ESA Space Debris movie by ONiRiXEL

ONiRiXEL 3D Animation Studio is a small startup based in Toulouse, France. In this article by Jean-Gabriel Loquet, they share how they used Blender to create a high-end stereoscopic video for the European Space Agency.

We are specialized in the production of 3D CGI animation films, mainly for corpororate or institutional films and commercials, but we also love to work on fiction and documentaries, shoot live action, create VFX, perform film preproduction and/or postproduction, or create 3D VR or AR apps as well.

Blender is at the heart of our pipeline, thanks to its “all-in-one” functionality and overall awesomeness: we use it for concept and previs, 3D modeling and texturing, animation, simulation, lighting and rendering with Cycles, compositing and video editing, for monoscopic and stereoscopic projects.

The European Space Agency ESA

The ISS (partly operated by ESA) 3D render by ONiRiXEL, for the space debris movie.

ESA is the European equivalent of NASA: its purpose is to provide for, and to promote, for exclusively peaceful purposes, cooperation among European States in space research and technology and their space applications, with a view to their being used for scientific purposes and for operational space applications systems.

Amongst many, one of ESA’s missions is to investigate about space debris, communicate about this issue with the space operations community, find and implement solutions to mitigate the risks associated therewith.

To raise awareness about this issue, ESA hosted the 7th European Conference on Space Debris Risks and Mitigation in April 2017 in ESOC (the European Space Operations Center) in Darmstadt, Germany. According to ESA: “3D animation is the most suitable way to explain technical principles and to give a clear picture of the situation in space”. Thus, the agency enthrusted the creation of a 3D animation movie about space debris to ONiRiXEL 3D Studio, along with the french consulting startup (also based in Toulouse) ID&SENSE.

The projection of the movie was the main act during the opening ceremony of the conference.

Orbitography simulation with Orekit

The accuracy of spacecraft position, speed and attitude was paramount for ESA so the project team got in touch with the developers of the open source flight dynamics computation library Orekit, in order to implement correct representation of the orbital data provided by ESA.

The input data were the Kepler orbital parameters for each object (active satellite, defunct satellite, launcher upper stage, and spacecraft fragment):

The Orekit team developed a software interface that read these parameters, translated them into ephemeris data (location and attitude of each object for any point in time), which was eventually written to files in Blender’s particle cache format (one for each object and for every frame), and thus already animated in Blender with extremely good accuracy!
Active spacecraft use controlled attitude depending on their orbit (typically nadir pointing with yaw compensation for LEO, LOF aligned for GEO) and other categories use a tumbling mode with random initial attitude and angular velocity. Attitude for the solar arrays is also computed with respect to the body attitude to ensure a proper orientation in the direction of the sun in each movie scene.

Screen capture of Blender reading the Orekit computed spacefraft animation

The next step was to create relatively simple 3D models for the Orekit-simulated objects, with a reasonnable amount of polygons as there were over 20.000 duplications instanciated by Blender’s particle engine. Finally we setup materials, lighting, and camera animation, and thanks to Cycles’ magic: voilà!

Rendered frame of the movie by ONiRiXEL with Orekit computed spacefraft animation

The interface developped by the Orekit team also allowed the visualization of the object’s trajectory as curves:

Rendered frame of the movie by ONiRiXEL with Orekit computed spacefraft trajectory as a curve

Some scenes concerned only one piece of spacecraft, and allowed for more detailed modelling:

Screen capture of ONiRiXEL’s 3D model of Herschel Space Telescope in Blender

Blender’s stereoscopic pipeline

Another of Blender’s strengths on this project was also to support a solid, end-to-end strereoscopic pipeline from conception to delivery of the movie.

We used stereoscopic preview of animation:

Screen capture of ONiRiXEL’s stereoscopic animation preview for the movie in Blender

Stereoscopic rendering and compositing:

Screen capture of ONiRiXEL’s stereoscopic compositing for the movie in Blender

And even stereoscopic editing and encoding, all within Blender:

Screen capture of ONiRiXEL’s stereoscopic video editing for the movie in Blender

ESA’s space debris movie 2017: “A Journey to Earth”

The resulting 12 minutes 3D animation film was realeased by ESA under the CC-BY-SA licence, and is available for download on their website.

Rendered frame of ESA’s space debris movie by ONiRiXEL 3D

It is also available on Youtube in monoscopic or stereoscopic versions.

In the end, this was a challenging but very exciting project, with an extremely efficient production pipeline, with a very high satisfaction of the final client (ESA),
all made possible by open source software in general, and Blender in particular.

You can get in touch with us on the ONiRiXEL 3D Animation Studio website for more info, or check our Blender Network profile.