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How Astrophysicists Come Up With Their Drawings of Alien Worlds

The surreal visions of “visualization scientists.’

The @I_Find_Planets exoplanet Twitter bot has a unique talent for describing (made-up) other worlds.  

Some sample tweets:

“I have discovered a planet. It is sooooooo far. It has 960 rings. It makes me feel passionate.”

“We have discovered a planet. It is many cubits away. Occasionally, a comforting babbling is heard in the air. It may give us pride.”

“I have discovered a planet. We could fly there via tesseract. It is khaki, with scarlet seas. Perhaps one day we will sip coffee there.”


The bot’s poetic inclinations suggest how deep our curisoity runs in the appearance of other worlds. But in reality, imagining those faraway planets can be a tricky science. As shown in the video above, from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a team of artists and scientists at the California Institute of Technology feel a lot of responsibility for visualizing alien worlds: Their renderings become the official public face of major discoveries, such as the TRAPPIST-1 system, which includes seven Earth-sized exoplanets orbiting a dwarf star just 40 light-years from Earth.

The team pores over the scientific data for clues that can inform their vision. A planet with less mass than Earth, for instance, may have more volatile compounds, such as water, which led to the team’s decision to illustrate two of the TRAPPIST-1 planets as having water. The illustrations are part of a long tradition of astronomy sketches that help document our evolving understanding of the heavens.