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VFX and Astrobiology

"So, what are you doing Kate? What does this have to do with visual effects, and how can this topic relate to the VFX industry?" 

Listen, I wasn't exactly sure either when I first started researching this topic. I had this vague idea in my head that maybe I could tie this topic into how Marvel superheroes, and how aliens environments in movies were arcuately presented. But it sorta devolved into other topics, and other interesting matters. So take this article with a grain of salt, and with the same amount of patience my VFX supervisor has while looking over my shots. Thank you and I'm sorry.

A Dive into Astrobiology 

Astrobiology is the study of evolution, distribution, and development of life in the universe. It was originally called exobiology, but some smart scientists decided it needed a more specific name.

There are a few other topics this field covers in regards to how life develops in the Universe:

- Does extraterrestrial life exist? And how can we detect it?

- What would be the exoplanetology and geology factors that could impact life?

- What research can we do to improve research on biosignatures for life detection?

- What would be the molecular biology, biophysics, and biochemistry of a life form that came from another planet?

- What data can we gather from astronomy about our solar system and others?

- How can we interpret existing scientific theories into the possibility of life on other worlds?

- What is the origin and evolution of life in the universe?

- And many more questions.

So as you can see, there are a lot of questions in this field, and only some of them have answers. As humans, we exist on Earth, so we don't know what other planets are like. There are other planets in and beyond our solar system, but they are millions of miles away. Which is why there are very few answers when we debate life on other worlds. So astrobiology is quite an important issue when talking about the development of our universe. 

Because of where we are located in the universe, we are forced to use the tools and resources that we have. So part of being an astrobiologist is studying the environment on Earth. The idea being: Life developed successfully here, so let's find out why.

Most research in astrobiology gets pushed into exoplanet detection. The logic being, if we discover an exoplanet with intelligent life, then we can prove that we are not alone in the universe. In this research push, many tools have been developed to study the universe and the planets inside of it. In 2009, NASA launched the Kepler Space Telescope to detect planets orbiting other stars. This telescope collected some incredible data and observed 530,506 stars, and detected over 2,662 planets. The French Space Agency has also made some huge contributions. In 2006, they launched the COROT space mission. This mission was also designed to search for planets beyond our solar system, and study the acoustical waves rippling across the surfaces of stars.

One of the other core areas of study in astrobiology is the study of extremophiles. These are creatures that can survive at extreme temperatures and environments. For example, anything that lives at the bottom of the ocean, or around underwater volcanoes. The idea being, exoplanets might contain extreme environments and areas that might be inhabitable to humans, but habitable to other forms of life. So it is important we study creatures that can exist in environments that are toxic to us, as they might be our only hope to understanding the mechanics of other lifeforms. But in order to understand how life adapts to it's surrounding environment, we also have to observe the environment itself. This is where Astroecology comes into play.

Astroecology involves studying the interactions of life with space environments. If you've ever heard of the various space missions where scientists have launched animals into space, this was probably the field of study that drove them to do that. But on a larger scale, Astroecology is also about understanding the resources it takes to support life in space and on other worlds. So studying how our bodies react in space, the materials and resources we need to survive, and what resources exist on other planets, we can better understand how we could populate other worlds, and what we might discover on new ones.

Some other things covered by this category are:

- Investigation into planetary soils.

- Space materials in Meteorites.

- Can life and other materials travel on asteroids? If so, is that how minerals and other rocks can be deposited on other planets?

- How can we use resources for future space colonies?

Another sub study of astrobiologists is the study of Cosmoecology. This is the study of all life in the universe from The Big Bang, and beyond. It's kind of the umbrella topic concerning all life in the Universe.

The final topic that involves this study is Astrogeology. Astrogeology is a planetary science that takes a look at the geology of exoplanets and their solar systems. It takes a deeper dive into the geographic elements of exoplanets, their moons, comets, asteroids, and meteorites. Then scientists measure the planet's potential to develop life, or if it is a habitable environment. 

Visual Development In The Field


The world of visualization over the past 10 years has greatly improved the field of astrobiology. This includes the advancements in detailed imaging, infra-red, and camera advancements. But satellites are also a huge part of imaging far away worlds, so let's talk about a few that have improved our understanding of our universe.

The first satellite we'll talk about is called TESS. TESS stands for Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. It was first launched into space by NASA on April 18, 2018, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. As of 2020, it has completed its primary mission to image the night sky, and search for exoplanets. Now it is in it's secondary mission phase which is to enquire more about the information it has already discovered. So already this spacecraft has achieved a lot. So let's take a look at it's data.

