Illuminating the Invisible: NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio

By NASA

At NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the members of the Scientific Visualization Studio and the Conceptual Image Lab work with scientists to create animations and videos that showcase NASA research and missions in the Earth and space sciences.  These visualizations are designed to be enjoyed by people of all walks of life, and to be accurate enough to also be insightful for the NASA research community.  This work empowers scientists to share the meaning and excitement of their work as widely as possible.

Looking at Ocean Currents on the Hyperwall (2016-04-23) by NASA/Goddard/Rebecca RothNASA

Data Brought To Life

Data is only as useful as our ability to make sense of it.  When visualizers and scientists work in concert, they unearth stories within datasets and push the boundaries of knowledge.  Scientific visualization is not a mere translation of numbers into pictures: shapes and colors breathe life into real scientific data, allowing us to see patterns and complexities that were once invisible or unknown.  The visualization process itself becomes a vehicle for scientific inquiry, capturing the curiosity of both visualizer and researcher.  When shared with the world, the resulting data-driven artworks inspire as much as they educate and entertain.  Scientific visualization reminds us of the beauty in understanding, and it is a means of discovery all its own.

Ocean Current Flows Showing the Gulf Stream (2011-08-15) by NASA Scientific Visualization StudioNASA

Beauty and Understanding

It’s often the beauty of a visualization that commands our attention, seeming more like imaginative art than accurate science.  The rhythm of the colors, shapes and motions is so wondrous we don’t expect it to be real, but realness is actually its most compelling aspect.  A beautiful visualization invites us to venture to a place of deeper understanding, and a profound appreciation comes with the realization that we are learning about something real.

Perpetual Ocean

Perpetual Ocean shows ocean surface currents around the world as they were from June 2005 through December 2007. The white lines represent surface currents, while blues map the depths and shapes of the underwater terrain. Many of the patterns and whorls look strange or eccentric, while others, like the Gulf Stream, are more familiar. In either case, beauty invites curiosity, and both the mind and emotions are engaged.

When first published, this visualization was likened to the work of post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh. While its swirls of blues and whites might pass for a modern take on a Van Gogh sky, the artistic similarities are more of a fortuitous accident.

Visualization by Greg Shirah and Horace Mitchell
Edited by Victoria Weeks
Duration: 3:02

Perpetual Ocean (2011-08-15) by NASA Scientific Visualization StudioNASA

Tycho Crater (2018-04-09) by NASA Scientific Visualization StudioNASA

Tour of the Moon 4K Redux

In the fall of 2011, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) mission released its original Tour of the Moon, a five-minute animation that takes the viewer on a virtual tour of our nearest neighbor in space. Six years later, the tour has been recreated in eye-popping 4K resolution, using the same camera path and drawing from the vastly expanded trove of data collected by LRO in the intervening years.

This virtual tour reveals the stark beauty of the Moon. It visits a number of interesting sites chosen to illustrate a variety of lunar terrain features. Some are on the near side and are familiar to both professional and amateur observers on Earth, while others can only be seen clearly from space. Some are large and old (Orientale, South Pole-Aitken), others are smaller and younger (Tycho, Aristarchus). The tour also visits the Apollo 17 landing site. Incredibly, the lander and rover are visible in LRO’s images, as well as the tracks left behind by the astronauts and the rover.

Visualization by Ernie Wright
Duration: 4:56

Tour of the Moon 4K Redux (2018-04-09) by NASA Scientific Visualization StudioNASA

Magnetic Fields Derived from Solar Magnetograms (2018-04-30) by NASA Scientific Visualization StudioNASA

Making the Invisible Visible

Science uncovers the inner workings of the universe that we can’t see for ourselves — phenomena that are measurable, but not visible.  Complexities may hide in scale or in an inconspicuous wavelength.  Scientific visualization opens our eyes to the unseen, giving us a means of exploring that which in one way or another is invisible. 

Dynamic Solar Magnetic Field

This visualization demonstrates that sunspots are not cosmetic blemishes, but symptoms of intense solar magnetic activity. This activity is first revealed through images of the sun in ultraviolet wavelengths, where radiating plasma along the magnetic fields illuminates the magnetic structures above the solar surface. Magnetic intensity measurements of the solar surface are shown to match the plasma structures. leading to computer models that extend the magnetic fields out into space. The white magnetic field lines return to the solar surface, while the colored lines extend out to vast distances, even as far as the Earth and the outer planets. These unseen magnetic fields affect the entire solar system in unexpected ways.

