TITLE: Inferior Conjunction
Part of the idea behind this image was that of mankind's first visit to the habitable moon Rädën. After spending hundreds of years looking at the Upsilon Andromedae solar system through the use of space-borne interferometers and artificially intelligent automaton probes, civilization had finally developed the technology and finance to send a small group of humans to explore the extrasolar worlds. After spending almost two years decelerating from sub-light speeds, and waking up from cryo-sleep, the diametric drive starship cruises toward its destination just in time to see Rädën, U And c, U And b and U And A nearly aligned on the star system's orbital plane.
The other concept for this piece are adolescent recollections of driving for several hours with my mother between Prince George and Vancouver, British Columbia. These excursions were always great adventures for me, and I loved seeing the Canadian Rockies in the distance from Highway 97 South and the Trans Canada Highway. Those outings, though, always invoked feelings of being so far away from civilization, as in fact one is when travelling those routes. Journeys between north-central and southwestern BC are not at all like driving in southern Ontario. You can easily spend one or more hours on the road before you reach another town. It's not an awful feeling for me, I've always actually welcomed solitude, but to some degree there is a sensation that I must endure the aloneness and risk of such travel. It's just an unusual experience when you're used to being around a multitude of people nearly every day. My mother and I had many serious discussions about life, punctuated by long periods of no verbal communication, during those trips. I wanted to convey those senses of isolation and vulnerability during travel in this illustration, and I knew that a space scene like this was just the right means of expression.
The song "Under the Milky Way" by The Church was a great mood setter when conceiving the piece. The instrumental and cryptic lyrics hinting of welcomed introspective contemplation while exploring the universe fit in to the theme of the image I was beginning to create.
Four thumbnail sketches went into conceiving the first colour comprehensive for this piece. That early comp came out nothing like the thumbnails, and lacked so many scientific facts and theories to make it realistic. For the mass that Rädën was calculated to have, and the equatorial diameter that I had arbitrarily set for U And c, the gas giant planet in the mid-ground of the picture was illustrated too large and appearing too close to the moon. Calculations done by an astrophysicist from McMaster University placed Rädën too far into it's Roche's limit. In reality, the moon would not be seen as a life-supporting world but as obliterated rock and dust orbiting the gaseous planet. A globe pulled apart by the tremendous gravitational forces of U And c. Further more, I conceived U And c as a yellowy gas giant with bands of mostly white and grey storm clouds that appeared to swirl as turbulently as I'd seen them in pictures of Jupiter. This was before I heard how much of an impact Rayleigh scattering and internal thermal convection would have on U And c. It would have been dramatic but highly unrealistic, even for a science fiction art piece, and I'm usually willing to sacrifice a considerable amount of drama in my sci-fi art for realistic depictions.
Needing to know more about the scattering phenomenon, I contacted the head of the Prince George, BC chapter of the RASC (Royal Astronomical Society of Canada) for help. He put me in touch with an astrophysicist at the University of Calgary who wasn't an expert in Rayleigh scattering, but understood a fair amount of the theories. This was most helpful. The next colour comp that resulted depicted Rädën at the proper distance from U And c, and the extrasolar giant now had more of the right look.
The rotational angle that I put U And c and its rings in, in both comps, helps to give a subtle sense of motion. There is both the stillness of space on a grand scale, yet on a local scale there is the subtle perception of the celestial bodies orbiting the heavens at great speeds as the starship approaches the moon on a correct vector that it's super computer is trying so desperately to maintain.
Whether I look up to the stars on a clear night sky, or enjoy self-induced fantasies of space travel, I always consider the cosmos to be an expansive, forbidding, radioactive and lonely place. A far cry from the warm, inviting and overcrowded impressions I get from most sci-fi books, TV shows, movies and art that I've enjoyed from other artists. I expect my concept of space to be the accurate one, and I hope I convey that with every space scene that I envision.
I considered adding the starship I conceived to the picture on a small scale but concluded that it would ruin the seriousness of the piece. I opted for a more practical, believable, astronomy art appearance. If the onlooker didn't realize that I was depicting Rädën in orbit around U And c, they probably wouldn't conclude that this illustration is in fact sci-fi art.
Inferior Conjunction was first rendered as a large oil painting. It's effect was far less than what I had intended. It didn't look bad, but it didn't look good either. My painting skills were much better than what I had produced, so I concluded that it was the medium I used that resulted in an amateurish impression. I decided to shelf the painting until I was ready to use it as another comp because the colours I used for Rädën and U And c were more lifelike. It wasn't until several years later that I felt ready to try again with this image. This time, the medium I chose was digital. This time, I am satisfied. When I look at this final version, it invokes in me all the feelings that I think should be there, and inspires all the thoughts of interstellar space travel and searching for extraterrestrial life. If I were an astronaut risking my life for decades in some form of suspended animation aboard a starship, just to go and explore an alien world, I suspect that after seeing an image like this through an onboard monitor I would give a big "WHEW!" and wipe some of the sweat off my brow.
Redoing this illustration was well worth it. In the final rendering, I've improved on the appearance of Rädën. Due to its close proximity to the star U And A, the moon is always nearly totally enshrouded in a thick veil of storm clouds. It's not as cloud covered as Venus, but it is still difficult to see the surface from space. The clearest zones shift between the poles and the equator, depending on whether U And c is at its aphelion or perihelion. This time, the crescent-lit moon looks exactly as its supposed to.
Another improvement is that I've omitted the tiny moon Köäya that I had included in the oil painting. It used to be in transit across the shaded side of U And c, orbiting the planet in a large gap in the rings, Köäya is not a habitable moon like Rädën but I feel that the picture would convey a sense of overpopulation with an extra globe stuck in it. I really do not want to loose that feeling of desolation in my space scenes.
In the years between creating the two versions of this image, I had changed the storyline from mankind being able to reach the Upsilon Andromedae system to continuing with our reliance on probes to conduct interstellar research. "Under the Milky Way" still had an impact in both the development of the image and the back-story. I look at this illustration, however, and still see myself nearing Vancouver on the horizon as I cruise on down the Trans Canada Highway. Inferior Conjunction is one of my part survival-minded, part hold on to your dreams pieces that is symbolic of one overcoming obstacles on their own through the journey of life, and finally arriving at their intended destination.
There were still a couple more setbacks with this piece that echo the ethos behind it. By 2010, Barbara McArthur and her team of The University of Texas at Austin's McDonald Observatory had discovered so many things about the Upsilon Andromeda solar system that it changed absolutely everything about Rädën and the possibilities of carbon-based LAWKI (Life As We Know It) on it. I knew that was eventually coming so I can't say that I was surprised. I had no choice but to find a whole other genuine solar system to put my fictional world in.
In addition to Ups And A, I eliminated 55 Cancri, HD28185 and Iota Hor, and carefully reviewed Margaret Turnbull's habstars lists for SETI, NASA TPF and the ESA's Darwin mission for potential new stars in which to inject Rädën without having to shoehorn LAWKI onto it by any rediculous degree. The leading candidates became E Indi A, E Eridani and 40 Eridani. So my biggest holdups became the outcomes of the TPF (Terrestrial Planet Finder) project; which a House of Representatives subcommittee forced NASA to cancelled by 2011, and the ESA’s Darwin project. Rädën continued to be a world floating about in my mind until it would one day find its place under the Milky Way.