Out of This World

Space artist Dan Durda forges into the unknown to create celestial scenery that educates and inspires.

  • Mars Landing.” This image is based on a panorama of digital photos Durda took of “Mars Hill,” a location in Death Valley that bears an uncanny resemblance to Mars, he says. The art is featured in Buzz Aldrin’s “Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration.” Art by Dan Durda

  • Planet Rise.” Believe it or not, this piece originated with a digital image Durda took out of his bedroom window. He wanted to suggest a richly vegetated alien world. Art by Dan Durda

  • Desert Pillars.” More alien terrain inspired by Death Valley. Art by Dan Durda

  • “Kepler 11-1.” This digital image is one of a couple pieces Durda was asked to create for an article about the Kepler-11 system, a multi-planet transiting system. Art by Dan Durda

  • “Extrasolar Planet 10.” Although Durda is fascinated by the prospect of habitable moons in outer space, “not all exomoons are going to be lushly jungled oases of alien life,” he says. Art by Dan Durda

  • “Apophis Close Approach.” Durda’s impression of a close-approach flyby of near-Earth asteroid Apophis, slated to occur on April 13, 2029. The asteroid will pass within the distance of our geosynchronous communication satellites, Durda says. From the asteroid’s vantage point, the image is astronomically correct—the Earth’s phase and spin orientation appear as they would at the moment of close approach, and the stars in the background are arranged properly. Art by Dan Durda

  • “Jungle Canyon.” An imagined alien world. Art by Dan Durda

  • “Iapetus Disk.” This image illustrates one of several theories to explain the origin of the equatorial ridge on Saturn’s moon Iapetus. The theory, posed by Southwest Research Institute research scientists Hal Levison and Kevin J. Walsh, suggests that a giant impact by a passing asteroid on proto-Iapetus left a disk of debris in orbit around the moon. That debris subsequently decayed, only to re-impact the surface of Iapetus along its equator, thus building the ridge you see here. Art by Dan Durda

  • “New Horizons.” Durda completed this acrylic painting as the New Horizons mission was just getting started—the spacecraft design wasn’t even complete. The original art now hangs in the office of New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, says Durda. Art by Dan Durda

Dan Durda spends a lot of time spacing out. As a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute’s Department of Space Studies in Boulder, Colorado, he studies small asteroids. But Durda is also a self-taught space artist known for his depictions of celestial scenery, from the ridge on Saturn’s moon Iapetus to imagined extraterrestrial life. His art has been published in numerous magazines, including Sky & Telescope, Astronomy, Science, Nature, and The Economist, as well as in Buzz Aldrin’s new book, Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration. The signature image for NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto is his, too. SciFri caught up with Durda to talk about how science inspires his art, and what 21st-century movie left him star struck.

SciFri: What exactly is space art?
Dan Durda: Space art is art that tries to show the wonders of the universe. Quite often we are painting places and times you can never go back to. You can’t get into the core of the Sun and you can’t go back to the Big Bang. Space artists draw a direct parallel to the Hudson River School, mid-19th century American landscape painters. The frontier was being opened, and these painters described amazing new landscapes that people couldn’t imagine back East—rugged canyons and barren deserts. The painters brought back art that inspired people to explore. We also want to inspire. We want to drive imagination forward and help people wrap their brains around what science tells us is out there. We are going where nobody else has been, where nobody else can go. We see ourselves as explorers.

"Lava Lamps," by Dan Durda.
“Lava Lamps,” by Dan Durda.

How do you generate ideas for paintings?
Sometimes my colleagues will pass me papers and ask for an accompanying image. One recent paper was on Iapetus, which is a moon of Saturn (see slideshow above). A massive impact generated a ridge of debris that runs halfway around the moon, and I had to figure out a way to depict that. Other times I’m off traveling in some amazing part of this planet and see a view that inspires an idea. In Death Valley, I photographed a place called Mars Hill, then cleaned it up and added astronauts and a lander. That image is featured in Buzz Aldrin’s new book about Mars.

Are your works scientifically accurate?
I try to keep my art grounded in science. For example, I have this fascination with habitable moons of ringed extrasolar planets. But moons in those systems are often in the same plane as the planet. If you want to create a piece of art that presents the moon next to its planet, you have to show the rings edge-on rather than straight across, like that glorious view you often see with Saturn. Many artists will show that view across the rings even though it’s unrealistic. I try not to do that. But quite frankly, sometimes keeping the science correct makes for a very boring image. There’s a balance. If it’s a fun piece of fantasy art meant to hang in a gallery and evoke emotions, you can be loose with the science and go for the pretty image. The basic rule with fantasy art is, if it looks right, it is right. But if the art is for a scientific paper, then you damn well better get it exactly right. I always go over a paper’s main topic with the researchers and discuss the key ideas they want to get across.

What are your space art tools?
I started painting on canvas with acrylic paint, but everything changed for me on December 18, 2009. That was the day Avatar debuted. That movie just stunned me into speechlessness. I walked out of the theater and decided to go fully digital. Now I use a big LCD drawing tablet with a 24-inch display called a Wacom Cintiq. You actually draw on it with a pen; it is wonderfully interactive. Sometimes I use Photoshop to paint on a digital image. Other times I use 3D programs like Vue, MODO, and ZBrush to render landscape and vegetation, model spacecrafts, and grow and build digital plants, which I can sculpt into 3D and generate into entire alien forests.

Dan Durda trains for his upcoming suborbital research flights with Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace. Photo courtesy of Dan Durda
Dan Durda trains for his upcoming suborbital research flights with Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace. Photo courtesy of Dan Durda

What’s the history of space art?
In some early Renaissance art you can see that painters were thinking about depicting worlds beyond our own. The Adoration of the Magi, a famous fresco by Giotto di Bondone made at the beginning of the Italian Renaissance, is considered one of the very first space art paintings. You have Christ in the manger, but in the sky is a comet, almost certainly the 1301 appearance of Halley’s Comet. The Battle of Alexander at Issus, painted in 1529, is the first painting that shows the Earth’s curvature and distant horizon. In 1711 Donato Creti made a painting called Jupiter, the first known painting that incorporates the view of a planet as seen through a telescope. In the early 1950s, Chesley Bonestell did a series of very influential paintings in Collier’s magazine about going to the moon and Mars. This art was inspired by science, and it in turn inspired science.

What does your own scientific research entail, and has it ever taken you to space?
My research is focused on understanding the geologic processes that occur on the surface of small asteroids. Some time in the next year or two I’ll be taking a series of sub-orbital flights into space, one with Virgin Galactic and two on XCOR Aerospace. It will be my first time in space, and I can’t wait! The aim is to simulate the low gravity that occurs on these asteroids so I can do experiments. I’ll be there to get some serious research done and unfortunately won’t have time for art, but I will certainly enjoy the view. It is going to be an amazing experience to actually see the curvature of the Earth and the little ribbon of atmosphere and the inky black sky—all the descriptions I’ve heard over the years from my friends who are astronauts. There’s a psychological change people have. You get this overwhelming feeling called the ‘overview effect’—that we actually live on a planet and not just some patch of terrain. I’m hoping I’ll have a chance to experience that.

Meet the Writer

About Justin Nobel

Justin Nobel is a science writer based in New Orleans and author of Standing Still in a Concrete Jungle, a book about observing New York City’s minutiae.