Discovering Light from the First Stars Animation and Illustration
Client: National Science Foundation
Industry: Government Agency
Art director / 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 work that they funded got the attention it deserved with a science illustration and animation. So, I created an illustration and an animation of the Early Universe’s First Stars to publicize the research.
The NSF telescopes are ground based, as opposed to the satellites orbiting Earth from NASA, allowing them to observe data from deeper space. These Earth based telescopes collect data far outside our visual perception. In this case, astronomers at *ASU and 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,” says astronomer Judd Bowman of the Arizona State University, the lead investigator on the project. “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.”
Process and Solution
First Stars Illustration Creation
First, I used the patterns from the cosmic microwave background (cmb), which represents the energy from the early universe, as the basis for the illustration’s background. To make the artwork unique I shifted some of the colors typically used to magenta, red and blue. Additionally, 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. 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 criss-crossed the early universe. The filaments of gas criss-crossing the early universe absorbed the stars’ UV light, and in turn, the UV light dims our recordings of the CMB. It was actually this dimming that the astronomers observed. 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 of the early universe. Digital art sometimes feels static, so I chose to hand-draw (digitally) the filaments to give them that 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
Next, with the illustration complete for NSF to start using for publicity, 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 that the stars are embedded in start to glow. Technically, I had to re-create the filaments that I’d previously hand-drawn, in a 3d network so that we could 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 one of its publicity campaigns, where the artwork was seen on billboards and buses across Phoenix.