NASA Releases 3D Mapping Data From the Moon

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You can’t take a trip to the real moon, at least not right now. You might be able to visit the surface virtually before long, though. NASA has released a visual data set that it calls the “CGI Moon Kit,” which will allow designers to create authentic moonscapes in games and other types of media. The kit is, of course, completely free to download. 

The data for the Moon Kit comes from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which has been in orbit of the moon since 2009. Its original mission was just one year, but it’s still going strong. During its time studying the moon, the LRO has produced a 3D map of almost the entire surface — 98.2 percent of it, to be exact. The only parts of the moon not covered are the polar areas in deep shadow. 

The Moon Kit comes from NASA designer Ernie Wright, who works in the Scientific Visualization Studio at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Wright initially created the Moon Kit as a tool for the Scientific Visualization Studio, but he received so many requests for the data that he decided to make the data set available to all designers publicly. 

You can download the Moon Kit from the Scientific Visualization Studio website right now. It comes as a pair of uncompressed TIFF files. One file is a composite of over 100,000 photos taken by the orbiter’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC). The largest size option, which is what most designers will want, clocks in at almost 500 megabytes. This is essentially a texture map of the moon. 

The second TIFF file is what’s known as a displacement map. It contains data from the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter instrument (LOLA), which tells you about the elevation of features on the moon. The largest version shows 64 pixels per degree, and clocks in at just shy of 1 GB. 

In 3D animation software, you can wrap both images around a spherical shell to create a very accurate model of the moon. The color file tells the program how the terrain should look, and the displacement map tells it how the surface is shaped. However, this isn’t a ready-made 3D version of the moon you can explore — it’ll take some serious 3D design work to make it into something tangible. In the coming years, we may see simulations of the lunar surface that are more accurate than anything that came before.

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