Watch NASA’s “Asteroid Bennu Tour” – Selected for Prestigious Computer Graphics Film Festival

Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

It’s hard to imagine what the surface of Asteroid Bennu might look like – it’s the shortest distance from Earth still at 250,000 miles – but the “Tour of Asteroid Bennu” video takes us on a journey to see this landscape up close.

On August 9 and 11, 2021, the video produced at ">NasaThe Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., Will be featured in the electronic theater at the SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival – a great honor for those working in the graphics visualization field.

“We’re competing against the best of the best in the graphics industry right now,” said Kel Elkins, lead data visualizer for the project. “And it’s very exciting when something that we create, especially something that relies on data like this, can compete and be accepted at the same level as these other elements. “

Electronic theater, often compared to the Oscars for graphics, highlights short, challenging and inspiring video stories created through the use of infographics and interactive techniques. “Tour of Asteroid Bennu” will be recognized alongside 36 other short videos in this year’s SIGGRAPH viewing.


Using laser elevation data and high-resolution images from NASA OSIRIS-REx spaceship, we can take a tour of the remarkable terrain of the asteroid Bennu. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

The story of this video begins in March 2020, just at the start of the pandemic.

“I remember taking breaks, going for lunchtime walk around my neighborhood, and thinking about a few shots, like how we would approach the asteroid first,” said Dan Gallagher, producer and writer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

The video, which now has just under a million views on YouTube, uses advanced graphics techniques to depict the asteroid close to home.

Unlike the other videos shown at SIGGRAPH, Gallagher and Elkins used real science data from NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to create “Tour of Asteroid Bennu”. OSIRIS-REx, which launched on September 6, 2016, reached the asteroid in 2018 and collected imagery, lidar, laser ranging, data, and other forms of data in orbit. The spacecraft even briefly touched the asteroid to collect a sample in October 2020.

Depicted as an orange loop around the asteroid, the start of the video highlights the location of the orbiting spacecraft, which is based on actual mission data. The 3D model of the asteroid is mostly taken from lidar data, but as the camera brings the viewer closer to Bennu, the model also incorporates global image mosaics and global brightness maps.

“We got this idea to do for Bennu what Ernie Wright did in his Moon Tour, which was take some high-resolution terrain data and images and do a really awesome flyby of Bennu and land the camera as close as we could lift to the surface and fly over some of the new features, ”said Gallagher.

The asteroid tour covers six sites in depth, showing the name of each site as well as a 3D view of the surrounding area. According to a behind-the-scenes video delving into the making of “Tour of Asteroid Bennu,” the asteroid model started out as a low-resolution polygonal model, limiting how close the camera could come close to the surface. As the OSIRIS-REx mission continued, more data was collected, until the model consisted of five centimeter resolution tiles.

“Every time we got new high resolution models of the asteroid, we would try to bring the camera closer and closer to those regions,” Elkins said.

When zooming in to close locations or rocks there are individual tiles with different resolutions that had to be combined to maintain the levels of detail as the camera gets closer. Elkins meticulously selected the individual tiles based on where the camera sought to assemble a finalized view of the model from different points of view.

Other videos accepted by SIGGRAPH are artist interpretations, but there are limitations to using scientific data to create a graphic representation. The assembly of the tiles leaves imperfections or inevitable holes, compared to an artistic assembly.

“That’s why we’re so happy that our data visualizations are on par with some of these other pieces,” Elkins said.

As the Electronic Theater screening date approaches, Gallagher reflects on the precedent set by “Tour of Asteroid Bennu”.

“I think there is a great demand from the public. Gallagher said. “People love exploration, they love novelty. It’s a whole new world and it’s a world that can be difficult to truly appreciate fully in two-dimensional photographs. I think it really reflects the thirst people have for exploration, and it’s a way to explore Bennu from a distance through technology, so it’s very exciting to see him reach that level.


On August 9 and 11, 2021, “Tour of Asteroid Bennu” will be presented in the SIGGRAPH Awards Electronic Theater. Producer Dan Gallagher and data visualizer Kel Elkins discuss the making of the video and how data-driven animation allows viewers to explore new worlds like Bennu. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center


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