NASA Creates 3D Map Of The Moon For At-Home Storytelling

This animation illustrates how color and displacement maps are used in 3D animation software to paint and model an object like the Moon. NASA/Goddard/Scientific Visualization Studio

An extraordinary animation created by NASA scientists allows you to experience the moon like never before – as a 3D interactive model.

The new CGI Moon Kit was created using images captured by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) as a way to bridge the gap between the extensive data made available by the space agency and the general public. The data used for the images is available online but requires a trained eye to decipher it. Creating interactive tools like the CG Moon Kit allows for the public to view and engage in a meaningful way without feeling inundated, notes NASA.

“All of this data is publicly available but not as accessible as it could be. In releasing this in a form that a lot of people can appreciate and use,” said creator Ernie Wright, science visualizer works at the Scientific Visualization Studio at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in a statement. “Because of this, the importance of connecting this science with art and imagery is crucial for the mission to achieve its full potential.”

This animation illustrates how color and displacement maps are used in 3D animation software to paint and model an object like the Moon. NASA/Goddard/Scientific Visualization Studio

LRO has spent the last decade orbiting the moon in order to map its surface “like never before”. Wright turned to 10 years’ worth of images captured by a camera aboard the LRO, which works like a scanner to create images line-by-line. As the spacecraft moves, it beams laser pulses that bounce back to the spacecraft. The amount of time it takes a pulse to do so helps researchers to determine the topography of the moon. These images are then sent back to Earth for analyzers like Wright to process.

“[The Moon kit] will bring the LRO data within reach of lots of other artists who want to do the kinds of things that I do,” he said.

But getting the image is the easy part. Setting the scene is where it gets tricky. Wright says his work requires considering the lighting, location, and the big picture in order to bring everything together.

“Using 3D animation software is a lot like filming live-action, with lights, cameras, props, and sets,” said Wright, “but visualization is more like filming a documentary. You’re being factual, but you’re also creating a narrative.”

In addition to our viewing pleasure, the maps will also be used to help prepare safe landings for the future Artemis program, a commitment made by the space agency to land American astronauts, including the first woman and the next man, on the moon by 2024.

LRO has created beautiful images in the past, including this 681 gigapixels interactive map of the lunar north pole and these “hopping” water molecules.

This color map, available as 24-bit RGB TIFFs of various sizes, is centered on 0° longitude. NASA/Goddard/Scientific Visualization Studio
The displacement map, at 64, 16, and 4 pixels per degree, centered on 0° longitude. Available as either floating-point TIFFs in kilometers, relative to a radius of 1737.4 km, or 16-bit TIFFs in half-meters, relative to a radius of 1,747,400 meters. NASA/Goddard/Scientific Visualization Studio

 

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