September 28, 2023

Bapn Edu

Science is worth exploring

Capturing the art and science of NASA’s origami starshade

The cover story in this month’s issue of National Geographic explores how origami, a centuries-old art of paper folding, is being put to use to blaze new trails in science and technology, particularly in space exploration. Highlighting the artistic elements of a project purely rooted in science can be difficult, but photographer Craig Cutler was up for the challenge.

The vision for the cover came to him immediately: an aerial photograph of NASA’s golden starshade prototype—an origami-inspired spacecraft that the agency hopes will someday help them detect signs of life in the universe.

“People looking at the image may have no idea what it is, and it’s almost like a teaser to the whole story,” Cutler says. “It’s art first, then science, which to me is the best thing that could happen.”

We spoke to Cutler, an American photographer and director, about the story behind the stark image on the cover of the February issue.

What’s the story behind the cover?

Cutler has a knack for finding ways to pull the art out of scientific subjects, which he says often takes some problem-solving. 

He knew the eye-catching starshade would serve as a beautiful cover—from above, it resembles a gold-foil-encrusted flower opening and closing its petals.

Capturing the origami installation was truly a collaborative project that began with Cutler presenting a sketch of his vision to the staff at Tendeg, LLC, in Louisville, Colorado. He dedicated the first day on-site to explaining his plans to the crew and working together to determine the best strategy to bring the starshade to life.

Cutler says a big part of every project is getting everyone involved on the same page to ensure a seamless shoot. There is a level of trust that has to be earned, and it’s important to gain the respect of everyone who has been working on this miraculous project before him.

“We had to be delicate and sensitive entering the space and photographing the installation, everyone was so invested in the project.”

What’s featured on the cover?

When deployed in space, the gold starshade will be able to diffract the glare of starlight as it flies in front of a space telescope, allowing scientists a clearer look into the depths of space. 

But Cutler notes the starshade is also simply a beautiful and epic art installation. Its design is based on an origami flasher pattern that allows it to open and close from a coil in the middle. 

In order to offset any reflection off the foil that covers the starshade, Cutler hung black backgrounds throughout the warehouse that houses the starshade and directed four large lights at the ceiling to look as though there were skylights. 

Opening the starshade—a process that involves a pulley system created by several gravity-controlled pendulums and weights—takes 30 minutes, and then nearly three hours to reset. The intricacy of the unfurling and the timeline of his assignment meant that Cutler only had about three chances over three days to get his image. 

Having already built up trust with the lab team, Cutler asked whether he could tether a computer-controlled, battery-operated camera to a catwalk above the starshade. Initially the answer was no, since the team was so invested in protecting the starshade from any damage, but Cutler was able to convince them. The setup of cameras and computers looked like a NASA control station, Cutler says. 

To show the sheer scale of the installation, Cutler photographed it both with and without people in the frame.

“If you aren’t viewing the installation in person, you have no idea how big it actually is. Adding people helps to put into perspective,” he says, noting that the people in the frame are so small they almost look like bees buzzing around the starshade.

What’s next for the photographer?

Cutler says his next National Geographic project, the Gnatalie green dinosaur, is one that has been in the works for roughly three years. The project will feature one of the only dinosaurs known to have green bones; it is set to be installed in the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles in February 2024.