Turning NASA's data into art

How does NASA create such beautiful images and animations of outer space from mere data?
Written by Dan Nosowitz, Contributing Editor on

Over at Caltech, two NASA employees pore over the endless charts and lists of data collected by the Spitzer Space Telescope. Their job is to take that data, which often describes things nobody has ever seen, and create eye-catching visualizations.

Basically, these two guys, Robert Hurt and Tim Pyle, are NASA's illustrators.

Pop Sci took a look at how all that data comes to be represented in imagery and animation that captures our attention. Hurt is a visualization scientist and Pyle is an animator and graphic artist, and its their job to sift through the data, translate it, synthesize it, and convert it into visual art.

The two men use standard graphic design software, notably Photoshop, Illustrator, and After Effects, and spend most of their energy toeing the line between factually accurate and visually compelling. Says Hurt, "What looks cool and what's real don't always line up," and the duo sometimes has to get creative to fulfill the two sides of their job.

While you and I may know Hurt and Pyle's work just as awe-inspiring, beautiful compositions, the work also serves a useful purpose. Synthesizing raw data into a visual form isn't just cool, it's often the best possible way to explain hard-to-understand concepts.

The example Pop Sci uses is that of buckyballs, molecules of a peculiar and very rare 60-atom structure, laid out in a sphere that sort of resembles a large soccer ball. The precise movement of a buckyball is very unusual and distinctive, but its combination of rigidity and flexibility is hard to describe or visualize--without a visualization, that is.

Hurt and Pyle came up with an animation, which you can watch below, that shows the odd jellyfish-like movement of a buckyball. It's not just art that motivates these guys--but spreading their work is certainly one nice by-product. All of NASA's art goes immediately into the public domain, available to all.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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