This week, NASA released several downloadable posters showing astronomical topics as vintage science fiction films in their Galaxy of Horrors. It’s not the first time they’ve turned science into creative vintage posters — but making posters isn’t the only reason NASA regularly works with artists. Many of the images that accompany official NASA communications about space research are created by visualization experts.
In the series of Halloween posters, NASA turned several astronomical phenomena into concepts for spooky holiday films. Dark Matter is the title of a fictional film with the subtitle “something else is out there”, while the galaxy MACS 2129-1 (which no longer forms new stars) formed the inspiration for an imaginary movie titled Galactic Graveyard.
What’s shown on the posters is directly inspired by real research. For example, the spider web on the Dark Matter poster is based on visualizations of the cosmic web.
The posters were created by NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. They previously created the Exoplanet Travel Bureau, complete with vintage travel posters of planetary destinations outside of the solar system. Like the Halloween posters, the destinations on the travel posters were all based on real research.
Turning scientific phenomena into movie posters may just be a bit of fun, but NASA regularly gets help from artists even when they share serious scientific data. Many of those beautiful images you see on their website, or accompanying news about exoplanetary research, are visualizations based on data collected by various NASA missions.
Even though some spacecraft can send back actual photographic data, not all of the information that NASA missions collect comes in the form of pictures. Often, it’s just numbers that researchers have to interpret to understand what’s going on both inside and outside of our galaxy. But NASA’s visualization studio can turn these numbers into images that represent the information in a more visual way. For example, they can make magnetic fields visible on screen, or show what a neutron star merger might look like.
Such images and videos form a great backdrop for scientific presentations and papers, but they can also help researchers think more visually about the data they collected. When images are not based on real visual data, the visualization experts have some freedom to decide which colors they can use to make the image more informative, or even which orientation to show an image in. After all, up or down are just arbitrary directions in outer space.
But while most of the visualizations that NASA creates are meant to be informative, NASA’s Galaxy of Horrors is just a bit of fun and entertainment. The posters are intended as a fun way to learn new things about astronomical phenomena, and perhaps get you into the Halloween spirit in a year where you’re about as likely to visit a friend’s house as you are to take a journey to outer space.