One night, Harvard astronomer Alex Parker was camped out at the telescope for a spot of star-gazing, and found himself facing a long, dry period of waiting for the clouds to clear. To pass the time, he started playing around with various images from the Hubble Space Telescope, and ended up assembling them into a colorful mosaic.
The resulting image? A recreation of Vincent van Gogh’s most famous painting, “Starry Night” (above). According to the Finch and Pea blog, “Parker used photo-mosaicing software to assemble the digital collage.” He had been thinking about using Hubble images to make a mosaic for awhile, since the telescope’s 22nd anniversary was approaching; he just needed the right circumstances to find the time — a cloudy night.
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“Observing can be all over the map,” Parker told Discovery News via email about his artistic endeavor. “You will be shut out by clouds on some nights, have to evacuate the mountain because of high winds and ice on other nights, and other times there isn’t a moment to pause because you’re taking data at such a high rate all night.”
Parker grew up in Bellingham, Washington, just north of Seattle — a region known for its gray, cloudy skies and frequent rainfall. Still, he managed to become an enthusiastic amateur astronomer despite the weather, and an introductory astronomy course in college convinced him to pursue his PhD in that field.
Planets are his thing — especially the minor planets in our own solar system. “They may be the vermin of the skies to some, but minor planets give us a tangible window into the early history of our solar system and the mechanics of planet formation, and I really enjoy studying them,” Parker said.
He’s also keen on creating video animations based on observational data, “mostly for the purposes of giving talks and having some eye-candy to show my audience.” Eventually he started setting them to music — of a sort.
For instance, in “Supernova Sonata,” he paired eye-popping images of supernovae with notes determined by various properties of those objects: distance determined the volume of the tone, how quickly the light brightened and faded determined the pitch of the note, and the mass of the host galaxy determined the instrument — high mass galaxies corresponded to a contrabass, while low-mass galaxies corresponded to a grand piano.
Check out his “Kepler Sonata” below. The images are of the six exoplanets in the Kepler-11 system, a sun-like star slightly larger than the Sun in the constellation Cygnus, located some 2,000 light years from Earth. All six planets transit the star; that is, their orbits appear to cross in front of it when you observe them from Earth. Parker animated their transits and generated the tones based on their transit and orbit properties.