The Sciences

Astronomer Mike Brown on Arty Exoplanets


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An artist's conception of HD 189733b, which some have dubbed the "Bulls-eye" planet because of the bright "hot spot" shown here.

Courtesy David A. Aguilar/ CfA and Knutson et al, 2007

The transiting planet TrES-1 is one of two planets that have been directly detected using the Spitzer Space Telescope. This artist's concept of the TrES-1 shows it orbiting a mere 4 million miles from its sunlike star.

Courtesy David A. Aguilar/CfA

UK based photographer Edgar Martins is currently exhibiting a new series weightily titled "Dwarf Exoplanets & Other Sophisms" at the HotShoe Gallery in London. I asked actual dwarf planet discoverer, Caltech astronomer Mike Brown, to look at a Martins image Makemake II (above) from the exhibit. Mike Brown wrote back:

"I love to look at artists' impressions of these discovered worlds. They often help to put a little human perspective on what can otherwise be pretty abstract thoughts. I particularly like it when the artist takes everything known about one of these planets and then puts it all together. As far as that goes, the Makemake image is pretty good, I think. The color is about right, though a bit too dark, and the mottling is probably about what we see there (on Makemake)."

I contacted artist/photographer Martins to ask how the Exoplanet images were made. This was his response, in part:

"One could argue that this work seeks to communicate ideas about how difficult it is to communicate. My images depend on photography’s inherit tendency to make each space believable, but there is a disturbing suggestion that all is not what it seems. The moment of recognition that there is something else going on, the all too crucial moment of suspended disbelief, is the highest point that one can achieve. This process of slow revelation and sense of temporal manipulation is crucial to the work. Above and beyond this, in having to shift between the various codes, the viewer becomes acutely aware of the process of looking, of the reconciliation required between sensory and cognitive understanding. As you rightly say, it is difficult to know for sure if what you are looking at is a photograph. However, they are photographs. I would prefer not to reveal straight away how they were produced or what it is that you are looking at. But let's just say, for now, that I bypassed the camera altogether."


It's hard to say if this is my sensory or cognitive understanding responding -- but when I look at the Martins exoplanets, I’m struck with the most obvious difference between his images and the images made by scientists -- the sheer restraint. Oddly enough, the images by the scientists are more playful, while the artist’s images are dark and quiet. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Martins images is the fact that the texture of the surface of the “planet” looks familiar, like something we’ve seen before, on earth. It gives the images an intriguing near/far quality.

Image courtesy Edgar Martins/HotShoe Gallery

This artist's concept illustrates the hottest planet yet observed in the universe. The scorching ball of gas, a "hot Jupiter" called HD 149026b, is a sweltering 3,700 degrees Fahrenheit (2,040 degrees Celsius) – about 3 times hotter than the rocky surface of Venus, the hottest planet in our solar system. The planet is so hot that astronomers believe it is absorbing almost all of the heat from its star, and reflecting very little to no light. Objects that reflect no sunlight are black. Consequently, HD 149026b might be the blackest known planet in the universe, in addition to the hottest.

Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

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