TESS locates planets by monitoring stars and watching for changes in their brightness. By watching the starlight "wobble", TESS can see how many planets might be orbiting around those stars, and what type of solar system exists in that area of space. TESS has discovered 74 exoplanets using this method, and 1,200 other possible exoplanets around the universe. The satellite has also been able to capture 75% of the night sky over it's two year mission as well. By also studying stars, TESS has also been able to observe other stellar variations, and supernova explosions. Overall, it has beamed back over 40 terabytes of information back to Earth. 

TESS uses something called CCDs to capture it's images. (Charge-Coupled Devices) It has 16 of them on board, and uses them to scan the sky every 30 minutes. So far each CCD has generated over 30,800 images. These images have greatly improved our understanding of what is located in the Northern hemisphere of our sky.

Another popular satellite NASA uses to map other worlds is Cassini. Cassini was one of the longest lasting NASA missions to date. I am proud to say I was almost as old as this spacecraft. It launched on Oct. 15, 1997 and lasted till Sep. 15, 2017. It collected some of the most important observations of our solar system. Even when it was at the end of it's lifespan. So let's dive into some of the data.

The overall observations of the craft were immense. So let's try and sum it down to some highlights. But in your spare time feel free to check out the NASA data HERE.

- Cassini revealed Titan to be one of the most Earth-like worlds we’ve encountered.

- It enabled us to observe weather and seasonal changes on another planet.

- Discovered two new moons of Saturn.

- It traveled 4.9 billion miles from Earth and survived over 5 years.

- Captured details of other moons other than our own.

- Proved that moons can have atmospheres.

- Documented the aftermath of the massive Great White Spot storm that recurs roughly every 30 years on Saturn.

- Concluded that Enceladus has underground oceans.

- Performed close fly-bys of Enceladus, and discovered geysers and water plumes from the planets surface.

- Much more. :)

The craft also carried another probe along with it. This craft was called Huygens. Huygens was designed to study the atmosphere of Saturn's largest moon Titan. As well as to document the moon's surface. It is the only craft so far to land on the surface of a planet in our outer solar system. It carried a bunch of instruments with it, such as; Atmospheric Structure Instruments (HASI), Gas Chromatograph Neutral Mass Spectrometers (GC/MS), Aerosol Collectors and Pyrolyzers (ACP), and much more. With all it's tools it was able to prove that liquids and hydrocarbons existed on worlds beyond our planet. As well as sea beds, dormant oceans, and revivors of liquid methane. Most of this data was transmitted back to Earth in a series of images.

Cassini's end involved an amazing showdown through the atmosphere of Saturn. It burned up 45 seconds after it entered the planet's clouds, but during its descent it was able to bring some final insight into the formation of Saturn. In the final close up of Saturn's rings the spacecraft was able to accurately measure a day on the planet's surface. (10 hours, 33 minutes and 38 seconds), and date the age of the planet's rings. The rings are now thought to have formed between 10-100 million years. They are as old as the dinosaurs!

Now onto our last spacecraft for this article. Which is Juno!

Juno was launched by NASA on August 5, 2011. It is currently still functioning. It's main mission was to observe Jupiter, and to better understand how the planet operates, formed, what the core is made of, and other facts about it.

So far Juno has been able to observe the following:

- Data from the first infrared mapping of Ganymede, and it's magnetic field.

- The modification of Ganymede's icy surface from Jupiter's constant field of charged particles (plasma). 

- The Northern half of Jupiter is an incredibly dry region.

- How long storms last on Jupiter.

- Jupiter may have "lightning" and other electrical behavior in its atmosphere. 

- Much more. :)

All of this data, from all these crafts have helped us understand that our planet is not special. There are other worlds that contain better resources, and extreme conditions beyond our own. 


Virtual Reality and Astrobiology 

One of a few interesting outcomes of technology in the past few years is the introduction of virtual reality in astrobiology. NASA is no stranger to using VR. If you ever get the chance to visit Cape Canaveral and sign up for the mars mission simulators for fun, you'll get the chance to use some of NASA's educational VR sets to experience Mars. It's quite fun. 

But some other uses of VR are in the works. 

As we have discussed above, astrobiology involves studying extreme environments on Earth to better understand environments on other worlds. There have been many NASA, and other space agency funded missions to the deep depths of the oceans. One mission in particular was to create the first VR representation of underwater volcanic vents. In 2016, some scientists off the coast of Tonga and Fiji were able to create 3D scans of the volcanoes in the Northern Lau Basin. It took them a total of 48 hours, but they were able to create an amazing series of 4k scans in Real Time. These scans have helped to create a modifiable and safe remote VR environment that other scientists can walk around in, and closely observe geological, biological and hydrochemical features of the vents. Exploring data from these hot and toxic environments can help us better understand planets like Venus that share similar geological surroundings. 

