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Artist paints worlds unseen

Space artist Lynette Cook is the person scientists turn to when they want to see how distant worlds, based on their data, could look like.

india Updated: Feb 07, 2006 17:39 IST

What if ET isn't cute? What if extraterrestrial life doesn't even touch the surface of a faraway planet, but instead floats above its hostile surface like a hot-air balloon?

Scientists say this is possible, based on data they have about the big gassy planets detected around stars other than our sun, but no one has actually seen this.

To make this data come to life, astronomers turn to Lynette Cook, space artist extraordinaire.

Since astronomers detected the first planet outside our solar system in 1995, Cook has been illustrating what their instruments reveal about distant unseen worlds -- and these worlds aren't always pretty.

Take, for example, her vision of the astronomical carnage around a sun-like star called HD 82943, in the constellation Hydra (The Water Snake). A couple of Jupiter-size planets circle benignly as the star swallows another planet, which spews a fiery-looking tail as it crashes into its sun.

Then there is the eerie green light that pervades planets orbiting a pulsar, which belches out so much radiation that no life could survive. If, against all logic, a sentient being did live on the planets around pulsar PSR 1257 + 12, it might enjoy the green and ochre mountains and the celestial aurora.

But what if living things do exist on a faraway planet? Cook imagined a Jupiter-style gas giant planet harbouring life, but not on its gassy surface. Instead, there are hypothetical floating life forms, a cross between jellyfish and hot-air balloons, drifting along on air currents.

These pictures -- which illustrate a new book about extrasolar planets called "Infinite Worlds" -- may seem surreal, but Cook said in an interview that they are grounded in science.

"This is not science fiction," she said. "These planets are so far away we cannot look at them with a camera close up, so we can't have the assurance at this point of time that it's 100 percent accurate. And that's fun for me because I can use some imagination as long as it is scientifically plausible. It can't be too far-out or I can't do it."

Cook, 45, always wanted to be a scientific illustrator.

As a child, she would draw birds, mushrooms and other flora and fauna. She got a double degree in art and biology at the Mississippi University for Women and then a master of fine arts at the California Academy of Arts and Crafts in Oakland.

Internships, freelance work and then a job at the Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco followed.

She made her first rendition of an unseen extrasolar planet in 1995, when scientists spotted one around the star 51 Pegasi. This was thought to be a Jupiter-like gas ball, orbiting very close to its sun.

First Published: Feb 07, 2006 17:39 IST