NASA's recent Mars landings have been aided by 3D animations created using NewTek's LightWave 3D. The software, normally used for movie and games animations, was used by digital artist Daniel Maas to visualise the journey and landing of the Mars Exploration Rovers.

Images and animations created using Lightwave 3D are also being used by Zareh Gorjian of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The images provide illustrations of the vehicles on Mars' surface, and are created by combining Maas' 3D model of a Rover with actual data received from the Rover.

Maas began work on visualizing Mars missions for NASA in 1998, using LightWave in combination with other applications, including custom plug-ins for physical simulations that were not available natively in LightWave at the time.

"Most 3D elements in the video were modeled, animated, and rendered with LightWave 3D," said Maas. "Everything in the video is as accurate as possible to the real mission. I created an excruciatingly-detailed digital model of the Mars rovers based on blueprints from NASA/JPL. The model includes virtually everything on the real rovers down to every last nut, bolt, and wire. I created similar models of the Boeing Delta II rocket that sends the rovers to Mars."

"I like LightWave's speedy interface and intuitive toolset," Maas concluded. "LightWave's polygon modeling is excellent, and it handles very complex scenes without any problems. There are many useful plugins available for it, and the renderer is extremely fast."

At NASA's JPL, 3D animator Gorjian has been using LightWave 3D to create animations and stills to illustrate missions and concepts for about eight years. "I've made animations and stills for the Galileo, Mars Pathfinder, Mars Odyssey and the current MER (Mars Exploration Rovers) missions in addition to many other smaller missions and proposals," said Gorjian.

"Most of my animations are space-based, but I've done a few having to do with water and underwater scenarios. These days I usually render my animations at HDTV resolution (1,920-x-1,080) and sometimes in stereo HDTV, suitable for viewing with liquid crystal stereo glasses."