Space & Innovation

Space Art Makes Alien Worlds Feel Like Home

As we push deeper into space, artists and planetary scientists often make these strange new worlds familiar to us, influencing our imagination and boosting our enthusiasm to explore.

Anyone who watched Bugs Bunny cartoons or read Life Magazine in the 1950s could already imagine space, even though we hadn't visited it yet. Artists had nifty visualizations of planets near and far, based on observations we picked up on telescopes from the time.

Zoom forward a couple of generations, and everything has changed. NASA has flown by every planet in our solar system and several smaller bodies besides. One major milestone was achieved last year when Pluto (a former planet) was finally visited by New Horizons, more than 80 years after it was discovered.

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But one of our greatest achievements is how planetary scientists and space artists make these new worlds seem somewhat familiar to us, argues Lisa Messeri in her new book, "Placing Outer Space."

The science and technology anthropologist, who is based at the University of Virginia, went all over the world to learn more about this phenomenon. She watched people pretending to be Martian astronauts at Utah's Mars Desert Research Station. She visited the famed European Southern Observatory's telescopes in Chile's Atacama Desert, which are uncovering evidence of worlds far beyond our solar system. And she even talked about the importance of Mars to a small group of Silicon Valley folks in the space field.

"The way we visualize other planets absolutely influences how we think about what a place is," Messeri told Discovery News.

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In the early days, space artist Chesley Bonestell wanted a new way of presenting Saturn in space, so he did one famous piece of art from the point of view of a rocky moon (pictured top). Today we are now seeing exoplanet art done in the same fashion, Messeri added.

And now some of our dream worlds are becoming reality. In 2015, the first pictures of Pluto flowed in and began a new phase of exploring this dwarf planet. Messeri said that as new pictures or data comes in on distant worlds, it changes our anthropological perception of what these worlds are.

"It certainly means we've sent some element of ourselves, this technology, far into the solar system," she said. "Because of my working with astronomers, I do believe that they now imagine Pluto in a more profound or more specific way and can conjure a more robust imagination as a planetary sense."

Messeri's favorite part of the book is the search for an Earth-like exoplanet, which has particularly consumed astronomers on NASA's Kepler space telescope mission, as well as the aforementioned astronomers in Chile. Over the years, many rocky planets have been identified in the habitable zones of their stars.

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Messeri spent time in Chile discovering just how hard astronomers must work to learn more about these worlds. "The act of observing is more mundane," she said with a laugh. "I am not a night person, so having to do an all-nighter was in fact incredibly uncomfortable. I loved the astronomers I was there with, and excited to stay up each night chatting, but I also wanted so badly to be asleep."

As a next project, Messeri plans to look at the burgeoning world of virtual reality and how it helps astronomers better learn about other worlds. She added that astronomy changes so rapidly that it's worth revisiting certain topics every five to 10 years to see what developments have happened since. "That change is worth talking about and trying to understand," she said.

GALLERY: 'Space Invader' Found on International Space Station

A peculiar alien visitor has been found on the International Space Station -- but does it come in peace? Inspired by the popular 1970's video game "Space Invaders," a small red mosaic of one of the pixelated aliens has been recovered by European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti and was photographed inside the orbiting outpost's Cupola, looking down on Earth. Continue browsing the gallery to see how far the "invasion" has spread...

The art was created by the French urban artist "Invader," who's true identity is a closely guarded secret. However, his art is very well known. Inspired by 8-bit video games from the 1970's and 80's, Invader's distinctive artwork can be found in over 60 cities in 30 countries around the globe. And now, in an orbital first, Invader's work has been installed on the hatch of ESA's Columbia module, shown above.

The artwork has been cropping up in the Italian astronaut's Twitter feed for the past few months. "Pssst, #SpaceInvader... These are the EMU suits for tomorrow's spacewalk. Spooky eh? #space2iss," she tweeted on Feb. 19.

The small tile was actually delivered to the ISS in July 2014. Since then, "these space invaders have been spotted not only in the Space Station but also in ESA establishments all over Europe," writes ESA. "The first invaders were seen at ESA's astronaut center in Cologne, Germany. More mosaics have been seen at ESA's Redu Center in Belgium (pictured here), where satellites are controlled and tested as part of ESA's ground station network."

This is a close-up of one of Invader's pieces of pixel art at ESA Redu in Belgium on Feb. 23, 2015.

Another mosaic at ESA Redu in Belgium.

Although the mission of the Space Invader isn't clear, its intent is hinted at. According to Cristoforetti, she hopes that the pixelated artforms that are popping up across ESA establishments will inspire primary school children "in using their imaginations for combining geometry, colors and mathematics into abstract minimalism."

"Look what I found! Hey there, who are you?" tweeted Cristoforetti on Jan. 19 when she first encountered the Space Invader. Its first appearance on the ISS was above a space station control panel.

The progress of this invasion can be followed on Twitter using the hashtags #space2iss and #SpaceInvader. So does this particular Space Invader come in peace? It seems so. It has appeared on the space station as a unique piece of urban art intended to inspire. That's one invasion we can all be excited by.

Sources: Invader, Twitter, Flickr, ESA