If you want to set your movie or game on the moon, it is not difficult to find images of our photogenic satellite. But NASA has just released a new useful and beautiful creator-only dataset that includes not just images, but depth data, making it easy to build an incredibly detailed 3D map of the moon.
The CGI Moon kit comes from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where science visualization expert Ernie Wright found that the data he collected for other purposes is popular with 3D artists.
The data came from two devices at the Moon Exploration Orchestra, a spacecraft that has been in orbit around the moon for more than a decade, taking photographs and taking measurements all the time.
On board the LRO is a high-quality "traditional" camera (a truly sophisticated multispectral camera) that it uses to compile a surprisingly high-quality lunar surface map. It can capture only a small portion at a time, but it does so constantly, and as its orbit shifts, it captures almost the entire visible region of the moon, though some shady regions cannot be depicted even after passing them thousands of times.
Although large photographs are only one part of the map. If you really want to reproduce the surface of the moon, you also need information about the topology of its surface. And that's what collects the LRO altimeter
The laser altimeter works like any typical orbital laser ranger you have at home. It sends a pulsed laser to the surface and keeps track of how long it takes to get back and how strong it is. They tell the device how far the surface (and therefore its height) is up to half a meter, and how this surface looks, for example, a solid rocky structure or a soft powdery regolith.
This data is collected into a so-called displacement map, similar to a topographic map, where instead of the height actually changing, the color has. There are several varieties of this map, but the main use case is the same: you map the map to a photographic map, then rotate it around a sphere – and you have a virtual topographic globe.
Here's a slower version of the GIF you see above.
It would be very interesting to investigate first-person in a game where you build a lunar colony, or perhaps have dog fights in spaceships over a realistic moon surface. Or maybe the artist could use it to create such a model of the moon.
The CGI Moon Kit is free to download and all assets are available with several options that 3D artists may understand. You can find out more about it and get it here.