I’ve seen countless science fiction movies and documentaries about the future of humanity. Nothing I’ve ever seen is as inspiring and beautiful and realistic as this extraordinary short film by Erik Wernquist, narrated by Carl Sagan. Watch it and get ready for goosebumps.
For maximum effect, I highly recommend that you use headphones, turn off the lights, and make sure the video is playing back in HD:
Here’s the original text narrated by Sagan, from his book The Pale Blue Dot—a book that, if you haven’t yet, you must read.
For all its material advantages, the sedentary life has left us edgy, unfulfilled. Even after 400 generations in villages and cities, we haven’t forgotten. The open road still softly calls, like a nearly forgotten song of childhood. We invest far-off places with a certain romance. This appeal, I suspect, has been meticulously crafted by natural selection as an essential element in our survival. Long summers, mild winters, rich harvests, plentiful game—none of them lasts forever. It is beyond our powers to predict the future. Catastrophic events have a way of sneaking up on us, of catching us unaware. Your own life, or your band’s, or even your species’ might be owed to a restless few—drawn, by a craving they can hardly articulate or understand, to undiscovered lands and new worlds.
Herman Melville, in Moby Dick, spoke for wanderers in all epochs and meridians: "I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas…"
Maybe it’s a little early. Maybe the time is not quite yet. But those other worlds— promising untold opportunities—beckon.
Silently, they orbit the Sun, waiting.
After I saw it on my phone, I couldn’t resist opening my computer at 2:40AM—when Gawker’s J.K. Trotter sent it to me in the middle of the night—to share it with you as soon as possible.
This is our solar system, not fantasy worlds
As Wernquist says at the beginning, these are all real places from our solar system, recreated using NASA’s photographs and data. Here is a list of all the locations you can see in his film, with descriptions from Wernquist:
The opening shot is a montage showing a band of nomads walking westward across a valley somewhere in the north Middle East, just after sunset and around 10000 BC. In the emerging night sky, the planets are shining clearly. From the horizon in the lower right to the top left they are as follows: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.
Earth, near future
Sometime in the future, a large spacecraft is taking off from Earths orbit, filled with passengers on a long journey to somewhere else in the Solar System. This may be the first large colony to permanently settle another world.
The background is a classic photo of the Earth from space, with the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean, taken from the International Space Station on July 21, 2003. I mapped the photo on a curved plane and replaced the optical flare from the sun with a digital flare to be able to create some motion. The original photo can be seen here.
Great Red Spot, Jupiter
This is the view from a spacecraft in orbit around Jupiter, looking down at the huge anticyclonic storm known as the Great Red Spot.
The texture of the planet comes from a mosaic of photos from NASAs Voyager 1 flyby in 1979, assembled and processed by Björn Jonsson (as seen here).
Enceladus, moon of Saturn
Shown here is a spacecraft floating through the amazing cryo geysers on the south pole of Saturn´s moon Enceladus.
These geysers (discovered by the Cassini spacecraft in 2005) are formed along cracks in the moons icy surface and shoot powerful jets of – amongst other stuff – water vapor and ice particles into space. Some of the plumes reach heights of several hundreds of kilometers, and while most of it falls back as "snow" on the surface, some particles are shot into space and become part of the famous Rings of the parent planet of Saturn. The geysers are one of many hints that there are large bodies of liquid water under the surface of the moon, making Enceladus a prime target for the search for extraterrestrial life in the Solar System.
The photo I used for the background was taken by NASA with the Cassini spacecraft in 2005 and can be seen in its original form here. For the texture of the moon I took some liberties and tweaked parts of this beautiful composite of the full body of the moon, also by NASAs Cassini spacecraft.
This shot shows a person floating just above the plane of the famous Rings of Saturn. The Rings themselves are seen here only as a mess of tumbling blocks of ice, as the camera is in the middle of them, but their full shape is hinted in the shadow they cast on the northern hemisphere of Saturn, far in the distance.
The Rings of Saturn are immense! They main ring system have a radial width of about 65000 kilometers, from the edge of the inner D Ring to the outer F Ring. That means you could line up 5 Earths next to each other, starting from the edge of the inner ring and still have room to spare before you reach the outer edge. Yet they are remarkably thin. Observations vary from about a kilometer down to only ten meters or so. From a far distance they appear as an opaque disc, but from closer observation they are clearly a system of thousands upon thousands of stripes and gaps of varying widths. On an even closer look, it is revealed that all those stripes are made up of countless individual particles, ranging in size from smaller than a grain of sand to something like a basket ball. Some are large as a small bus. All of them made from clear water ice, constantly shattering and rebounding with each other, making the rings highly reflective in sunlight and so clearly visible to us.
