James Webb Space Telescope imagery comes down to Earth in NYC art exhibit (photos)

glowing arms emerging from golden hexagon
"Exploration JWST" artwork on display at Ashley Zelinkskie's "Unfolding the Universe: First Light" exhibit. (Image credit: Steve Spaleta/Space.com)

NEW YORK CITY — Sharing the wonders of the universe through the eyes of the James Webb Space Telescope has been incredibly well received since the first images were released. By adding a third dimension to the imagery, conceptual artist Ashley Zelinskie's art exhibit "Unfolding the Universe: First Light" delivers a unique view that includes 3D-printed sculptures, holograms, a virtual reality experience and more.

At a preview of the exhibit at ONX Studios in New York City on Oct. 5, Space.com was given an up-close look at these artistic interpretations of the James Webb Space Telescope's first targets, and we spoke with Zelinskie about the work that was created with the NASA Webb team as consultants. 

One of the featured artworks is a copper-plated 3D print of the Southern Ring Nebula, derived from one of the first Webb photos revealed to the public in July. The print, Zelinksie said, has aquamarine gemstones in the center, which contain beryllium, the ultra-light metal that the James Webb Space Telescope's primary mirror is made of.

Related: How the James Webb Space Telescope works in pictures

The "Southern Ring Nebula" piece is a "generative piece of art," Zelinskie said, that was created using several data points from the Webb image and the nebula’s distance from Earth. The artist added that each star in the piece is a "James Webb star" with the characteristic six spikes as seen in Webb imagery, which are an artifact of the hexagonal mirror segments that collect the incoming light. This "star motif" is seen throughout the exhibit, Zelinskie revealed. 

Zelinskie was very meticulous while creating each piece in the exhibit, going back and forth with scientists at NASA to "make sure that the artwork isn't just beautiful, but also scientifically accurate." She said her goal was to "portray the mission or the science behind it in a respectful and accurate manner." 

One of the exhibit's main attractions is a stunning 3D print of the space telescope's primary mirror, which includes all of its 18 hexagonal segments and three human arms extending from its core. The artwork is called "Exploration JWST" and its "arms are reaching out of the primary mirror of the JWST as though they are reaching through a portal to the ends of the universe," according to the description on Zelinskie's website.

"Exploration JWST" artwork on display at Ashley Zelinkskie's "Unfolding the Universe: First Light" exhibit.  (Image credit: Future)

The arms were created from 3D scans of the real arms of astrophysicist and Nobel laureate John Cromwell Mather, NASA's deputy Project scientist for JWST science communications, astrophysicist Amber Straughn, and Zelinskie herself. Straughn has been friends with Zelinskie for several years since meeting in a cleanroom at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center while Webb was still on Earth. 

Another highlight of the exhibit is a Mozilla Hubs virtual reality experience that visitors can partake in. Retired NASA astronaut Mike Massimino can be seen in the image below giving the VR goggles and controller a spin. Massimino told Space.com that he really admires what Zelinskie has created "by taking these engineering wonders and these scientific discoveries and being able to convert it into art that also tells us the science story."

Retired NASA astronaut Mike Massimino experiences virtual reality at Ashley Zelinkskie's "Unfolding the Universe: First Light" exhibit.

Retired NASA astronaut Mike Massimino experiences virtual reality at Ashley Zelinkskie's "Unfolding the Universe: First Light" exhibit.  (Image credit: Steve Spaleta / Space.com)

Massimino and Zelinskie have collaborated on stone recreations of the astronaut gloves he wore during the NASA STS-125 mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope and are planning a future art exhibit together, they revealed. 

The VR experience "teleports" visitors to a "sky" gallery, where they can experience artist Ashley Zelinskie's virtual installation," according to her website. You can move around 3D animated versions of the "Exploration JWST" sculpture and "interactive portraits of the James Webb Space Telescope team." See a preview of the VR experience in the video below.

The exhibit also includes a room dedicated to Webb's first deep field image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723. On display is a silk screen of the image and an interactive "Lite-Brite" version, into which, visitors can insert colored, plastic pegs that light up just like the classic toy. 

You can also see holograms inspired by Webb's Stephan's Quintet image and other space-inspired pieces of art to round out this cosmic experience. The slideshow of images above showcases our favorites. 

The free exhibit runs through Oct. 23 and features several guest speakers from NASA. You can register to attend those talks on Eventbrite

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Steve Spaleta
Senior Producer

Steve Spaleta is Space.com's Senior Producer. Since 2007, Steve has produced and edited space, science and entertainment-related videos for Space.com. He is also the producer/writer/editor of Space.com's CosMix series on space-enthused artists. He studied psychology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and is originally from Zadar, Croatia by way of Astoria, NY. To see Steve's latest project, follow him on Twitter and follow Space.com's VideoFromSpace YouTube Channel.