Creating the Milky Way Animation Sequence
By Michael Marlowe
Despite our prayers, designing a continuous, two-minute, three-dimensional push through the Milky Way turned out not to be a no-brainer. At the start we felt like Tom Hanks in Apollo 13, with all systems down and having to manually steer his module back to earth from space. His path had to be right on or else, like a stone skipping on water, the capsule bounces off the atmosphere and into space void and death.
Well, we were starting beyond the Milky Way and had to land in West Texas. "Damn," we thought, "the flight path had better be right!" And the size factor was important, too, because we had to travel this huge distance and be able to see a lot of diverse things along the way. I remembered that when man landed on the moon it seemed that such a huge distance had been traveled, until those Milky Way tee-shirts came out showing earth as a tiny, little dot with an arrow pointing to it and saying, "We're here." So, in galactic terms, all we did was barely cross the street. Now, even if it was a computer, we were now going all the way. A critical first step in the project was to establish where to put the computer's camera as it traveled throughout our galaxy. The strength of the animation would depend on how well we built those models and how dramatically our camera could reveal them. During our research, the series advisor, David Helfand, told a most important and fascinating fact about the Milky Way's shape. While it measured one hundred thousand light years across, it was a mere 100 light years in width, or, basically, the dimension of a sheet of paper, by comparison. This prompted us to showcase this "profile" view of the Milky Way as we dove underneath it on our way towards our solar system.
Until this point we had our camera moving in a nearly straight line. We avoided curving the camera around and (like being in a swerving car) getting our audience dizzy. But since our planets orbit the sun at different rates they end up in different places. So we thought we'd unfortunately have to zigzag the camera around in order to get to see them all. But research revealed another important fact. Once in every several hundred years the planets line up. And right now we're at that point. So the camera passes a majority of the solar system's planets including an asteroid belt and the sun in an effortless straight line.
If all the elements of which we are made are in the stars and vice-versa, then there's truth to the belief we are stardust. As we put in all the bright nebulae, dust clouds, supernova remnants and over a half-billion stars into the animation, the whole galaxy began to seem, even by galactic terms, just an extension of us, like it was our own backyard.