There are, as of yet, no real photos from within the Rings, so this is my best guess of what it may look like. This shot is created from scratch (as in no photos used), but I was very inspired by this photo by NASAs Cassini Spacecraft from 2004.
Elevator over Terra Cimmeria, Mars
This shot follows the cabin of a space elevator descending on a cable towards the northern parts of the Terra Cimmeria highlands on Mars. A large settlement, hinted as glowing lights in the dark, can be seen far below on the ground. One of Mars’ two moons – Phobos – is seen above the cabin to the left of the cable in the beginning of the shot.
The space elevator is an idea that has been around for a long time, not only as science fiction but a serious suggestion of how to efficiently transfer large amounts of mass on and off a planet. The idea in short consists of a very long cable, along which cabins can climb up and down like an elevator. One end of the cable is attached to the ground at the planets equator, and the other to a counterweight beyond geostationary orbit. Geostationary orbit is an altitude where an object can stay stable in orbit over the exact same place above the ground and follow along as the planet revolves. In the case of the Earth that is at an altitude of about 36 thousand kilometers, so we are talking about a very long cable.
The texture for Mars in the shot comes from a tremendously high resolution assembly of NASA (and ESA?) orbital photographs made by John Van Vliet for the virtual space simulator Celestia.
A small side note: As far as I have understood it, the ideal place to attach a space elevator on Mars would not be where I have done it in this shot, but on the top of the volcano Pavonis Mons. With a peak reaching 14 kilometers above Mars’s mean surface level, and location almost exactly at the equator it would be the perfect spot – as it would cut a few kilometers from the length of the cable. However, the area around that mountain did not look as neat, so for purely artistic reasons I chose the Terra Cimmeria highlands instead.
Victoria Crater, Mars
A group of people await the arrival of a few dirigibles at the edge of the Victoria Crater on Mars.
There is nothing really amazing about this landscape in itself, other than it being on Mars, but it is one of many high resolution panoramas photographed by the exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity during their fantastic journeys across the red planet since 2003. With this picture, taken by Opportunity in 2006, I could map the landscape onto a 3D-model I built to match the terrain and create a very accurate tracking shot of the place, and then add a few human elements to make the scene alive.
The name "Cape Verde" refer to the vantage point from where the picture was taken. The cliff on which the people are standing is called "Cape St. Mary". As it turns out it seems I may have exaggerated the height of that cliff somewhat as I recently read it is about 15 meters tall. It’s tricky getting these things right when there is no point of reference!
This shot shows a group of hikers on top of the eastern rim of "Gusey Crater", looking at the fantastic and truly unearthly spectacle of a sunset on Mars.
During the day, the Martian sky is a mixture of a grayish yellow and green (like in the previous shot). But when the sun sets, fine dust particles in the atmosphere gives it a rusty reddish shade, and around the sun – where we on Earth are used to see a fiery red – the Martian sky glows blue.
For the background environment of this shot I used this amazing photo taken by NASAs exploration rover Spirit in 2005. Due to the not so high resolution I had to rebuild the rocks in the foreground in CG, which in turn made me able to do the tracking movement towards the rim.
Iapetus ridge, Iapetus, moon of Saturn
This scene simulates a shot taken in low orbit over Saturn’s moon Iapetus, looking down at a string of domed settlements built along the mighty equatorial ridge that runs along a large part of the moon’s circumference.
This mysterious feature was only discovered as late as 2004 by the Cassini spacecraft, taking photos of the moon from orbit, and it is as of yet unknown how it came to be. It is about 1,3 thousand kilometers long, 20 kilometers wide and at places has peaks rising more than 20 kilometers above the surrounding plains. The area shown in this shot is however, not one of the tallest parts of the ridge, as I wanted to show the moon from a place from where Saturn is visible. As is the case with most moons, Iapetus is tidally locked to its parent planet, resulting in Saturn always being in the same place in the sky.
This was the first shot I made for the film, inspired by Kim Stanley Robinssons novel "2312" in which he describes a large urban area built along the ridge of Iapetus. The shot is almost built entirely in CG using various maps and photos from the NASA JPL photojournal as reference. Saturn in the background is a photo from the Cassini spacecraft but I don’t know exactly when it was taken.
Again, I may have taken some artistic liberties here in making the city domes nearly unbelievably huge. The dome on the large city in the distance would be over 1 kilometer tall compared to the scale of the landscape. Now, the gravity on Iapetus is only a fraction of the Earths, so such structures like these would indeed be possible. It’s just that there might take some time before we see such interest in living on Iapetus that there is need to build cities for millions and millions of people.
