With every new discovery, the team’s understanding of these worlds shifts and transforms. Exoplanet 55 Cancri e, Hurt noted, has proven particularly hard to nail down. “I’ve illustrated that one at least five different ways,” Hurt explained, “because every time there’s a new discovery, we change the artwork to reflect our updated understanding of what it might be.” In Hurt’s artwork, this exoplanet has changed from a ball of warm gas into a rocky planet covered in molten lava. At one point, it was thought to be covered in volcanoes that spit out billowing clouds of gas into its atmosphere.
Hurt’s process of illustrating exoplanets runs parallel to humanity’s constant reimagining of the future. “We can make these hypotheses, and then, over time, as we learn more, that might change,” he explained.
After making sure the scientific data is accurately depicted, Hurt works with a former Hollywood special-effects artist, Tim Pyle, to fill in the gaps. Together, they take NASA’s basic understanding of these exoplanets and turn them into beautiful hypotheses—big and wonderful what-ifs to awaken the general public’s enthusiasm for the future.