Participating at the science symposium: DPS 48/ EPSC 11 by Ekaterina Smirnova

In October 2016 I went to the science symposium where the Division of Planetary Science came together with the European Planetary Science Congress (DPS 48/ EPSC 11). There were over 1400 scientists from various institutions such as NASA, ESA, SETI, JAXA, SwRI and others. 

I came to the symposium as an artist, to present my works inspired by the space mission Rosetta of the European Space Agency. I displayed my poster in the poster session with other scientific posters. In my poster I outlined the ways I explore the comet 67P, through bodily senses: vision, touch, smell and hearing.


Along with my poster I brought three of my 67P paintings to be included in the exhibition organized by the International Association of Astronomical Artists (IAAA). For the first time I was presenting my latest project – augmented reality (AR), inspired by the spectroscopic data of OSIRIS, an instrument onboard the Rosetta spacecraft. My viewers were invited to experience a virtual colorful layer on top of my paintings, representing RGB data. A special AR app could be uploaded for free to your smart device and by directing it to my paintings you would be able to view an additional image, as well as to hear sound. As an artist I have a goal to represent the scientific research in an artistic way, while explaining to my audience the complexity and the vast variety of the data gathered during each mission. By including the AR into my project I try to show that some data could only be viewed via special instruments, in Rosetta's case it is the Optical, Spectroscopic, and Infrared Remote Imaging System (OSIRIS), in my case it is your cellphone. 

67P III, original artwork

67P III, original artwork

         67P with an AR layer

         67P with an AR layer

I was very happy to see that this project attracted a lot of attention and that scientists and guests of the symposium enjoyed playing with AR. 


At my display you could also find postcards that included the smell of the comet 67P, which were kindly provided by the Open University (read more about these cards: www.newscientist.com). Even though the smell is very unpleasant, those cards were a big hit! 

Events of this scale are very important in my opinion, not only can you study a lot during the lectures that run from 8.30 am till 5pm for five days, but also meet many fascinating people and discuss their research in person. I made a lot of new connections and of course got inspired for new work. I treasure my time with the specialists from the Rosetta team, who help me to improve my knowledge about the mission, which allows me to make better art more closer to the science. I spent some time with scientists working on spectroscopic data and I am planning on continuing working on my AR project improving it with information I learnt from them. 

Matt Taylor is giving a talk at PDS/EPSC about the Rosetta mission

Matt Taylor is giving a talk at PDS/EPSC about the Rosetta mission




Pronouncing: 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by Ekaterina Smirnova

Our beloved comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko has such a difficult name to pronounce, that everyone calls it simply "67P". For a Russian person, like myself, it is not so difficult to say the name, so I made a recording for you.

Repeat after me:

The European Space Agency also has an audio. But to tell you the truth, to the Russian ear it sounds artificial and rather with a Georgian accent, but check it out any way: HOW THE HECK DO YOU PRONOUNCE IT, ANYWAY? 

67P: creating ceramic sculptures by Ekaterina Smirnova

When you go to a museum or a gallery, you usually only see the final end product. You judge it by the way it looks at that moment in it's final appearance. To me, the actual process of creation is the most exciting part of any artwork which may influence my opinion on an artwork. I always try to investigate how it was done. 
In this post I would like to take you behind the scene and introduce you to the stages of creation of my new ceramic sculptures. In between the many stages, starting from generating the idea, shaping the sculptures in my mind and sketching on paper, then forming them out of clay, firing, glazing and assembling, all of it is a part of each piece, which makes it a complete artwork, with an experience.

These ceramic pieces are inspired by the comet 67P, a project on which I have been working on for for over a year (see paintings). The rock part of my sculptures represent the comet itself and the white cones – water, found on the comet in the shape of ice. This water evaporates when the comet passes close to our Sun. 

I just recently started working with ceramics and this whole experience is intensified since I am studying about the media as I go. After working with porcelain and stoneware individually, I realized that I could combine the two in one sculpture. The complication was that porcelain and stoneware shrink with a different rate when fired, so when the objects are made out of raw clay and designed to be match-fit, after firing they may not match when combined. This was an interesting puzzle to solve. Below is an image of how my table would look like at my ceramic studio in 92nd Street Y, New York.

Glazing pieces was a whole independent subject of itself. I wanted to mimic the textures of the comet. I decided to leave the white cones as pure porcelain without a glaze. But for the rock part I looked at actual meteorites (image below). 

Here is a documentation image of my glazing record. Each glazing layer (could be 2-5 glazings) was recorded for the future record. When ceramic is fired, it is very hard to predict the outcome and I enjoy the non-predictive nature of ceramics. Assembling the sculptures is also fun. For this particular work some porcelain parts were made to fit exact areas of the rock, the rest where matched later on. I used the epoxy glue to unite the pieces.

Photographing works. Each piece of my work is photographed for the record. But who says it could not be art on itself? Photograph is a way to turn a 3D object into 2D. With a photograph you can create a special mood, which is hard to recreate during the exhibition time, due to the environments offered by the the gallery. A photograph can tell a richer story, while you enjoy the three-dimensionality of a sculptural piece when observing it in person. For this set of works I choose to give it a cosmic look. The lights would be extreme, surrounded by darkness, as if my comet would be flying through space in a cold lonely environment.

There is a story that goes along with the actual European Space Agency's project when they landed a robotic probe on the comet 67P. When the probe ran out of the charge, it fell asleep for a few month since it could not re-charge being positioned on the dark side of the comet where sun does not shine. Scientists were waiting for the comet to turn and eventually in the summer 2015 we started to receive more fascinating data from the probe.

