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NASA takes marriage of art and science to new heights

Wednesday, April 11, 2012 - 04:11

April 11 - The world's ocean currents have been brought to life in stunning detail by a team of animators at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. The animated video is the latest example of a program designed to make scientific satellite data more accessible to the public and policy makers. As Rob Muir reports, it succeeds with spectacular results.

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Inside an innocuous brick building near Washington, art and science are coming together. Greg Shirah and his team of animators are taking dry scientific data and turning into movies like "Perpetual Ocean". "Perpetual Ocean" is an animated film illustrating the Earth's ocean surface currents as they flowed around the world between June, 2005 and December 2007. It is not a precise representation but comes close, the product of real satellite data, sophisticated computer modelling and the skills of Greg Shirah. SOUNDBITE (English) GREG SHIRAH, LEAD ANIMATOR - GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER VISUALIZATION STUDIO, SAYING: "Well, I'm a scientific visualiser so I take data from primarilly spacecraft but also models and try to turn that data into visuals that people can understand, some concepts about what the data might represent." In the case of Perpetual Ocean, it represents the forces that dictate ocean movement, from water temperature and wind direction, to the depth and topography beneath the surface. SOUNDBITE (English) GREG SHIRAH, LEAD ANIMATOR - GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER VISUALIZATION STUDIO, SAYING: "The scientists will give us their data and explain the nuances of the data. We'll then use software to extract the data and pull it into software that we have that is more tuned to do Hollywood-type things, where you would make movies and things." Movies like "Tour of the Moon". Measurements collected by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), launched three years ago, provided the scientific framework for animators to produce breath-taking views of the moon and an educational tool for the public. Horace Mitchell, a physicist and the director of the studio, takes a hands on approach. He says his team's mission is simple. SOUNDBITE) (English) HORACE MITCHELL, GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER VISUALIZATION STUDIO DIRECTOR, SAYING: "The mission is to capture the scientists' work as accurately as possible and to make it exciting. I believe to scientists, their data, their work is really exciting. A lot of it goes on in their mind and we sort of bring it out. We bring it out and make it visual for a visual world" To underscrore their point, the team bring staff and visitors to the hyperwall Their latest project is a work in progress. It's a data-supported representation of a solar storm, illustrating in spectacular detail what happens when a cloud of electrical energy generated by a solar eruption, reaches Earth. SOUNDBITE (English) GREG SHIRAH, LEAD ANIMATOR - GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER VISUALIZATION STUDIO, SAYING: "I've been doing this for fifteen years or so and I could never have done anything like this then. The models could never have been run fifteen years ago. Only recently do we have enough computational power and disc storage and network speed and memory to be able to do these types of things." SOUNDBITE) (English) HORACE MITCHELL, GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER VISUALIZATION STUDIO DIRECTOR, SAYING: "We have a mandate in the modern world to help people understand how we find out things, how we know things so that decisions can be made, so that, and so we can appreciate the earth. Some say we don't appreciate what we have. Well, I think this helps. I think the joy of understanding how something works is just amazing." The team has made hundreds of visualizations in recent years, illustrating planetary and climate data that would otherwise exist only as numbers on a page. And the quality is improving all the time. Greg Shirah says that within another fifteen years, detail will become even finer and global areas of coverage more localised, taking his job many levels beyond the current state-of-the art. Rob Muir, Reuters.

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NASA takes marriage of art and science to new heights

Wednesday, April 11, 2012 - 04:11