Seven Digital Space Art Paintings

Space art as a genre is older than you might think. As early as 1301, a certain Giotto di Bondone from Florence made a painting depicting Halley’s comet. But the big breakthrough didn’t come until the late 1800s, when science fiction writers like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells started writing books that needed to be illustrated.

Details of seven digital paintings that together tell the story of spaceflight in past, present and future
A space art seven-part

Space art pioneers like Chesley Bonestell, Pat Rawlings and Don Dixon used the tools available to them in their days: paint, charcoal, chalk, pencil. Today, space artists, not to mention filmmakers, use digital tools with which nothing is impossible. Miles long spaceships on which you can see every scratch: just as easy. Descending from outer space to an exotic planetary surface in a few seconds: no problem. A fleet of helicopters with dragonfly wings: let’s do it.

I liked to take a step back and do some painterly space art again, with blobs of paint that seem to have been splattered and smeared onto rough canvas. i must confess, though, that I make the seven works on this page using computer techniques. Together, these paintings tell a story; I present them here in the right chronological order.

1 – Family portrait

Digital painting of the eight planets of our solar system: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune
Portrait of the planets

First of all, the eight planets of our solar system, as they have always been. Or well, always… since about 4.5 billion years. And they will be around for another few billion years, I guess.

I don’t understand why most people can’t recognize those eight planets or put them in the right order. Don’t we also know roughly how big our neighboring countries are and where about they are? Anyway, this first painting in the series might be helpful. Clockwise from top left, we see the gas giants Uranus, Jupiter, Neptune and Saturn. And in the middle the smaller planets, again from top left clockwise, Venus, Mercury, Earth and Mars. We come across this last planet a few more times in this heptathlon.

And no, Pluto is not a planet. Neither are Ceres, Quaoar and Makemake. But I’ll explain that another time.

2 – Robots

Digital painting of the landing of the European space probe Huygens on Titan, Saturn's largest moon
From our tax dollars…

We are currently in the phase of unmanned exploration. Okay, twelve men have walked on the Moon, half a century ago, but apart from that, space travel has so far mainly been a job for robots. They have been to the farthest reaches of the solar system and beyond, those satellites, landers and rovers.

Here we see one of these space probes, named Huygens, which landed on Saturn’s moon Titan in 2005. A European spacecraft, so paid with our tax euros and named after a Dutchman. We should be a little proud of that.

Titan is a bizarre celestial body, with a thicker atmosphere than Earth’s, a subterranean ocean of ammonia and lakes of liquid methane. I’m not making this up. What does the landscape look like in such a strange world? As a space artist you can let your imagination run wild. I did that for the space art competition that the ESA organized on the occasion of the landing.

3 – Another small step

Digital painting of a manned spacecraft that has just made the first landing on Mars
Un passo giu, un universo davanti

Someday, if we don’t destroy each other here on Earth, the aforementioned robots will be followed by astronauts. And the most logical first destination is Mars, cosmically speaking around the corner. For decades, a manned Mars landing has been about fifteen years in the future; NASA is currently aiming for the mid-thirties, although Elon Musk thinks it can be done sooner.

I originally made this illustration for the serial Home is where the Hab is, in Voorwaarts Mars, the legendary magazine of the Mars Society Netherlands. In spite of the English title, it’s all in Dutch but if you want to give it a try, here’s the link. It’s alternate history by now because the landing of this European expedition took place in 2014.

We see the spaceship shortly after landing. The ladder has been extended, the world is watching in suspense. And wonders if the first woman on Mars has just as good a one-liner as Neil Armstrong did in 1969. And yes…

4 – Sailing

Digital painting of a giant solar sail powered spacecraft in an orbit around Mars
The Carl Sagan orbiting Mars

Space travel may be the greatest adventure in human history, but can’t we make it be a bit more sustainable? Yes, we can, for example with a solar sail. It may come as a surprise, but it’s possible to sail in the interplanetary vacuum. The light of the sun exerts a force on spaceships. A small, but constant force. And with a big enough sail one could travel back and forth between, say, Earth and Mars, without using a drop of fuel. One word of caution: you still have to get into orbit with a conventional rocket first. And I also do not recommend landing with a solar sail ship.

Here we see the solar sail ship SV Carl Sagan orbiting Mars; the planet reflects in the reflective surface of the sails. The Carl Sagan is a sister ship to the Johannes Kepler, which I previously portrayed in orbit around Earth.

5 – The elevator

Digital painting of a space elevator from the summit of Pavonis Mons on Mars
The space elevator of Pavonis Mons

The first solar sailboats have already flown, so that concept is in fact no longerscience fiction. We’re not that far yet with another promise for sustainable space travel: the space elevator. Getting into orbit without the violence of a rocket launch would be quite a breakthrough. Unfortunately, the technological challenges are tremendous. As a start, try to make a 36,000 km cable that won’t collapse under its own weight!

For celestial bodies with a less strong gravity, such as the Moon or Mars, shorter and/or less strong cables will suffice. Not that it suddenly becomes simple, but still: the space elevator of Pavonis Mons from Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars will probably be there before the one at Sulawesi.

6 – Terraforming

Digital painting of the northern hemisphere of the terraformed planet Mars, with green and red areas, clouds, polar caps and an ocean
The Northern Hemisphere of Mars

Building a space elevator is in turn a breeze compared to the next ambitious project: the terraforming of Mars, and after that perhaps of other worlds. Mars is a beautiful planet, with deep canyons, high volcanoes and craters of all shapes and sizes, but there are a few drawbacks. It’s a cold, dry and dusty place and the atmosphere is thin and poisonous. If we could do something about that…

The good news is: terraforming is possible. The bad news is, it’s going to take a while. It takes a few centuries but then you’ve really got something. Here we see the northern hemisphere, which is partly covered by a modest ocean over which weather systems and cloud fields find their way. In the far north we see the polar cap; along the coasts of the ocean the greenery takes root, while the southern highlands are more easily accessible than before, but still largely retain their rugged appearance. I would love to do some long distance hikes there.

7 – Oppie on tour

Digital painting of Opportunity, the tireless Mars rover that after 200 years is still going strong in the terraformed planet
Opportunity still going strong

The last image in the series is from NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity. It landed in January 2005 in Meridiani Planum. It was expected that the vehicle would function for only three months; life on Mars is not easy for a robot either. But Opportunity continued to drive around the Red Planet for years, sending one beautiful picture after another to Earth.

The brave explorer has not been heard from since 2018. But you never know: maybe only the radio is broken and Oppie is now exploring the Martian surface on his own initiative. Here we see it in the distant future, when terraforming has started, between water pools and low vegetation. A bit dusty and rusty, but still full of interest in its unrecognizably changed environment.

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