NASA’s Massive James Webb Space Telescope Inspires Out-of-This-World 3D Printed Art

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nasa-logoArt is always inspired by something – a feeling, an event, a muse. So what can artists come up with when their given muse is a large, technologically advanced telescope? NASA, which has long acknowledged how space exploration can inspire works of art, selected 25 multimedia artists to view the large, infrared James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), and create artwork inspired by the telescope itself. The JWST has a 6.5-meter primary mirror, and after it’s launched into space on an Ariane 5 rocket in October 2018, it will have a lot of work to do, studying every phase in the history of the universe. While all of the chosen artists were easily inspired by the telescope and what it represents, artist Ashley Zelinskie, whose incredible creations we’ve enjoyed before, took the project a step further and used 3D printing to create her original artwork – a modern technology, being used to create art based on a new piece of technology that will be used to look back into the history of our galaxy.

The artists assembled in front of the actual James Webb Space Telescope at NASA Goddard, November 2016, to learn about the telescope, and begin their work. [Image: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center]

The artists assembled in front of the actual James Webb Space Telescope at NASA Goddard, November 2016, to learn about the telescope, and begin their work. [Image: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center]

The JWST itself is certainly a wonder to behold, with its 21-foot, gold-plated, sail-like mirror. This primary mirror is made of 18 segments that will unfold and adjust themselves after the telescope is launched; all of the telescope’s mirrors were constructed using ultra-lightweight beryllium. The telescope is equipped with cameras and spectrometers, which have detectors that will be able to record very faint signals and be used to determine if signs of extraterrestrial life, like methane or water, are present on 20 different planets it will be exploring.

ashley-zelinskie

Ashley Zelinskie [Image: Shapeways]

The JWST also has programmable microshutters, a cryocooler, and a five-layer sunshield that’s the size of a tennis court. The development effort for the JWST is managed by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and is an international collaboration between NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, and the European Space Agency.

Zelinskie’s artwork, “Exploration,” represents both the literal and the symbolic achievements of the telescope, and was 3D printed, by Shapeways, using gold-plated nylon. Zelinskie first 3D scanned Dr. John Cromwell Mather’s arm; Dr. Mather is a cosmologist, astrophysicist, and Nobel Prize in Physics laureate. Then, she took 3D scans of the arm of Dr. Amber Straughn, another astrophysicist and the Deputy Project Scientist for JWST Science Communications. Finally, Zelinskie 3D scanned her own arm, and combined the three 3D scanned and 3D printed arms with an ethereal-looking representation of the 18 golden, hexagonal segments of the JWST’s primary mirror.

exploration-by-ashley-zelinskie

“Exploration” by Ashley Zelinskie [Image: Shapeways]

The surfaces of the three golden arms are made out of a lace-like lattice of symbols. The arms are located in the center of the piece, and stretch up and out from the mirror’s surface, “reaching into the unknown in a symbolic representation of the search for knowledge.”

closeup-3d-printed-gold-arm

[Image: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center]

Zelinskie explained, “The abstract idea of studying what you don’t know is hard to grasp. This is a disconnect that art can help fill in. Art asks people every day to think about abstract ideas and opens a doorway for creative thinking. My hope is to apply this open mindedness to science and in this way be better equipped to take in the universe in all its vastness and mystery.”

Zelinskie, Straughn, and Mather’s gold arms are all reaching out in different directions, and represent the Friedmann-Lemaître-Robertson-Walker metric, which describes the universe.

“The equations wrapped around the hands in this sculpture are the ‘FLRW’ cosmological solution to Einstein’s field equations of general relativity, paired with the formula that describes a parabolic mirror. One might say we build one (the telescope primary mirror) to test the other (Einstein’s equations),” Dr. Mather explained.

All of the artists chosen for this project visited NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland to attend the James Webb Space Telescope Artist Event, and were able to sit right in front of the telescope itself and listen to mission briefings. While engineers, scientists, and other project personnel explained what the telescope would eventually do, the artists listened and worked, some sketching and writing, others painting and sewing, and even playing music.

“Astronomy by its very nature drives us toward the unknown…there’s something uniquely human about wanting to find out about our surroundings, to explore our world, to discover new things. That’s what astronomy is all about,” Dr. Straughn said of the piece.

[Image: JWST Art Show]

[Image: JWST Art Show]

You can see more of Zelinskie’s work on her website and her Shapeways shop, and read more about the process from Shapeways and NASA. All of the artwork inspired by the JWST is on exhibit at NASA’s Goddard Visitor Center, for free, until April 16, 2017.

While Zelinskie’s is the only JWST-inspired art created using 3D printing, many other interesting techniques were used, including comics, metalwork, letterpress, jewelry making, watercolor, tattooing, and my second favorite, an original and extremely catchy song. Check out the video below to see the project by John Garvey, TheSingingNerd, titled “The James Webb Space Telescope Song.”

Discuss in the James Webb Space Telescope forum at 3DPB.com.

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