturn.

One space artist is Seán Doran. Over the years, he has synthesized photos and videos of the planets and our sun. A recent project is creating footage of Mars using data from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and also using data from the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on the Mars Express spacecraft.

Filling Space spoke with Seán to learn more about his work.

How did you decide to combine your interests in art and astronomy?

I am self-taught so learning new things is an ongoing process for me. I’ve always been interested in space since I remember seeing Carl Sagan’s Cosmos as a kid, around the same time as seeing Star Wars (about 1981). I frequent the Unmanned Spaceflight forums and it was there I discovered the plethora of missions and datasets that afforded me the opportunity to create something new from data collected for scientific purpose.

What work are you most proud of?

I wouldn’t say that I am particularly proud of anything I have made since I am still very much “chasing the dragon”. My abilities are quite limited compared to what I would like to realize. If pushed I would choose Orbit – A Journey Around Earth in Real Time. I really enjoyed the challenge of putting this together once the idea emerged. Through it, I discovered Phaeleh’s music which quickly became intrinsic to its completion.

Who do you find is most interested in your creations and what happens to them after they enter the public domain?

I can only guess that the people who are interested in what I make share the same curiosity and wonder of the cosmos as it is revealed through our telescopes, satellites, and robotic emissaries. Most of the feedback I receive through social media and the media in general is favorable, although there are still a good few people upset with reality and the notion that the cosmos might be more interesting than they can imagine.