Challenger Center Comet Animations

This is a a project I did for the Challenger Center, an educational group that teaches kids about science, technology, engineering and math by sticking them in a simulated space station or NASA mission control room and giving them simulated math and engineering challenges, like Space Camp. When I was little, I was fascinated by 3-2-1 Contact episodes about astronauts and Space Camp, so it’s very fun to be working on something similar today.

Over the last few years I’ve created a bunch of bits and pieces for the Challenger Center; various planetary maps, cockpit animations, some models to be 3D printed in their labs, but this was the first major scenario I got to. In this mission, the students fly a routine spacecraft mission to observe an an incoming comet, where they find that a comet fragment is on a collision course with Earth. They have to assemble the CPU of a new probe that is then launched from the ISS to intercept the comet and try to deflect it using the thrust from an ion drive.

I’m sure it’s a lot of fun to play the scenario, but I probably had just as much fun making the animations for it. I built a mathematically-accurate model of the Solar System in After Effects, and then downloaded a lot of high-res satellite imagery from NASA to create my model of the Earth. I was also able to use NASA’s own 3D model of the ISS, but I had to build everything in Lightwave. Some of it had to match the actual props that the students would be using, but I was able design a few things myself.

There are several different stages of the scenario, and more than one outcome, so there are several different versions of the solar system map and the probe doesn’t always land on the surface of the comet fragment successfully. I had been looking forward to experimenting with some new techniques, but this project was actually pretty straightforward. The comet surface is simple geometry with several procedural deformations, and the vapor of the tail is even simpler geometry and particles.

James likes watching this video, because ever since we read Explorers on the Moon he’s been fascinated by space. This morning we watched the 3-2-1 Contact clip of zero-gravity that I grew up with, and was just as fascinated by astronauts eating floating food as I remember me and my siblings being.

  1. Love this; very cool! Not sure which I like more, the animation or the music.

    There’s a special synergy about brothers working together…Glad you learned how to do it.

    Love, Mother

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