Other links:

Other links:

Gazing: At the Intersection of Astronomy, Art and Poetry

The article explores the historical and contemporary interplay of art and astronomy, highlighting how constellations, star charts, and digital art contribute to our understanding of space

Detail of the Star Map from the Tang Dynasty showing the North Polar region. Credits: British Library

Art has been and continues to remain a staple of astronomical descriptions. Mapping out the night sky and its recurring features was a key means of navigation, and a practical method for this was connecting the stars into recognisable patterns—constellations. These patterns alone were only sometimes recognisable and required some degree of imagery to be used, which was brought about by the names and artistic descriptions of constellations. Star charts were also used by the Egyptians, Chinese, Indians, Greeks and Romans, who attached myths and stories to supplement their memory of the stars and planets.

With the advent of long-exposure photography, one does need to meticulously paint the skies to capture it. Technological progress, such as space telescopes recording varied wavelengths of light, allows us to create images of objects on a much more detailed scale. However, there still exist limitations to the distances we can capture. Before the incredible feat of capturing the image of the first supermassive black hole at the centre of the Messier 87 galaxy, M87, by the Event Horizon Telescope on 10th April 2019, we relied on artistic renditions of black holes to represent them. Digital art based on scientific studies and simulations allows us to visualise concepts and support our understanding of current research. Exo-planets are often visualised and come to life using digital art, and so do astronomical phenomena that we cannot observe up close such as supernovae. Similarly, we can capture an image of the Milky Way only with an artistic rendition, as our vantage point is inside the galaxy.

Side View of the Milky Way
Credits: University of Alberta
The Meteor of 1860 by Frederic Church, Courtesy: Judith Filenbaum Hernstadt photographed by Gerald L.
Credits: NASA

Art can also serve as a record of major astronomical events. Consider the Great Meteor of 20th July 1860. It was an Earth-grazing “fireball” with an intense luminosity that entered and then left the Earth’s atmosphere. If such a meteor breaks apart, very rarely, the fragments may trace the same path across the sky in what is known as a meteor procession. Four such occurrences of meteor processions have been noted in recent memory, one of them being the Great Meteor of 1860. There are many records of the event, from newspaper articles to eyewitness accounts. However, one of the most prominent examples of such a record has been a painting by Frederic Church, a well-known representative of a school of landscape painting based in Catskill, New York. This incredibly rare astronomical event, meticulously captured within a day on an oil canvas, stands as a testament to our fascination with studying and recording the realm of the stars.

This example also stands out due to its connection with literature. It is believed the poet Walt Whitman witnessed the event and incorporated it into his poem Year of Meteors (1859-60), a mystery that was only solved by researchers in physics and English at Texas State University in 2010. It was previously assumed that Whitman had observed the Great Leonid Storm of 1833, a particularly intense variant of the annual Leonid meteor shower. However, the researchers concluded that his words described a singular event, a “procession” that matched the Great Meteor of 1860.

Nor the strange huge meteor procession, dazzling and

clear, shooting over our heads,

(A moment, a moment long, it sail’d its balls of

unearth-ly light over our heads,

Then departed, dropt in the night, and was gone;)

Poets such as Whitman, John Keats (Bright Star), and William Wordsworth (A Night Sky) all touch upon a fascination with gazing up at the heavens. But what about gazing back down from the heavens?

With the advent of space stations, astronauts began doing just that. Koichi Wakata, during expeditions 18, 19 and 20 of the International Space Station, participated as the 25th link in a space poem “renshi” chain- renshi being a collaborative form of Japanese poetry. Composing this piece on the space station, he broadcasted it on April 10, 2009:

Afloat in the darkness before my eyes, the watery planet bluely glows

How strong is my affection for that ancient home of ours,

how deep my gratitude for the gift of life.

Tomorrow, I will dare the blue sky and open up worlds unknown

for there we have our dreams.

Wakata holds up his renshi poem to the TV camera
Credits: NASA

On June 29th, 2012, his last full day in space, Donald R. Pettit, an Expedition 30 and 31 of the ISS as a flight engineer, posted the following poem to his blog:

Last Day in Space

Tomorrow we light our rocket,

we burn our engines and likewise,

burn a hole in the sky,

And thus fall to Earth.

How does one spend your last day in space?

Looking at Earth,

a blue jewel surrounded by inky blackness,

Pure Occipital Ecstasy.

Unconstrained by your girth,

you fly with vestigial wings.

The atmosphere on edge,

iridescent blue with no earthly parallel,

Electrifying Diaphanous Beauty.

Guarded by Sirens of Space,

singing saccharine songs,

beckoning you to crash on the atmos-reef

which tears you limb from limb

and scorching what remains

into cosmic croutons that sprinkle onto

the garden salad of Earth.

One last feast out the window,

A looking glass of Wonderland.

Offering both a portal to see your world,

and a translucent reflection to see yourself.


what is your place in this world below,

how do you change it,

how does it change you.

We are wedded to this planet,

until mass extinction we do part.

Perhaps one planet is not enough.

You study your charts,

we prepare our spaceship,

and our minds.

We make ready our descent,

into these seemingly gentle arms.

The eager anticipation of hugging your wife,

your boys with grins followed by pouting faces,

both excited to see you but not understanding why you left.

Oh, how does one spend your last day in Space.

What would you do?

The first piece of art created in space […] Photograph: Museum of the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre Credits: The Guardian

What would one do, indeed? How would one express gazing back at a perspective so few have seen? It is worth asking this question to Alexei Leonov, the first person to perform a spacewalk and, more notably, the first artist in space. While on his mission, he was compelled to sketch an orbital sunrise. He never gave up art after his career as a cosmonaut.

Astronomy, poetry and art come together in our ways of understanding the cosmos, gazing both outward and inward.

(Written by Ritwik Ray (UG 2023), Ashoka University)

Study at Ashoka

Study at Ashoka