Visualization by Tom Bridgman
Edited by Genna Duberstein
Narrated by Tom Bridgman
Duration: 3:42

The Dynamic Solar Magnetic Field with Introduction (2018-04-30) by NASA Scientific Visualization StudioNASA

Stratospheric Ozone Intrusion (2014-04-14) by NASA Scientific Visualization StudioNASA

Stratospheric Ozone Intrusion

At high altitudes, ozone naturally forms a protective layer around Earth that shields its living inhabitants from the Sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. This same invisible gas is a pollutant in the lower atmosphere, one that can cause respiratory distress and is subject to monitoring and regulation. In this visualization, the results of a computer simulation of the atmosphere show that high-altitude ozone can descend all the way to the ground under the right atmospheric conditions. Since such events can trigger pollution alarms and regulatory attention, it is vital to understand which events are natural and which are generated by human activity.

Visualization by Trent Schindler
Narrated by Trent Schindler
Duration: 1:32

Stratospheric Ozone Intrusion (2014-04-10) by NASA Scientific Visualization StudioNASA

Western Hemisphere view of the Global Biosphere (2018-02-09) by NASA Scientific Visualization StudioNASA

Fitting Data Together

Discoveries depend on making connections.  The more lines we draw from one dataset to another, the closer we get to a complete understanding of the complex relationships that constitute our world.  Our web of knowledge grows as we explore and embrace this interconnectedness.  Scientific visualization gives us the power to watch multiple systems unfold simultaneously, test our theories against reality, and witness the ebbs and flows of the natural world.  

Global Biosphere (2018-02-09) by NASA Scientific Visualization StudioNASA

A Candid Look at NASA's "Living Planet"

Data from multiple Earth science missions was used to create a stunning time-lapse of plant life on land and in the sea over the last two decades. This visualization is a portrait of our living Earth and a testament to the power of unbroken, continuous data collection that is invaluable to the study of life on Earth.

Visualization by Alex Kekesi
Edited by Lauren Ward
Narrated by Alex Kekesi, Compton Tucker, Gene Feldman, and Lauren Ward
Duration: 5:29

A Candid Look at NASA's "Living Planet" (2018-02-09) by NASA Scientific Visualization StudioNASA

Solar Wind Creates Ion Fountains on Mars (2015-11-05) by NASA Scientific Visualization StudioNASA

Solar Wind Strips the Martian Atmosphere

Mars is a global desert with an atmosphere too thin to support bodies of flowing water, but evidence shows that ancient Mars was considerably wetter. Mars may have lost its thick atmosphere without a global magnetic field to prevent the incoming solar wind from depleting the upper atmosphere. This video depicts a computer simulation of this process and compares it to the actual observations from NASA's MAVEN mission orbiting Mars. The simulation shows that the impact of the solar wind particles (in pale yellow) creates "fountains" of fast-moving oxygen ions (in green and yellow) out of the Martian atmosphere. Data from MAVEN is shown to agree very well with these predictions.

Visualization by Greg Shirah and Horace Mitchell
Edited by Joy Ng
Narrated by Joy Ng
Duration: 1:30

Solar Wind Strips the Martian Atmosphere (2015-11-05) by NASA Scientific Visualization StudioNASA

Earth's Orbit Relative to the Magnetosphere (2009-07-27) by NASA Scientific Visualization StudioNASA

Playing with Time and Space

Datasets are unsung time machines.  Long-term data records teach us about the past and let us peer into the future.  What appears unremarkable in real-time may be truly spectacular when we simply rewind, fast forward, speed up or slow down.  Just as time can be wielded to transform data, we can also transform physical space to uncover mysteries within shapes and dimensions.  Scientific visualization plays with these scales of time and space to reveal hidden relationships.

Sentinels of the Heliosphere

The Heliosphere is the vast region of space dominated by the Sun, extending from the solar surface past the planets to the boundary between the Solar System and interstellar space. NASA's space missions that study the Heliosphere have wildly varying orbits in time and space, and have to be carefully planned to gather the data that will reveal the secrets of this enormous region. This visualization plays with temporal and spatial scales to illustrate how far-reaching these missions are.

Visualization by Greg Shirah, Tom Bridgman, Ernie Wright, and Horace Mitchell
Edited by Stuart Snodgrass
Narrated by Michael Starobin
Duration: 7:08

Sentinels of the Heliosphere (2009-07-27) by NASA Scientific Visualization StudioNASA

Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide (2017-05-04) by NASA Scientific Visualization StudioNASA

Seasonal Changes in Carbon Dioxide

Carbon dioxide is released to the atmosphere both through human activities and by natural exchange with the land and ocean. This visualization provides a high-resolution, three-dimensional view of a year of global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. To show the complexity of carbon dioxide’s flow, the height of Earth’s atmosphere and topography have been vertically exaggerated by 400 times (this is why mountain ranges appear exceptionally elevated). In reality, the layers of Earth’s atmosphere are much more compressed than they seem here, and, in a true-to-scale visualization, these layers would appear too close together to see how dynamically this greenhouse gas actually moves up through the atmosphere.

