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Creating the Exoplanet Playing Cards

Exoplanets,Pioneer Works,Cosmology
The Supercluster Team
Pioneer Works
November 9, 202111:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)

You can design a deck of playing cards the easy way, or the hard way.

The most common deck of playing cards, and likely the only one you’ve used if you live in an English speaking country, is called the English Pattern. Even if you’re not a card shark, you probably know it well. 

The English Pattern is a set of 52 cards, arranged in sets of 13 ranks. There are 4 face cards — Jack, Queen, King, Ace — and lower ranks marked 2 through 10. Each rank is further subdivided into 4 French Suits, the familiar clubs, diamonds, hearts and spades.

Early thumbnails.

For 500 years, bands of unruly pirates, casino gangsters, and bridge-playing grandmothers have all sat down with these same 52 cards. The English Pattern is a blank slate for countless games of chance and a blank canvas for artwork. The earliest imports from France had detailed and fanciful illustrations of royal courts, and for centuries artists and illustrators have experimented with the form.

Early last year we met with our friends at Pioneer Works to kick around ideas for a collaborative project. A deck of illustrated cards was high on both our lists.

Early sketches.

Pioneer Works is a non-profit cultural center in New York City, dedicated to inspiring the Red Hook community through incredible lectures and exhibitions that fuse art, music, and science. The extended Pioneer Works network includes some of the top scientists working in the world today — including theoretical cosmologist Janna Levin and astronomer Natalie Batalha.

Working through sketches.

With heavy hitters like that on board, it didn’t take long to settle on a concept for playing cards — it would be an Exoplanet Deck, and we could use the rank and suit structure to guide our survey of the galaxy. Each rank would represent a unique exoplanet, and each suit represents a distinct characteristic of that exoplanet, Spades — planetary overview, Clubs — topography, Diamonds — star system, Hearts — habitability.

Selecting the planets.

Face cards are speculative bodies, whereas numbered cards correspond to well known, rigorously studied exoplanets, and these are ordered 2-10 according to ascending distance from Earth. Our closest, Trappist-1e, is a quick trip of just 41 light years. Methuselah, farthest of our planets, is over 12 thousand light years from Earth, and one of the oldest planets ever discovered.

Trappist and Methuselah.

With the system worked out, we could finally get to the hard part. Most cards have 12 illustrations — Jacks, Kings and Queens. That’s the easy way to do things, keep it simple. Of course we weren’t gonna do that. We all decided pretty early on that the only way to really do this project was to individually illustrate all 52 cards (plus 2 jokers of course,) and the backs, and the box. Each card was an opportunity to use art to help tell the story of a distant exoplanet. The only way to do it was to go all the way.

Planet selection was a big early hurdle. How do you narrow your search? What makes each planet unique? 

The finished cards.

Letting face cards be speculative planets opened up the imagination, and Janna Levin's work as a theoretical cosmologist lead us to choose black hole planets — “blanets” — and antimatter planets as Kings and Aces, respectively. “Time would slow as a planet orbiting a black hole swings near the event horizon,” Janna told us, “creating what you can think of as ‘seasons in time.’” That was all we needed to know.

Each card includes a description. Some are known facts, some raise open questions about a particular planet. Here Janna and Natalie’s expertise were critical.

When you’re working on an astronomy project with an astronomer who literally discovered the planets in question, you’re in good hands.

The finished cards.

The illustration work was a tag team effort between Supercluster designers Michael Auer and Michael Stone. “Our process began with reading up on everything we could find about the planets beyond our solar system. Learning about all their unique characteristics – size, age, chemical makeup, weather patterns, star systems, etc.,” says Stone. “Then we drew. A lot. Oftentimes we would return to an earlier illustration, trying to beat it and improve as we went farther and farther in the process. Some cards we left to marinate, then we’d have new ideas and we’d start fresh.” 

The finished cards.

Michael Stone and Michael Auer began each card as a series of thumbnails, gradually working through concepts and revising ideas with the larger Supercluster and Pioneer teams. Each card — all 54 of them — were seen as individual works of art to be constantly crafted and fine tuned. 

Building an alien photoset.

Documenting the cards became its own adventure.

There’s a small sub culture of model builders on the creative team. And so when we set out to photograph the final decks, what better place to stage a shoot than the surface of an alien world. Craggy mountains and winding chemical rivers were built, carved, painted and lit as the perfect backdrop for our final Exoplanet Playing Cards.

Building an alien photoset.

Special thanks to astrophysicist Natalie Batalha and cosmologist and Pioneer Works Director of Sciences Janna Levin, and Supercluster artists Michael Auer and Michael Stone.

Additional thanks Michael Jones and Meredith Smith at Pioneer Works, Supercluster photographer Jack Nesbit, model builders Tristan Dubin, Joe Haddad, Liz Nelson, and the rest of the Supercluster and Pioneer Works teams. 

The final documentation.

The Exoplanet Playing Cards are now available for purchase through Pioneer Works.

The Supercluster Team
Pioneer Works
November 9, 202111:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)