TRAPPIST-1 Planets: How Were They Visualized? (Video)

A new video from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory explains the art of visualizing astronomical data and concepts, like what the TRAPPIST-1 planets may look like.

Space art like this is essential to public understanding of astronomy, as it helps people picture other worlds, said Tim Pyle, a multimedia producer at IPAC (Infrared Processing and Analysis Center), a science and data center for astrophysics and planetary science at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

"Artist concepts are going to be the public face for some of these objects, and there's a lot of responsibility that comes with that," Pyle said in the video.

Pyle works with Robert Hurt, a visualization scientist at IPAC, to illustrate "regions where stars form and cores, the stellar remnants after a star like our sun dies leaving a white dwarf," are created, as Hurt explains it. The two also tackle a "neutron star that's left at the core of a supernova explosion ... supermassive black holes that sit in the cores of galaxies" and more. [The 7 Earth-Size Planets of TRAPPIST-1 in Pictures]

The two worked together on visualizations of the TRAPPIST-1 planets, a planetary system located 12 parsecs (about 39 light-years) away from the solar system. The planets, which are named for the TRAPPIST telescope used in their discovery, orbit a star that is only about 8 percent the mass of Earth's sun, according to NASA.

Using data from the TRAPPIST telescope, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and other telescopes that collected information on the planetary system, Pyle and Hurt created images of what the seven planets that scientists know orbit the star might look like, the two said in the video.

Telescope data tells Hurt and Pyle about the planet's diameter, orbital period and whether it's tidally locked, suggesting what it might look like, the duo explained.

"If it's less dense than the Earth, it might have more volatiles, like water, on it, which is why two of the TRAPPIST planets were shown as water worlds," Hurt said. "If it has a higher density than Earth, then it's probably a little more rocky."

All of the decisions that go into space illustrations like these are made with the direction and advice of scientists, Pyle said in the video.

He and Hurt said they are a perfect space artist team. Hurt has a Ph.D. in astrophysics, and Pyle is an artist "with a Hollywood background."

"We kind of cover each other's blind spots a bit," Hurt said.

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Kasandra Brabaw
Contributing Writer

Kasandra Brabaw is a freelance science writer who covers space, health, and psychology. She's been writing for since 2014, covering NASA events, sci-fi entertainment, and space news. In addition to, Kasandra has written for Prevention, Women's Health, SELF, and other health publications. She has also worked with academics to edit books written for popular audiences.