67P in 3D by Ekaterina Smirnova

I am starting to develop a new idea. Comet 97P is the main subject still, but this time I would like to work with a three dimensional format. This is a very early stage of the process and it is hard to say what will come out of it at the end. But as it develops further I am getting a more clear picture. 
For now I am putting my ideas on paper, making collages and 3D models. I picture my final artwork to be made of porcelain (perfect white) and stoneware (rough dark). I am taking pottery classes at the moment to study the precess and my possibilities.

White cone shaped objects, piercing through the rock represent the vaporizing water from the comet as it moves through the space. The contrast with natural shapes of the rocks and perfect sharp shapes of the white cones are very attractive to my eye. It is a parallel between the solid and liquid (rock and water) as well as the union of two different conditions of the material: solid and liquid. Water represented on the comet is remaining in the solid condition of ice and only when the comet is passing next to the Sun, it's starting to melt and instantly turning into vapor (gas), stretching for many miles as a comet's tail.

3D model: 8"x5"x4", rock and paper

3D model: 8"x5"x4", rock and paper

Collage is another good way to play with the project and quickly decide on the forms, orientation and the relation with the main objects. For building the parts out of clay I will need to have an idea of the shapes and then allow myself to follow my intuition while forming 3D rock objects. 

Paper scraps

Paper scraps

67P: generating water for painting by Ekaterina Smirnova

My on-going interest: comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which has hosted for the 1st time in history a robotic probe Philae ( a 100 kg (220 lb.) on 12 November 2014.

Hoping to cast light on the mystery about how did water come to the planet Earth, ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft made a test of the comet's water (read more). It was discovered that the water on 67P is different then on our planet, to be more exact, that water has D2O (also known as heavy water) more then 3 times higher then on Earth, which is the highest ever amount found in nature.

I have decided to re-create similar water to the one found on 67P and paint with this water a set of works of the comet.

Heavy water. 
What is heavy water? Deuterium oxide (2H2O ) or D2O, is a form of water that contains a larger than normal amount of the hydrogenisotope deuterium (also known as heavy hydrogen, which can be symbolized as 2H or D) rather than the common hydrogen-1isotope (called protium, symbolized as 1H) that makes up most of the hydrogen in normal water. Long story short. I needed to recreate this heavy water in order to enrich my regular New York top to the amount found on the comet.

After my research I have discovered that D2O is not possible to generate, nature does not produce it, and the only D2O found has probably formed during the Big Bang. My only option was to extract it, but there are only about 156 deuterium atoms per million hydrogen atoms (1 per 6410). After reading few articles and blogs, I understood that I could use electrolysis process in order to bring the level of heavy water higher. Surely, I would need a lot of energy and voltage to generate the pure D2O, and in my art project I am just using this process for an educational purpose.

I used a 22 V 550 Amps AC/DC adopter as my electrolysis devise.
Electrolysis will be decomposing H2O into H and O, leaving D2O alone.
Hydrogen will appear at the cathode (the negatively charged electrode, where electrons enter the water), and oxygen will appear at the anode (the positively charged electrode).

It was recommended to attach stainless steel or graphite at the ends of each wire.
I started my tasting. For the stainless steel I took 2 stainless forks. In order to speed up the process it was suggested to add electrolyte, such as baking soda or salt.

Try 1: stainless forks, salt.
After just few seconds I could see 2 gasses (H and O) were forming on the forks. In few minutes the color of the water was rapidly turning rusty. After another 3-4 min the water turned green. I can not use rusty water for painting with watercolor.

Try 2: stainless forks, backing soda
This time it was not so fast of a color change, but even the stainless steel was oxidizing and turning into rust. It was still not good, a lot of rusty sediment. Though, if I would keep this water over night, some of the rust would settle on the bottom, the rest would float on the surface. Funny fact: if I would tap on the container, top sediment would slowly settle down. The water could be filtered and used for painting. But I wanted even better result.

Try 3: graphite rods, salt
This time all went well. I used artist leds (graphite), the water was clear. But using salt in the water will make my painting form crystals (I have used this effect in the series of my works: Sky’s Darkest Spot). I had to eliminate salt.

Try 4: graphite rods, backing soda
This was the perfect run. Water stayed clear. Soda did not effect the paint! Success!

I decided to use electrolysis for 3 hours each time. This amount of time was still not enough to get my water to the amount of D2O that was found on 67P. So I ordered the 100% pure Heavy water from United Nuclear. It was costly (12$ plus shipping per 10 grams of water!), but necessary.

Two drops of D2O to the whole large jar of water after electrolysis has made the trick. I now had what I was looking for: H2O enriched with D2O, just like on the comet 67P.

You would ask, how did it effect my painting? I did a test of 100% D2O and H2O on the watercolor. Both of the drops dried the same way (maybe D2O a little slower) and no visible differences were noticed. But this is not the point, is it?

67P: Sketching by Ekaterina Smirnova

My on-going interest: comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which has hosted a robotic probe on 12 November 2014 for the 1st time in the human history . I have decided to re-create similar water to the one found on 67P and paint with this water a set of works of the comet (read blog post: 67P: generating water for painting).

often make small sketches before starting a large painting. It helps me to make a plan in my mind of how will I work on a main painting, which will take a few weeks to create usually, so I need to make sure that it is going to the right direction from the start.

My sketches are usually made with watercolor on white paper, but since my subject is mainly dark, with a few brighter points, this time I chose black paper and charcoal instead.


I have a board of references, photographs that are mainly taken by the robotic probe itself. My focus is the water found on the comet. I pay close attention to the vapor streaming from the rock when the comet it gets close to the Sun. Water turns immediately from ice to gas then, creating a long tail. I am trying to capture this effect in my work.