NASA’s Voyager mission left Earth in 1977, taking advantage of a once-every-175-year alignment of the planets to take a grand tour of the solar system. Using a manoeuvre called a gravitational assist, the tiny probe swung itself around Jupiter like a slingshot, zipping past Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, picking up speed each time until it was hurtling out of the solar system at a top speed of about 38,000mph.
The serendipitous alignment of planets – a once in a lifetime configuration that allowed the tiny probe to journey farther than any other man-made object in history – is commemorated in a new range of posters commissioned by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The new illustrations, titled 'Visions of the Future', join an earlier set of works that celebrated and envisioned a selection of newly discovered exo-planets – worlds that exist outside of our solar system, orbiting distant stars and only recently detectable by modern telescopes. The scenes these new posters depict are domestic by comparison, depicting locations right here within our own solar system, and presenting them as exotic tourist destinations.
Mars, Titan, Enceladus and even Earth are included, and portrayed with an art-deco inspired and nostalgia-infused retro twist. Voyager's meandering trip through our solar system is reimagined as an historic tour of the ancient pathways of our brave, spacefaring ancestors.
“The Grand Tour is the route the Voyager 2 spacecraft took to visit all four outer planets,” says David Delgado, creative strategist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We imagined this would be something people might want to repeat, since it’s a flight plan that’s possible every 175 years or so, when the outer planets are arranged just right. In the future, it might be considered quaint to experience a gravity assist.”
This glimpse at a far flung future of commercial space tourism presents “a sense of things on the edge of possibility”, says Delgado. “The JPL director has called our people the architects of the future. As for the style, we gravitated to the style of the old posters the Works Progress Administration created for the national parks. There’s a nostalgia for that era that just feels good.”
While NASA is closer than ever to putting actual astronauts on the surface of our nearest planets (the first manned mission to Mars is planned to take place some time in the 2030s), the agency’s Kepler space telescope looks much much farther afield at worlds orbiting distant stars, and continues to uncover new exoplanets with fascinating and unexpected characteristics.
Kepler-16f is a planet with two suns, one blistering white, the other burning red. “That was the first poster we designed in the series,” says JPL illustrator Joby Harris. “The concept was really clear from the very beginning and set the tone for everything that came after. When we showed it to the scientists, the only thing they wanted us to tweak was to make the colour of one of the stars (and the shadow it casts) different from the other star.”
The artists can also speculate on the colour of the local flora of these alien worlds. “The concept [with Kepler-186f] was about how plants might be very different colours on planets around other stars, since the star’s spectrum of light would be different. So we played on an old saying, with 'the grass is always redder on the other side'. There’s whimsy in the design, making people wonder why there would be this white picket fence on an alien planet.”