Visualization by Greg Shirah and Horace Mitchell
Edited by Stuart Snodgrass
Narrated by Joy Ng
Duration: 1:20

Seasonal Changes in Carbon Dioxide (2017-05-04) by NASA Scientific Visualization StudioNASA

Location of Beaufort Gyre (2018-03-13) by NASA Scientific Visualization StudioNASA

Putting Data in Its Place

Data may encapsulate the events of a single second or many years; it may span a small patch of Earth or entire systems of suns and planets.  Visualizing data within its natural environment maximizes the potential for learning and discovery.  Scientific visualization can clarify data’s relationships in time and space. 

Arctic Sea Ice Age (2018-03-13) by NASA Scientific Visualization StudioNASA

Disappearing Ice

In this visualization, the issue of the declining sea ice near the North Pole is set in its natural configuration. An analysis of the age of the Arctic sea ice indicates that it traditionally became older while circulating in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska and was then primarily lost in the warmer regions along the eastern coast of Greenland. In recent years, however, warmer water in the Beaufort Sea, possibly from the Bering Strait, often melts away the sea ice in the summer before it can get older.

Visualization by Cindy Starr
Edited by Stuart Snodgrass
Narrated by Walt Meier and Lauren Ward
Duration: 3:27

Disappearing Ice (2018-03-13) by NASA Scientific Visualization StudioNASA

Airborne Volcanic Ash from the Calbuco Eruption (2016-05-12) by NASA Scientific Visualization StudioNASA

Tracking Volcanic Ash

When a volcano erupts, the ash and sulfur dioxide from the eruption can move immense distances driven by high altitude winds. As a result, the location of the volcano relative to wind patterns is important when predicting the effect of volcano emissions on airplane flights. In this visualization, emissions from an eruption of Chile's Calbuco volcano in April 2015 are tracked from South America to Africa with both satellite measurements and simulations. Simulations tend to provide the most information about the movement of the aerosol and chemical emissions, but the agreement between simulation and observation shows that the simulations are providing real-world information that can be used for the health and safety of airline passengers during actual events.

Visualization by Kel Elkins
Narrated by Jefferson Beck
Duration: 1:36

Tracking Volcanic Ash (2016-05-12) by NASA Scientific Visualization StudioNASA

Radiation from a Collision of Two Neutron Stars (2017-10-16) by NASA Conceptual Image LabNASA

From the Mind of the Scientist

When data falls short of the whole picture, knowledge and imagination can combine to promote understanding of phenomena we may never be able to see.  The detection of a gravitational wave is just a blip in a vast sea of data, but to the researcher it is evidence of a cataclysm.  Visualizing that cataclysm provides an opportunity to peer into the mind of a scientist and join in on the exploration.  NASA's Conceptual Image Lab specializes in visualizing such unseen phenomena, and is responsible for the visualizations in this section.

Doomed Neutron Stars

This visualization shows how gravitational waves (pale blue arcs) bleed away orbital energy, causing the neutron stars to move closer together and merge. As the stars collide, some of the debris blasts away in particle jets moving at nearly the speed of light, producing a brief burst of gamma rays (in magenta), followed by ultraviolet (violet), optical and infrared (blue-white to red) emissions, and X-rays (blue).

Visualization by Brian Monroe of NASA's Conceptual Image Lab
Duration: 0:42

Doomed Neutron Stars Create Blast of Light and Gravitational Waves (2017-10-16) by NASA Conceptual Image LabNASA

Early Earth Undergoing Asteroid Impacts (2014-11-18) by NASA Conceptual Image LabNASA

Bennu's Journey

How can one small asteroid encapsulate the history of the solar system? Scientists explore such questions and artists bring them to dramatic life. This video is a six-minute animated movie about NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission, asteroid Bennu, and the formation of our solar system. Born from the rubble of a violent collision, hurled through space for millions of years, asteroid Bennu has had a tough life in a rough neighborhood — the early solar system. "Bennu's Journey" shows what is known and what remains mysterious about the evolution of Bennu and the planets. By retrieving a sample of Bennu, OSIRIS-REx will teach us more about the raw ingredients of the solar system and our own origins.

