Cover Stories: New Frontiers in Scientific Imaging

Science  18 Jan 2013:
Vol. 339, Issue 6117, pp. 245
DOI: 10.1126/science.339.6117.245

Cover stories offer a look at the story behind the art on the cover: who made it, how it got made, and why.

David Paige

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Read the related Reports on p.292, 296, and 300 and a related Perspective (p. 282) in this issue.

Some works of art take years to develop and hone; others, like this week’s cover, are pleasant surprises that come into focus more quickly. The image, a multilayered model of Mercury’s pockmarked north pole, was a fortunate by-product of the MESSENGER mission’s remote sensing operations. The vibrant colors represent the maximum surface temperatures reached each day, ranging from 50 kelvin (K) (purple) to over 500 K (red) on the planet closest to the Sun. David Paige is responsible for bringing this vivid image to light. Paige, a planetary scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a MESSENGER participating scientist, puts it this way: “It was one of those happy accidents where you make a map and say, ‘wow, that's actually pretty interesting-looking.’”

Although it looks like a color-corrected still image, nothing resembling a camera was used in creating this view of the planet’s surface. Rather, it is composed from high-precision topographical data obtained by MESSENGER’s laser altimeter, which determines distance by measuring the time it takes for an emitted laser beam to bounce off a surface and return to a detector. After being processed, corrected, and analyzed, these data were combined with thermal models of the planet’s surface and ultimately projected onto a map—all of which requires, not surprisingly, enormous computing power. According to Paige, the team used about “a thousand computers to make this picture, running for a night.” Multiply this by the iterations requested by this particular art director, and the task becomes even more involved. This sort of multilayer imaging is par for the course in planetary modeling, “because it shows you what spatial relationships are there and provides a good check that all the numbers you've got are right.” And an added benefit of such striking modeling is that it invites a nonspecialist audience into the research by creating a technical presentation that is also highly accessible.

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22 October, 2010 Science cover by David Paige

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Paige doesn’t consider himself an artist, but he has an eye for creating Science cover art. His first cover credit, in the 22 October 2010 issue, featured the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Diviner Lunar Radiometer Experiment, which in its work on our Moon piloted the thermal modeling technology used for Mercury. For the 2010 image, as with other images from the MESSENGER mission, the data were fed through an additional mapping tool that allowed for three-dimensional manipulation—a technique being used more and more by Earth and planetary scientists. As Paige explains it, this type of manipulation has the advantage of allowing users to “move around and interact like you're in a video game.”

But why stop there? Paige expects that as space exploration evolves, so will space imaging. “There are so many fantastic opportunities for new vistas and airless landscapes that nobody’s ever seen before. And so it’s really wide open in terms of some of the artistic possibilities that exist.” And, he says, it’s up to the scientists to take us there. “Nobody’s going to get to go to Mercury anytime soon . . . and so, making it so that everybody can vicariously explore is a really good goal.”

Here at Science, we agree; and we love being part of the journey.

—Yael Fitzpatrick, Art Director, Science

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