I would like to understand which software/professionals are needed to produce the animations and images used to show how a space mission will be.

For example:

1 - Curiosity video:

2 - Mars Exploration Zones video:

3 - Starship HLS image: HLS on moon

  • 9
    $\begingroup$ We have a Software recommendation SE, Graphic Design SE and a Blender SE. You might consider asking there if you don't receive answers here. $\endgroup$
    – AJN
    May 8, 2023 at 12:13
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ I don't know what was used to produce these specific renderings, but the stuff you can put out with Unreal Engine these days is, well, unreal. $\endgroup$
    – Tristan
    May 8, 2023 at 14:00
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I’m voting to close this question because it's a generic software question unrelated to space exploration. $\endgroup$
    – Ryan C
    May 9, 2023 at 16:05
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think it should be closed. Even if people who know a lot about both space and animation know that the software is nothing specific to space, quite clearly not everyone knows that, and we can take an expansive view on what counts as a space-related topic here. $\endgroup$
    – djr
    May 11, 2023 at 20:06
  • $\begingroup$ Better to ask this on a site where people know about computer graphics - maybe Game Development. $\endgroup$
    – kim holder
    May 12, 2023 at 0:59

1 Answer 1


The JPL and NASA related videos are easier to answer, as they had a very long relationship with the VFX industry and artists.

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Consider the linked articles:

https://www.awn.com/vfxworld/jpl-vfx-and-space-exploration (2005)

creating CG animation for JPL is done on a fast timeframe comparable to television.

The tool of choice for us is LightWave ... and I dont think its a coincidence that if you look at the Sci Fi Channel on Fridays, all four of their shows Battlestar Galactica, Stargate, Atlantis and Andromeda, all use LightWave.

https://www.lightwave3d.com/news/article/nasas-curiosity-mission-on-mars/ (2012)

Having previously worked with JPL on an animation about the very same rover mission ...very familiar with both the rover and the mission that NASA and JPL were planning. “It was a factor in my favor, as was being able to make a highly competitive bid, which was in no small part made possible by the flexibility of LightWave 3D"

met with JPL officials and technical liaisons, committed Curiosity’s animated mission to a storyboard, and then guided the project through to its completion as an animated short film.

team of three artists at Bohemian Grey worked on the Mars Science Laboratory animation project from start to finish, with three others assisting at different times throughout production. “Considering we made the rover, which is a hugely complicated model, recreated the surface of Mars, and did nearly 17 minutes of animation, I think we pulled off no minor feat in just eight months"

past experience with JPL... they would use, reuse, and re-reuse the animation in dozens of ways and then hand it off to news agencies and networks, such as The Discovery Channel and The Science Channel, which would use it in different ways, as well. “From the beginning, I wanted to ensure it would have as long a shelf life as possible,”. So, the team approached virtually every shot and group of shots as though it would have to stand on its own. As a result, most of the shots in the film are actually longer than what is shown.

hand-drawn storyboards were turned into 2D animatics, after which the drawings were replaced with low-resolution 3D models and a simple animation for composition and pacing. The team used 3D Coat for compositing, texture painting, and some terrain sculpting.

The Bohemian Grey team worked on Windows-based, 64-bit machines with Intel i7 CPUs and 16GB of RAM, accompanied by a 30-inch display and a prerequisite copy of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, for after-hours stress relief

https://www.sfvbj.com/media/cinema-film/animation-studio-out-world-mars-mission/ (2011)

https://www.cgw.com/Press-Center/Web-Exclusives/2012/Bohemian-Grey-Visualizes-NASA-Expedition.aspx (2012)

Using ToonBoom’s Storyboard Pro, the artists generated storyboards and animatics.

To achieve the unique look of the Rover’s suspension, the crew used Vehicle Rigger, a LightWave plug-in from Johan Walen For sculpting and painting the Mars terrain, the artists used 3D-Coat from Andrew Shpagin.

A total of five artists worked on this project over an eight-month period—three of them were dedicated to the project from beginning to end, while two did so part-time. Two people served as dedicated animators/modelers, while another was the dedicated modeler for the Rover. A part-timer worked on the rigging for the Rover, and the other part-timer did the texture painting.

https://blog.lightwave3d.com/2019/10/emmy-win-for-nasa/ {2019)

NASA wins the Outstanding Original Interactive Program Emmy in this year’s awards

culmination of eight years of work, in LightWave 3D, the ... animations were featured in live mission coverage, web sites, network news shows, documentaries, and newspapers ... and many, many others around the world.

NASA has in house and contracted artists in departments such as the Graphic Art Studio, at the Advanced Concepts Laboratory based at the NASA Langley Research Center.

External company Analytical Mechanics Associates often works with NASA on concepts, which is where the Mars Exploration Zones footage comes from.

Artists use industry standard software such as Maya, Modo; compositors like Nuke; specific tools such as Houdini, Zbrush, and Substance Painter/Designer; common third party renderers such as Vray, Arnold, Redshift, Iray, Renderman; standard Adobe products such as After Effects, Illustrator, and Photoshop, and also have the ability to script and program code in and out of these packages too.


The Spacex ones are a little harder to confirm but given the state of the computer animation industry today, it is more likely to be an in house VFX department running software such as Cinema 4D, along with a suite of tools from vendors like Adobe.

Finishing off would be with standard post, editing, grading tools and sound/music industry standard toolsets.

As a comment notes, increasingly real-time software is being utilized and Unreal is pretty industry standard for that.

In many cases the production is in house.

For reasons of speed, it may be necessary to farm it out to an external studio as shown above.

The industry is a fast moving one, and the cases and software shown and mentioned above may well not be what is used now. A decade ago you could have had Maya mentioned as 3d software, but C4D is very popular with recent and current generations of artists. Blender, while popular, is not used too much in professional circles. Same goes for Max which is more popular in the architecture industry.

As also mentioned in the comments, try the other more appropriate SE's for more information.

Remember it is not just one package but a whole host of multiple packages that are used together to make the productions, and visual and audio artists with specialisms in different fields that work together to create the final production.


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