Psyche Inspired

In 1852, Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis made a discovery. Orbiting the sun, somewhere between Mars and Jupiter, is a giant metal asteroid—potentially the remnants of an early planet that lost its rocky outer layers following violent collisions billions of years ago.

For years, astronomers have been studying the asteroid, named Psyche, from a distance, trying to learn more about its size, features and movements. In 2017, NASA announced a mission to visit Psyche, led by Arizona State University. According to NASA, the Psyche spacecraft will launch in 2022 and arrive at the asteroid in 2026, following a Mars gravity assist in 2023. The space craft will then spend nearly two years orbiting Psyche, mapping and studying the asteroid’s properties.

In the meantime, the look and feel of the protoplanet is best left to our imaginations—and that’s just what two VCUarts students have spent the last year doing.

Levi Keatts and Silvia Valladares are two of 16 undergraduates selected for the 2019-20 cohort of Psyche Inspired. The internship program brings together students from a variety of disciplines to share NASA’s Psyche mission with the public through artistic and creative works.

Throughout the academic year, the students met for a weekly video conference call, and produced four artworks capturing their understanding of the asteroid, its history, and the NASA mission.

Valladares, a junior majoring in Kinetic Imaging, used animation to educate the public about Psyche. One project features animated facts about the asteroid and the mission; another is a time-lapse representation of the asteroid using reconstructed photos. Her third project shows a 360-degree view of the asteroid as shown from the satellite.

Psyche 16 Facts, by Silvia Valladares

“I thought it would be good practice to do animations outside of my major,” she says. “Kinetic Imaging is really conceptual, and I wanted to do something less conceptual.”

Keatts, an Art Foundation student who plans to major in math and Painting + Printmaking, completed two oil paintings, on acrylic painting, and a sculpture. Several were directly inspired by the lectures and scientific papers from people working on the Psyche mission.

“I think the arts and STEM fields are often talked about as if they are in opposition to each other,” Keatts says. “As someone who is interested in both I often feel like I am supposed to choose one or the other academically and vocationally. Psyche Inspired celebrates both types of thinking and I saw it as a way to more fully express myself.”

Keatts adds that the program opened his eyes to new career paths and connect the knowledge and skills from his different passions.

“We had guest speakers who talked to us about their careers that combine creative and scientific thinking,” he says, “whether it is how creativity is used in engineering or how science inspires their art. Pursuing varied interests gives you a unique viewpoint and I think that’s an idea that I will take with me.”