The above image comes from ESA’s website for the COROT (which supposedly stands for “COnvection ROtation and planetary Transits) mission, which will look for potentially terrestrial-sized planets orbiting other stars as well as “starquakes” as small as a few meters. The mission is scheduled to launch into orbit this week.
Without going into any details about the astronomy, I would like to rage, rage against the dying of the science in illustrations such as this. I understand what the artist is attempting to do in the image—the shadowed planet on the right is a rocky world orbiting the blindingly bright star in the middle, exactly the kind of planetary system that COROT (shown shockingly close to the system in near foreground) might be able to find. But the artistic license in the image presents such a Star Trek-ized version of the cosmos that I fear it does more harm than good. People are confused enough about the scale of the Universe, must we muddy the celestial waters with imagery that values drama over content?
I don’t have a solution for the conundrum. I understand the need for creating compelling imagery, but when we distance ourselves from what we can truly provide—namely, an understanding of scientific processes and results—we undercut its true significance. Art is great; I love art and occasionally attempt to create it. But I honestly think we hurt ourselves with images such as the one above.
(In case you’re curious about COROT, you can check out the ESA site, or take a look at a Nature article that describes the mission and the impending lift-off.)