September 2004 
Volume 03, Issue 5 

Picture this .

SSG animator takes the fiction out of sci-fi


John RankinAs a science fiction fan, Shared Services computer graphics guru John Rankin just might have the perfect job. Boeing pays him to create animated videos of futuristic space vehicles plying the solar system in search of life on distant planets.

Only it's not fantasy. There's no fiction to this science.

Rankin, of the 3D Multimedia Group in Creative Services, has produced a series of scientifically accurate conceptual animations and posters of a revolutionary new spacecraft Boeing proposes to send on a mission to the moons of Jupiter in search of an environment that might sustain basic extraterrestrial life.

"I do love it," Rankin says of the work. "It's a lot of fun."

His images provide a moviegoer's view of one of several concepts Boeing is studying for NASA's Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter (JIMO) mission. (See

Rankin likens his stirring, 12-minute JIMO animation to "2001: A Space Odyssey." It shows JIMO being lifted into space by a Boeing Delta rocket, unfolding and extending its boom-like body, and then firing up its nuclear reactor and ion thrusters for the journey to Jupiter, some 483 million miles away. Skipping ahead five years, the video shows JIMO slipping into orbit around Jupiter's planet-sized icy moons: Callisto, Ganymede and Europa.

There is no narration, just haunting background music.

"A big issue was showing something in the Jovian system, which is a long way from the sun," he said. "Jupiter only gets about 1/25th of the light on Earth. We had long debates about what it would look like."

Working with scientists and engineers from Boeing NASA Systems and Phantom Works, Rankin crafted images with light levels, angles and shadows calculated to be as realistic as possible.

prometheusEuropa is shown with mysterious rifts and abysmal fissures spewing lava-like debris. As shown in the video, beneath this moon's icy surface are vast oceans-and the suggestion of life. Maybe not "ET," but perhaps something like the bizarre creatures that live near hot fumaroles in Earth's deep oceans. It would be a revolutionary discovery.

Rankin renderings of the JIMO vehicle orbiting Europa grace the covers of a Boeing proposal to become NASA's prime contractor for development, launch and control of the JIMO mission, which would lift off no earlier than 2011. NASA plans to announce the winner in November.

Rankin credits the creative vision of Tom Kessler, his JIMO project customer, for the success of the videos. "Tom is a live wire," Rankin says. "He drives you hard, but he is a lot of fun to work with, and he loves movies and the whole world of animation."

Kessler, in turn, said the videos never could have been made without Rankin's artistic genius with a computer. He said Rankin is very customer-focused and spent hours listening to technical project descriptions so he could bring the technology to life accurately.

Sketches tacked to the wall of Rankin's cube become a storyboard, the backbone for the animation. Rankin creates the videos using a three-dimensional computer aided design (CAD) modeling program that maps textures over a grid-like screen. This is similar to the way the critters in "Jurassic Park" were created, with the added challenge of creating realistic lighting in the dimly lit, high-contrast environment of deep space.

Rankin's JIMO animations-the first to use a big-screen treatment and Hollywood special effects to represent a conceptual space mission with accurate realism-are viewable at NASA Systems' Project Prometheus Web site:

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