A Gloomy English City Builds an Artificial Sun

It's a faithful, NASA-guided model of our solar system's burning star (just 100 million times smaller).

Rejoice, Britons who haven't seen daylight in ages and who are slowly weakening into rubbery schlumps for want of Vitamin D: Your country now has slightly more light, thanks to a blazing artificial sun made from the "world’s largest spherical balloon."

The 46-foot-wide ersatz star floats above a square in Durham, in the northeast, as part of a celebration of light art called Lumiere. It portrays a strikingly accurate representation of the Sun's plasma-storm-scarred surface, only at a scale that's 100 million times smaller. Canadian techno-artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer whipped the thing together by first forcing a gravitational collapse inside a molecular cloud, and then having the matter condense into a heavy ball ... wait, no, he actually filled a orbicular blimp with helium and animated it with five projectors fed with the latest NASA information. (It's quite a bit more sophisticated than that artificial Moon planned for Brooklyn.)

The artist writes:

The solar animation on the balloon is generated by live mathematical equations that simulate the turbulence, flares and sunspots that can be seen on the surface of the Sun. This produces a constantly changing display that never repeats itself, giving viewers a glimpse of the majestic phenomena that are observable at the solar surface and that only relatively recent advances in astronomy have discovered. The project uses the latest SOHO and SDO solar observatory imaging available from NASA, overlaid with live animations derived from Navier-Stokes, reaction diffusion, perlin, particle systems and fractal flame equations.

As if that wasn't cool enough, there's an app you can download that lets you spawn different patterns in the fiery atmosphere. (You might have to be in Durham, though.) Check out this fantastic screenshot – watch out, our planet is about to crash into the Sun!

And a few more photos from the past few days (don't worry, this Sun you actually can look straight into):

Before it was ignited:

This is footage from an earlier appearance in Australia:

"Solar Equation" (2010) by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer from bitforms gallery on Vimeo.

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief. He writes about science, climate, and public art, and lives in Oakland, California.