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Robert Hurt and Tim Pyle turn research and data into renderings for NASA

Their work resembles photographs of planets we may never see

CNN  — 

Robert Hurt and Tim Pyle have provided the world with stunningly photo-realistic glimpses at what gravitational waves, Earth-like exoplanets, rain storms of molten iron and even the Milky Way from above might look like if we could ever see them for ourselves. They also have the joy of illustrating when science fiction meets science fact, like planets orbiting two stars that harken back to twin suns setting on Tatooine in “Star Wars: A New Hope.”

They have been working together and turning study data into artist renderings for 12 years at the California Institute of Technology, the academic home of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Sometimes, they have only a little bit of lead time to produce the stunning images that accompany NASA’s news releases.

Without Hurt and Pyle, the images we associate with exoplanets would be a single pixel of light surrounded by the vast blackness of space.

“I love the fact that I get to help shape the way people see some of these NASA releases,” Pyle said.

In some cases, this even aids the scientists and researchers.

“My initial focus was not just taking data sets and making pretty images but also doing artwork and illustrations that aren’t represented visually in actual data,” Hurt said. “In spectroscopy, you’re literally breaking light up that results in a squiggly line. Even someone with a Ph.D. in spectroscopy can’t glance at a spectrum and see the significance of what that means, so turning results into an image to help people see what the story is about is part of the challenge.”

Though creating this realistic-looking artwork comes with the risk of people thinking they are actual photographs, the bar has been raised by films from the “Star Wars” franchise that present sweeping flybys of planets or the realistic representation of an accretion disc around a black hole in “Interstellar.”

“If we put out a picture that’s clumsy and dull to consciously look hand-drawn just to prevent confusion, we risk losing attention to these discoveries,” Hurt said. “Let’s make it look as compelling as it is and engage the curiosity as much as we can.”

The artist and the astronomer

Hurt took the route of an astronomer in college, and Pyle pursued film production, but both are creative and shared a love of science fiction and art from a young age.

“We sort of meet in the middle of the language of art,” Hurt said.

Before coming to NASA JPL, Pyle worked on such projects as the animated show “Invader Zim” for Nickelodeon.

Forgoing the traditional tenured professor track, Hurt wanted to be more involved in science projects as an astronomer. He got a reputation for creating photo-quality images based on the results of data sets or those he made for friends to accompany releases.

“This is the dream job I didn’t even know