Illustrating Trappist-1, A Planetary System No One’s Ever Seen

How do you understand a planetary system light years away? Through infographics.

The recent discovery of a planetary system 39 light years away with seven Earth-sized planets–several of which have the possibility of sustaining liquid water (and thus, life)–is one of those rare scientific findings that touches the general public’s imagination. But while the idea of another Earth is exciting, it’s hard to imagine what these planets are really like, especially because we can’t see them.

That’s where Amanda J. Smith comes in. She’s the chief graphics technician at Cambridge University’s Institute of Astronomy, and part of her job is giving non-scientists the visual tools for understanding discoveries like this. Trained in the graphic arts, Smith worked with Amaury Triaud, who studies exoplanets at Cambridge, to create a series of infographics that compare the newly discovered Trappist-1 System to our own solar system. This is significant because the conditions of this distant system make it possible to study the climates of each terrestrial world.

“Infographics have been an important communication tool for a very long time, and with web sharing their popularity has grown,” she tells Co.Design in an email. “They provide many of us with a way into challenging data, they can also be beautiful on their own terms.”

Inspired by blueprints, the infographics share basic information about the system, comparing the sizes and orbits of each new planet to all the familiar planets in our own solar system, as well as representing the system architecture as a whole. The dwarf star Trappist-1, for instance, is roughly the same size as Jupiter–significantly smaller than our sun.

Smith also created two collages meant to encapsulate the discovery. “My brief was to provide an artistic response to the discovery because we felt that photo-realism can confuse, and often people mistake them for actual images,” she says. But rather than trying to depict the planets themselves, she opted for brightly colored graphic collages that evoke the science behind the discovery and convey its import. Even though the planets are 39 light years away, in her collages they loom large about the Earth horizon.

“Put simply the scientists involved wanted a human response to the discovery, and in as wide a variety of medium as possible–art, design, poetry, music, etc,” Smith continues. “So much so that artists from all backgrounds are encouraged to participate and respond to the discovery.”

While the infographics and collages illuminate the details of the Trappist-1 discovery, there are countless questions yet to be answered about the system. Do any of these planets have liquid water? Can they support life? And perhaps most importantly, are they habitable for the humans of the future? Answering any of these questions will certainly represent another monumental discovery–one worth immortalizing through art.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Follow her on Twitter @kschwabable.

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