Fifteen years ago, Tim Pyle was animating spaceships for Invader Zim on Nickelodeon. These days, he illustrates exoplanets orbiting stars in the Milky Way.
This week, Pyle watched from the office he shares with Robert Hurt on the Caltech campus in Pasadena as the internet exploded over their latest artwork. NASA announced on Wednesday the discovery of seven Earth-sized planets around a star called TRAPPIST-1 nearly 40 light-years away, some of which orbit in the habitable zone, where liquid water could exist. Pyle and Hurt provided the illustrations that came with the news, artistic renderings of unknowable worlds that only show up in data as tiny blips.
“It’s very gratifying to see that so many people reacted the same way that Robert and I reacted when we first heard about it,” Pyle told me on the day of the news. “I mean, it’s seven Earth-sized planets, right?”
The findings marked one of the biggest assignments for Pyle and Hurt, who have worked together at Caltech’s Infrared Processing and Analysis Center for 12 years. The pair have produced illustrations of many exoplanets, like Kepler-62f, Kepler-186f, and Kepler-452b, named for the space telescope that discovered them, and other spacescapes. Before Pyle got to Caltech, he worked on animated shows, including Jimmy Neutron and Spongebob Squarepants, and provided visual effects for movies like X-Men. Hurt is an art-loving astronomer who joined IPAC to scan the skies for stars and galaxies before combining his two interests into one job. “We are the yin and yang,” Hurt said. “The scientist with a strong interest in art, and the artist with a strong interest in science.”