Visualization by Walt Feimer and Michael Lentz of NASA's Conceptual Image Lab
Edited by Rich Melnick and Michael Lentz
Narrated by Jason Charles Miller
Duration: 6:00

Bennu's Journey (2014-11-18) by NASA Conceptual Image LabNASA

Solar Storm Approaching Venus (2012-06-19) by NASA Scientific Visualization StudioNASA

Telling the Story

All visualizations tell stories, but more complex and longer stories involve more cinematic techniques, such as complex camera moves continuous shots or sophisticated editing of ancillary material into the story.  Such techniques can allow the telling of a more involving and complete tale, one that is engrossing for a longer time.  Visual storytelling has come to dominate the manner in which information is conveyed to a broad audience, and the stories of NASA science are no exception.

Dynamic Earth

In this visualization, simulations of the life cycle of a coronal mass ejection are combined with simulations of the winds and ocean currents to tell the story of the Sun's dramatic effect on the Earth. Play close attention to the movement of the point-of-view in this visualization. The scales involved here are accurate, but immense and changing, so the placement of the point-of-view (also called "the camera") has to be very carefully chosen so as to tell the story without confusing the viewer.

Visualization by Greg Shirah, Tom Bridgman, and Horace Mitchell
Edited by Stuart Snodgrass
Narrated by Liam Neeson
Duration: 4:23

Dynamic Earth (2012-06-19) by NASA Scientific Visualization StudioNASA

Apollo 8 Views the Earth from the Moon (2013-12-20) by NASA Scientific Visualization StudioNASA

Earthrise: The 45th Anniversary

The photo "Earthrise" was taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts while orbiting the moon, and is one of the most important pictures ever taken. It had a global impact and is often credited with starting the environmental movement. Surprisingly, there was confusion as to who actually took the picture. This project was started to demonstrate the accuracy of data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, but it eventually morphed into an investigation into the acquisition of the famous image. Watch the video to learn the fascinating story behind the image and the visualization work that solved the mystery of how it was taken.

Visualization by Ernie Wright
Edited by Dan Gallagher
Narrated by Andrew Chaikin
Duration: 6:53

Earthrise: The 45th Anniversary (2013-12-20) by NASA Scientific Visualization StudioNASA

Staffs of the Scientific Visualization Studio and Conceptual Image Lab (2018-03-12) by NASA/Goddard/Britt GriswoldNASA

Acknowledgements

The Scientific Visualization Studio and the Conceptual Image Lab are located at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt MD USA. The visualizations and animations created by these two groups are free for use by the public and are available through our websites at svs.gsfc.nasa.gov and cilab.gsfc.nasa.gov.

Pictured top: The staff of the Scientific Visualization Studio in 2018
Back row from left: Britt Griswold, Cindy Starr, Kel Elkins, Horace Mitchell, Greg Shirah, Ernie Wright, Leann Johnson
Front row from left: Larry Schuler, Cheng Zhang, Stuart Snodgrass, Ian Jones, Eric Sokolowsky, Trent Schindler, Joycelyn Jones, Alex Kekesi, Lori Perkins, Tom Bridgman, Helen-Nicole Kostis

Pictured bottom: The staff of the Conceptual Image Lab in 2018
From left: Walt Feimer, Michael Lentz, Chris Meaney, Brian Monroe, Adriana Manrique Gutierrez, Krystofer Kim, Josh Masters

Credits: Story

Text by Micheala Sosby and Horace Mitchell

"Perpetual Ocean" by Greg Shirah and Horace Mitchell
"Tour of the Moon 4K Redux" by Ernie Wright
"Dynamic Solar Magnetic Field" by Tom Bridgman
"Stratospheric Ozone Intrusion" by Trent Schindler
"A Candid Look at NASA's 'Living Planet'" by Alex Kekesi
"Solar Wind Strips the Martian Atmosphere" by Greg Shirah and Horace Mitchell
"Sentinels of the Heliosphere" by Greg Shirah, Tom Bridgman, Ernie Wright, and Horace Mitchell
"Seasonal Changes in Carbon Dioxide" by Greg Shirah and Horace Mitchell
"Disappearing Ice" by Cindy Starr
"Tracking Volcanic Ash" by Kel Elkins
"Doomed Neutron Stars" by Brian Monroe
"Bennu's Journey" by Walt Feimer and Michael Lentz
"Dynamic Earth" by Greg Shirah, Tom Bridgman, and Horace Mitchell
"Earthrise: The 45th Anniversary" by Ernie Wright

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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