NASA also tries educating others about the world of astrobiology through VR. I've mentioned previously that they have VR simulations where you can interact with the surface of Mars. However, NASA has also developed virtual field trip tools for teachers and students to interact with scientists in the field while they train for future Mars missions. In 2005, in the Pilbara region in Western Australia, NASA was able to create a team with over 30 geologists, microbiologists, and geochemists to go out and research stromatolites. These are 3.5 billion year old rock-like structures formed out of microorganisms. They then captured the scientists at work and their findings, then released a VR environment into the public domain. This experience allows for individuals to follow the process of scientists at work and how they come to their conclusions in a natural way. 

NASA also creates VR simulations of off-world entities as well. One simulation they've created is of the Cassiopeia A supernova remnant. Using data from their Chandra X-ray Observatory, and Brown University, they were able to image the supernova. Then they selected areas of the remnant for people to interact with. Then they also added 3D models so people could touch and walk around in the environment. 

Some Further Thoughts

Jumping back up to the founding questions of astrobiology, we can reflect as simulation artists how we can help these categories of study. I think that since there are many industries already using Houdini outside VFX, we can use the software here. Considering that there is also a paper advocating the use of the software in Astrophysics, (See said article HERE) the possibility really isn't far off at all. So let dive into some possible uses.

At the beginning we mentioned some key questions that astrobiology tries to answer. A few being:

- What would be the exoplanetology and geology factors that could impact life?

- What research can we do to improve research on biosignatures for life detection?

- What would be the molecular biology, biophysics, and biochemistry of a life form that came from another planet?

- What data can we gather from astronomy about our solar system and others?

- How can we interpret existing scientific theories into the possibility of life on other worlds?

So...Let's start with geology. Houdini already has some amazing terrain tools, and plugins like Open Source Maps to copy real world terrain. Mapping the geology of another planet would probably be the most easiest task for the software, and generate the fastest results. Houdini already has presets for generating the moon's surface. Presumably, with enough data and skill you could modify the preset into scientifically accurate replication of the surface of the moon.

Houdini is also being used for oceanic studies as well. (More on that in a different article.) But as we have mentioned numerous times, studying the oceans is a huge part of understanding astrobiology. So with both these facts under our belts, we could also try replicating underwater volcanoes, and trenches with Houdini. Or even the same VR demonstrations that NASA does to teach students about off-worlder terrains and organisms. Even replicating NASA images of Mars and other planets is a possibility.

We could also start to visualize the hydrodynamics of clouds and gases of planets in our Solar System to get a better idea of their atmospheres. Pyro is probably one of the most developed tools inside Houdini, and there are numerous ways to generate contained and isolated gases. As well as storms. 

Lastly, as a fellow VFX artist you have probably seen cell division tutorials and virus modeling tutorials available for the software. Especially during 2020. So already we know modeling theatrical viruses and organisms is possible. But what about real ones? Well, yes. Yes, you can.

So push yourself. This industry needs visual effects artists.

Already there are tutorials inside of Houdini for scientists. (You can check them out HERE) These tutorials are pretty useful to use, and even better to get a basic understanding of a classical NASA simulation. I highly recommend you check them out. A few of them are done by artists who worked on Interstellar.

Something also cool to note, VES in New Zealand has already hosted events with NASA's Astrobiology Panel. In 2018, they were able to get three NASA scientists to sit down and talk about how visualization and VFX matters in space exploration. These scientists were: Dr. Mitch Schulte, Dr. Lindsay Hays, and astrobiologist Angelica Angles.

Finally, I thought it was worth mentioning that NASA has achievements outside the space industry. They have won numerous Emmys for their developments in visualization and technology. In September 2019, NASA won an Emmy for Outstanding Original Interactive Program for their presentation of Cassini's final moments. Which was photographing and documenting its descent through Saturn. 

They also won a second Emmy in the same category for their Mars Insight Mission which was partnered with SpaceX. 


NASA Astrobiology Panel (New Zealand):

VFX Artist Reveals the True Scale of the Universe:


NASA Pushes Exploration of Oceans in Our Solar System:

NASA | Inside Astrobiology: Michael Mumma:

Centre of 'Gravity': Effects studio that put the stars in space:

EPSC 2018 Outreach Sessions – Abstracts and Presentations:



News & Discoveries:


Walking among the Stars

Virtual worlds and astrobiology: A 3-D immersive visualisation of a Mars analogue site in Western Australia:

Virtual Reality Technology Reveals Underwater Vents in New Ways

About TESS:

NASA’s Planet Hunter Completes Its Primary Mission:

New NASA planet hunter TESS shares first photo from space:

NASA satellite's dazzling panorama hides 74 exoplanets (and potentially hundreds more):


NASA Wins Two Emmy Awards for Interactive Mission Coverage:'s%20Jet%20Propulsion%20Laboratory,Heat%20Transport)%20mission%20to%20Mars.

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