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May 1, 2017 AT 6:00 am

How NASA Visualizes Stunning Worlds Without Really Seeing Them

Images of space and distant galaxies are all over the internet, but where do they come from? This piece in WIRED shows how raw data becomes art.

EVERYONE LIKES A good space photo. They’re colorful, they’re otherworldly, they make an inoffensive desktop background. And that’s not to trivialize them: Artists’ renderings of exoplanets are gorgeous, imaginative visions of what it might look like to live your life circling another star, and they’re devilishly tricky to make.

Images sure don’t come straight out of space telescope looking press-release ready. Each visualization is the result of artists and planetary scientists collaborating to convert blips on a data readout into something that looks like a planet—all while remaining scientifically plausible. It’s a tricky balancing act that doesn’t always go smoothly. But the illustrations are genuinely useful. They don’t just get regular people fired up about exoplanets, they help scientists working on the systems articulate their work’s importance. And in the incredibly expensive field of space science, you’ve got to be exciting to get funded.

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