Discovering Light from the First Stars, NSF Animation and Illustration
Client: National Science Foundation
What: Creating science illustration and animation of our universe’s first stars to support NSF’s press conference and media package.
Public affairs officer: Josh Chamot
Goal and Challenges
In the oversaturated news cycle, it’s difficult to bring attention to even the most deserving stories. The National Science Foundation funds a vast array of astronomical research, but often the discoveries don’t come with pretty pictures. Arizona state university (ASU) lead astronomer Judd Brown and team was publishing work to change the history of the universe. The problem? They didn’t have an attention-grabbing image. NSF wanted to ensure that the NSF funded discovery got the attention it deserved. That’s where I came in, to create an accurate and eye-catching astronomy illustration and animation. The illustration and animation of the Early Universe’s First Stars was used in a NSF media event, and distributed as a press release for use by ASU and NSF.
The NSF telescopes are ground-based, as opposed to the NASA satellites that orbit Earth. The NSF telescopes are often able to observe data from deeper space. The Earth-based telescopes collect data far outside our visual perception. In this case, astronomers at *ASU, MIT and UC Boulder studied radio wave signals from the early universe. Although the discovery is significant, the images weren’t the stellar Hubble imagery that the public has come to expect of astronomers. Thus, I had the opportunity to use the information we know to imagine what this early universe looked like. *They reported their findings in the March 1 , 2018 issue of Nature.
From the NSF press release:
“Finding this miniscule signal has opened a new window on the early universe,” says astronomer Judd Bowman of the Arizona State University, the lead investigator on the project.”Finding this miniscule signal has opened a new window on the early universe,”… “Telescopes cannot see far enough to directly image such ancient stars, but we’ve seen when they turned on in radio waves arriving from space.”
First Stars Illustration and Animation Creation
Drawing the NSF First Stars
First, I used the patterns from the cosmic microwave background (CMB) as the basis for the illustration’s background. The CMB represents the energy from the early universe, and was the predecesser to these first stars. To make the artwork unique I shifted some of the colors typically used in the CMB from green, red and yellow, to magenta, red and blue. Artistically, this made a stronger base for the blue stars. Although I had a lot of artistic freedom, I wanted to adhere as closely as possible to what is known. In this case, astronomers knew that these first stars were massive, and emitted a deep UV blue light.
Drawing the stars came together fairly quickly, based on astro-photography of stars we can see. For, despite these stars’ significance as the first, they really weren’t that different looking from what we see today. They were massive, but no other stars existed yet for comparison. To complete the story, I really wanted to focus on depicting the structure of the early universe. The first stars emerged from filaments of matter that crisscrossed the early universe. The filaments absorbed the stars’ UV light, thus the blue glow in the illustration. The star’s UV light dims our recordings of the CMB. Interestingly, the CMB dims more than expected, indicating that dark matter may have been loosely associated with the gaseous filaments.
After setting the stage for the illustration, I started thinking about how to portray this web-like network. Digital art sometimes feels static, so I chose to hand-draw (digitally) the filaments to give them an organic, energized feeling. I based my drawing on simulations calculated by physicists, and built up the web with smaller and smaller strokes in Adobe Photoshop.
First Stars Animation Creation
Now that the stars illustration was finished, NSF could use the art for publicity and media outreach while I started on the animation. In the animated format, I could use the drama of light to show how the universe was initially dark. When the stars were born and the star’s light burns, we see the filaments start to glow. Technically, I had to re-create the filaments that I’d previously hand-drawn, in a 3D network in Cinema 4D. I wanted us to be able to fly through to see the star. Therefore, I modeled a web in Cinema 4D. Then, I used C4D and x-particles to distribute the small bits of matter across the web to create the speckled, intangible effect.
First Stars Final Art in Use
Ultimately, the National Science Foundation used the First Stars animation and illustration in its Press Conference, and shared the art in press releases across the media spectrum. The First Stars illustration drew digital visitors to NSF, to MIT and the University of Arizona, and was shared across a vast array of media outlets:
- Washington Post
- ABC News
- National Geographic
- The Guardian
This fantastic discovery was named one of the top 10 discoveries of 2018. The University of Arizona used the illustration in a publicity campaign, where the First Stars illustrations were displayed on billboards and buses across Phoenix.