News | October 19, 2021

The Exploration Behind the Inspiration at NASA

By Kristen Walbolt
NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program

This video shows fanciful, imagined adventures to real places we’ve studied, inspired by a series of travel posters produced by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith (KBRwyle) and NASA/JPL-Caltech

At NASA, our mission is to explore. We visit destinations in our solar system and study worlds beyond to better understand big questions – How did we get here? Where are we headed? Are we alone?

Our robotic explorers have toured our solar system, but so far the only place beyond Earth where humans have stood is the Moon. That’s also the next place we’ll send astronauts. But not the last! While humans haven’t yet visited Mars, we’re planning to add bootprints to the rover tire tracks there now.

We also dream. We dream of traveling to distant worlds, and what that might be like. In the video above you can see fanciful, imagined adventures to real places we’ve studied at NASA.

How We Did It

Check out how we created these otherworldly scenes in the video below. A NASA videographer used green screens to add motion and real people to bring life to our series of solar system and exoplanet travel posters.

A NASA videographer used green screens to add motion and real people to fanciful scenes from real places and based on real science. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith (KBRwyle) and NASA/JPL-Caltech

Let’s unpack one example from the video. The shot of kayaking on Titan showcases the real rivers and lakes of liquid methane and ethane that slosh and flow on Saturn's largest moon. Titan's mysterious surface was revealed by our Cassini spacecraft, which also deployed the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe to the surface. The atmosphere on Titan is so thick, and the gravity so light, that with each strike of a paddle, you might be lofted above the swift current as you ride the tides through a narrow strait called the Throat of Kraken. NASA scientist Mike Malaska studies Titan and collaborated on the poster featured in the video. His research informed the artwork, and so did a hobby: kayaking. Those ultra-cold chemical seas might be even more of a challenge than shown here. Your boat might crack, or even dissolve, Malaska said.

Lakes, darker than the surrounding terrain, are emphasized here by tinting regions of low backscatter in blue. Radar-brighter regions are shown in tan. The strip of radar imagery is foreshortened to simulate an oblique view of the highest latitude region, seen from a point to its west. A vintage-like travel poster shows the straits of Kraken on Titan.

Titan Revealed by Cassini

The existence of oceans or lakes of liquid methane on Saturn's moon Titan was predicted more than 20 years ago. But with a dense haze preventing a closer look until a close Cassini flyby in 2006, it was impossible to prove. In the false color radar image on the left, the smallest features are 500 meters, or 1,650 feet, across. The poster on the right was inspired by the discovery and further informed by additional study. Credits: Titan image on left by NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/USGS; poster on right by NASA/JPL-Caltech

We’ll learn more about Titan when our Dragonfly mission of dual quadcoptors -- rotorcraft with eight blades each -- visits the icy moon in 2034.

Science Never Stops​

People are shown in bubbles, gliding over a lava sea beneath them.
The exoplanet 55 Cancri e, a world beyond our solar system, is more than 40 light-years away. Still, by analyzing light, we found silicates in its atmosphere. That material would reflect the light from its Sun-like star and the lava below. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Can we visit an exoplanet 42 light-years from Earth? Well, no. But we can examine it with telescopes on the ground and in space to find out more about it. We know the surface of one such world beyond our solar system, 55 Cancri e, is so hot it would melt rocks. And we’ve detected rocky materials, called silicates, in its atmosphere, so…LAVA PLANET!

Our understanding of other worlds is always evolving, and sometimes we learn new details after we illustrate our science. We show a traveler standing on the surface of Kepler-16b with two shadows formed by the planet’s two suns. The planet does indeed orbit two stars, but with later size and mass refinements, we now think it would be hard to stand there and enjoy a binary sunset. There isn't a solid surface to stand on a gas planet, and that's what Kepler-16b now appears to be!

In addition to sharing how sublime science can be, these scenes are a reminder that there are lots of careers in the space program, not just scientist, engineer, or astronaut. A creative team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California produced the travel posters, originally to help share the work of NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program. They are the result of lots of brainstorming and discussion with real NASA scientists, engineers, and expert communicators. The video versions of these spacey travel scenes were produced by visualization experts at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

All of this work is meant to inspire, and to explore the edge of possibility. It’s also an invitation. With science, we’re stepping into the future. Join us?

Video credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith (KBRwyle) and NASA/JPL-Caltech