NASA and JPL-Caltech's space telescope posters celebrate exoplanet exploration

A series of colourful posters marking the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope from NASA convert far flung galactic pursuits into graphic design.

by Anmol AhujaPublished on : Jan 16, 2022

Of the sciences, there is none perhaps that is as endless as astronomy, and that is perhaps why the passion space exploration inspires is unparalleled. Entire worlds exist on either side of the meter scale, with particles as small as the 35th decimal point of the unit identified, and the same may be true for worlds discovered at the same distance from us on the opposite end of the scale. While every realm of study that would involve a microscope may eventually be finite to the smallest ‘thing’ known to mankind, for it’s still planetary after all, space exploration can only take us farther, deeper, into the vastness of what is still unknown out there. The giant leap from the small step that Neil Armstrong spoke about is now measured in light years, and the steps are perplexingly definitive of the very cusp of human technological advancement, only to be breached in a few years by NASA, and closer home, by ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation). While the space race heats up on planet Earth, NASA firmly sets its gaze upon exoplanets: celestial bodies beyond our own solar system, and its powerful space telescopes are our windows to those worlds. In a series of posters (and words evade me when I look for terms other than ‘cool’ to define them best), NASA in collaboration with its Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech, celebrates its interstellar exploratory pursuits through the marvellous instruments that enable them. STIR dives into the graphic design elements that make these decidedly WPA-style posters stand out.

James Webb Space Telescope

  • James Webb Space Telescope poster | NASA Exoplanet Space Exploration Posters | NASA/JPL-Caltech | STIRworld
    James Webb Space Telescope poster Image: Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech
  • The fully assembled James Webb Space Telescope before its launch | NASA Exoplanet Space Exploration Posters | NASA/JPL-Caltech | STIRworld
    The fully assembled James Webb Space Telescope before its launch Image: Courtesy of NASA

The latest and most technologically advanced of the lot, the James Webb Space Telescope has been dubbed a literal time machine, capable of capturing light travelling for 13.5 billion years, in effect being able to peer at galaxies formed after the Big Bang. The sheer mind-blowing capacity of its abilities is only complemented by the complexity in its design, making it powerful enough to even search for water vapour in the atmosphere of exoplanets. Its vast segmented gold mirrors, a definite standout, are represented in the poster design through accented lines and the formation of its font. The telescope is intended to study how galaxies evolve over billions of years into grand spirals. Each new galaxy, each ring of the spiral, is then represented as a hexagon in the poster, ascending in size, in line with the hexagonal panel arrangement of the gold mirrors on the telescope. A cosmic melange of colours constitute these hexagons, emanating from the end of the Webb telescope, with the linework in them growing more abstract as we move further along, from the irregular geo-formations in the first.

Hubble Space Telescope

  • Hubble Space Telescope poster | NASA Exoplanet Space Exploration Posters | NASA/JPL-Caltech | STIRworld
    Hubble Space Telescope poster Image: Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech
  • A photograph of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, 2009 | NASA Exoplanet Space Exploration Posters | NASA/JPL-Caltech | STIRworld
    A photograph of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, 2009 Image: Courtesy of NASA

The Hubble telescope is easily the stuff of legends. Since its launch in 1990, and continued operation even till date, Hubble bears the distinction of being the first telescope to directly detect an exoplanet's atmosphere, apart from studying the first exoplanet known to transit from in front of its star, and the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system. As a nod to the same, the Hubble poster has the characteristics of a 90s movie poster, with our solar system composing the blank space formed by its enlarged-by-perspective infrared camera and spectrograph. A number of colourful albeit simplistic spiral drawings constituting other solar systems in our galaxy populate the background of the poster.

TESS Space Telescope

  • Tess Space Telescope poster | NASA Exoplanet Space Exploration Posters | NASA/JPL-Caltech | STIRworld
    Tess Space Telescope poster Image: Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech
  • Artist's concept of Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) | NASA Exoplanet Space Exploration Posters | NASA/JPL-Caltech | STIRworld
    Artist's concept of Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) Image: Courtesy of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/ Chris Meaney

The TESS poster's geometricity, almost isometric arrangement is particularly pleasing, with its defined use of the three primary colours, and green, in a slightly pastel tonality. The colours outline its four signature lenses at the front, while the solar arrays fill out the needed blacks on the poster. TESS is short for Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, and is the king (or queen) of the night sky, identifying and examining distant exoplanets by noting dips in their brightness levels due to an orbiting planet. The four lenses at its fore enable it to capture a much wider field of view compared to its predecessor, Kepler, allowing it to study virtually the entire night sky, which is what constitutes the poster's background using varying white dots. The four coloured spectrum emerging from TESS's hood seems to reveal exoplanets in that conglomeration of stars. Since its launch in 2018, TESS has studied more than 200,000 stars and added 1900 exoplanet candidates to NASA's current official list of 8,414, growing as we talk.

Keple Space Telescope

  • Kepler Space Telescope poster | NASA Exoplanet Space Exploration Posters | NASA/JPL-Caltech | STIRworld
    Kepler Space Telescope poster Image: Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech
  • Kepler visualised in a night sky, consisting of more exoplanets than stars | NASA Exoplanet Space Exploration Posters | NASA/JPL-Caltech | STIRworld
    Kepler visualised in a night sky, consisting of more exoplanets than stars Image: Courtesy of NASA/Ames Research Center/W. Stenzel/D. Rutter

Launched in 2009, the Kepler is credited with the discovery that our galaxy has more planets than stars. The telescope lost much of its pointing capability in 2013, and was retired in 2018 after running out of fuel. Kepler also holds the record for discovering the most planets of any exoplanet mission, clocking out at more than 2600. Its poster is also strikingly different from the others in the series, owing to a number of factors. For a first, the stylised digital illustration of the telescope itself is replaced by a drawing, appearing as if made in charcoal. Kepler’s famous ‘patch’ photograph style is replicated in the background, while a number of varicoloured spheres crowd the foreground. The wayward black dots on the poster come represent shadows or transits as studied by Kepler, sometimes for over four years, indicating the presence of an exoplanet.

Spitzer Space Telescope

  • Spitzer Space Telescope poster | NASA Exoplanet Space Exploration Posters | NASA/JPL-Caltech | STIRworld
    Spitzer Space Telescope poster Image: Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech
  • NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope after concluding more than 16 years of exploring the universe in infrared light | NASA Exoplanet Space Exploration Posters | NASA/JPL-Caltech | STIRworld
    NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope after concluding more than 16 years of exploring the universe in infrared light Image: Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

The predominant, rather overcoming warm aura of light in the background is immediately reminiscent of the 2001: A Space Odyssey posters, at least the later ones. Spitzer was the initiator for a number of observations and discoveries that the newer telescopes now study in far greater detail. Its chief distinction though, of the infrared imagery, is well represented in the poster through these tones. Furthermore, the poster depicts the TRAPPIST-1 planets, some of which were discovered by Spitzer, lined one above the other, along with the TRAPPIST-1 star visualised in the background. Each of the seven variably-sized spheroids represent the seven (nearly) Earth-sized planets that constitute the system, highlighted in a representative retro-inspired colour scheme.

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