This piece is made from an enhanced color image of Pluto put out by the New Horizon‘s team after the flyby of the planet in 2015. It was taken by the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), part of the Ralph instrument aboard the spacecraft. The enhanced color image offers a more visually interesting perspective on the planet (see below), and the stretched color range also provides clues as the the compositional differences across the surface.

A few notes on making the piece and a clip from my short NYE19 blog post:

Since I’ve been on vacation for the holidays, I’ve finally had a chance to finish a new Paper Planet of Pluto. Just in time for the NYE flyby of the Kuiper Belt Object (or KBO) informally named Ultima Thule! I love the name Ultima Thule – it means beyond the known world or beyond the map. It was a fictional land, or sometimes fictional character, drawn onto the edges of medieval maps of the world. It’s the perfect concept for exploring a new object at the very edge of the solar system. The Voyager spacecrafts are farther away from Earth right now than New Horizons, but Ultima Thule will still be the farthest world we have ever explored. As I type this, data has started coming in and the science team is working round the clock to prepare for tonight’s flyby.

I’m gonna be honest here and say that this is not my favorite piece I’ve ever made. I think it is interesting, but it offered some frustrations in putting it together and ultimately I’m not entirely happy with how it came out. It turns out that doing the image processing was a lot harder than with my Europa piece because the colors don’t split as easily into surface units as I was expecting. This is especially true when I’m trying to strictly limit the number of colors present so that I only have a handful of layers in the piece. Compare the processed image (left) with the original (middle) below. The true color (right) is also shown just for comparison.

Credit (center, right): NASA, JHUAPL, SwRI

You can see some of the surface features (like the color of the heart) are obscured in the processed version due to the way the colors were averaged. (I used illustrator to separate the colors because it is a lot cleaner (and faster) than trying to do it in Matlab where i do everything else.) In the end, I had to choose paper colors half based on the processed layers and half based on the original image and that was really hard. I really wanted the heart to stand out so I gave it a brighter color than in the processed layers, but transitioning from that to the darker grays and purples around the heart and up into the pale blue at the top was tricky. This was the first version I made- the blue and purple really didn’t work for me:


I only have a limited set of papers and paper colors, so finding just the right shades that matched the image and that blended together without clashing was really challenging. I spent a lot of time just staring at paper. Plus, some of the papers I only have a few sheets of, so I didn’t want to cut them out unless I knew it was the right choice! In the end, I like how the red and mauve layers in the front pop, and I think the silver does an adequate job of capturing the gray/purple colors around the top left of the heart. The color in the very back matches the reds, but isn’t perfect for the burnt cream color at the pole. I do love that I was able to capture Pluto’s atmosphere, a visible haze layer surrounding the planet in many of the spacecraft images, in the  dark, shiny first layer of the piece.

When I was conceiving this piece, I also had not considered the fact that the heart would be less visible in paper. The heart is partly visible in the original image because our brains like to see shapes. Only half the heart is really outlined on the planet, but we see the whole thing because that is what our brains want and expect to see. Without as clear of an outline in the paper version, our brains don’t see it as well. So in this respect, the piece does not really capture that iconic image well.

All this being said, I am still glad that I made it and it’s growing on me. It’s my art and I love it for what it is. I actually made it specifically for a person, and haven’t decided if it’s worth giving to them yet. But either way, I love this little icy world and I was glad I could make some art to celebrate it and it’s new companion Ultima Thule.