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I Got Tattooed With a Protostar … For Science!


A week and a half ago, I became part of NASA history. Or, at least my back did. And it's because of a space telescope with an enormous, gold-plated mirror.

That telescope is the James Webb Space Telescope, destined to launch into orbit in 2018. It will join the Hubble Space Telescope (though at a much higher orbit) in peering at the universe in an effort to uncover its secrets. The JWST sports a primary mirror that's 21 feet, 4 inches (6.5 meters) across. The mirror has a very thin gold layer and it will direct infrared light into the telescope.

The mirror is so large that it presents a challenge. If it were made of the same material as the Hubble's mirror, it would be far too heavy to launch. NASA engineers had to find a way to make the mirror out of lightweight material. But how do you get something so delicate, yet large, into outer space? NASA's answer was to divide the mirror into 18 hexagonal segments. The segments fold together to fit inside a rocket. Once the JWST reaches its orbit, it can unfold the mirror segments into the proper shape.

This brings us to why my back is part of NASA history. In October, NASA invited artists to come see the JWST and create art inspired by the telescope. One of those artists was tattoo artist Brandi Smart, who decided to create 18 JWST-inspired tattoos — one for each of the primary mirror's segments. Each tattoo represents something the telescope will search for, and will become part of NASA history. Smart spent about three and a half hours tattooing me as part of this project.

The 2006 Hubble image of IRAS 20324+4057 that acted as inspiration for our intrepid author's new tattoo.
The 2006 Hubble image of IRAS 20324+4057 that acted as inspiration for our intrepid author's new tattoo.
NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team/IPHAS

For my artwork, we chose an image of IRAS 20324+4057 captured by the Hubble Telescope in 2006. It's a protostar with an evaporating trail of gas and dust. Neighboring stars are pushing the mass that might have been part of this protostar away and astronomers aren't entirely sure what will become of the protostar in the future. Perhaps it will be a big star or it may fade into obscurity. I think that's a nice metaphor.

As for the JWST, it will create more images with sharper clarity than the Hubble can. It will be able to observe 100 objects simultaneously, and look back into our universe's history, capturing images of the formation of galaxies from billions of years ago. There's little doubt that many of the images it will provide us will be at least as strange and beautiful as the protostar on my back.



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