However, as a final note, Iapetus is one of very few moons around Saturn that has an orbit not entirely aligned to the plane of the rings, so, while on most other moons you would only see the rings as a mere stripe, from Iapetus you would see them in their full glory. So when it comes to amazing views, Iapetus would make for some highly valuable real estate.
I recommend turning to the wikipedia site for more reading on Iapetus, for example about its unique "yin/yang" coloring, being almost entirely white on one side, and dark brown on the other…
Asteroid in the Solar System’s main asteroid belt
These shots show one of the many asteroids in the Main Asteroid Belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. A small fleet of spacecrafts are lined up and approaching a docking area seen as glowing lights in the "center" of the large rock. The dust surrounding the asteroid is the remains of an extensive excavation of its interior.
This, along with the next scene, is by far the most speculative part of this short film. For one thing, this particular asteroid is fictional and although I suspect there are many like it out there, it is built from scratch without any specific object as reference. But also, these scenes, rather than showing the nature of an actual place, are there to visualize the possibilities of human engineering and construction.
The concept is that this asteroid has been hollowed out on the inside, pressurized and filled with a breathable atmosphere. Then it has been put into a revolving spin, creating artificial gravity on the inside by centripetal force. It works sort of like inside a spinning washing machine, only much larger.
A famous construction like this is presented in Arthur C. Clarke’s novel "Rendezvous with Rama" but again, I have Kim Stanley Robinson to thank for inspiration here. His novel "2312" takes place in many of these inverted worlds which he calls "terraria". In the next scene, I show what a "terrarium" might look like from the inside.
This whole scene is built in CG, with no particular reference used.
Inside asteroid in the Solar System’s main asteroid belt
This shot shows the inside of the asteroid from the previous scene. Just as I wrote about that scene, this is a highly speculative vision of an impressive piece of human engineering – a concept that science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson calls a "terraruim" in his novel "2312". It is also not unlike what Arthur C. Clarke described in his novel "Rendezvous with Rama".
What we see here is the inside of a hollowed out asteroid, pressurized and filled with a breathable atmosphere. Like I described in the previous scene, the whole structure is put into a revolving rotation, simulating the effect of gravity toward the inside "walls" of the cylinder shape we see. The structure in this scene has a diameter of about 7 kilometers and revolves with a speed of 1 rotation every 2 minutes, simulating the effect of 1g (the gravity pull we feel on Earth) at the surface of the inside.
This place is also filled with water, creating lakes and seas wrapped along with the landscape. An artificial sun is running along a rail in the middle of the space, simulating a daylight cycle.
This scene is of course built from scratch, but I used countless satellite photos of the Earth to texture the landscape. I actually used a slightly warped world map to create the outlines between land and water, as some may notice a couple of familiar shorelines.
Europa, moon of Jupiter
This scene shows a group of people hiking across the icy plains of Jupiter’s moon Europa. Jupiter itself as well as another moon – Io – is seen beyond the horizon. The scene takes place on the night side of Europa so the landscape is lit entirely by reflected sunlight off Jupiter (and to a small extent off Io). The shot is designed to look as if it would have been filmed from a moving vehicle and with a very long lens so that the bulk of Jupiter fills the entire field of view, like a huge wall in the background.
The inspiration for this shot comes from this amazing photo from January 1, 2001, taken by the Cassini spacecraft as it flew by Jupiter on its way to Saturn. It shows the moon Io passing in front of Jupiter and ever since I first saw it, I have tried to imagine what it would feel like to be standing on the night side of that moon, looking up at huge Jupiter, glowing in the sky. Now, this photo is also taken with a very long lens, so Jupiter, although huge, would not appear anything like this to a human standing on the moon.
For a person standing on Io, Jupiter would take up about 20 degrees of the sky, that is 38 times the size in the sky of our Moon as seen from Earth. That must still be an impressive sight. And from Europa, which is in an orbit further out from Io, and where this particular shot takes place, Jupiter would take up nearly 12 degrees of the sky, about 24 times larger than our Moon appears to us from Earth.
The ground in this shot is all CG with a mapping of different ice textures merged with colors from satellite photos of Europa, like this, presumably taken by NASAs Galileo spacecraft. For Jupiter I used the highest resolution texture I could find, an assembly (of what I presume is photos from NASAs Cassini or Galileo spacecrafts) made by John Van Vliet for the virtual space simulator Celestia. For Io, I used a tweaked version of this photo taken by NASAs Galileo spacecraft.
Ligeia Mare, Titan, moon of Saturn
In orbit around Saturn is the giant moon Titan. It is the second largest moon in the Solar System (after Jupiter’s Ganymede), even larger than the planet Mercury, and is the only known moon with a dense atmosphere. There are countless of fantastic features to be amazed at in this place, but I have chosen two to illustrate in this scene.
With an average temperature of -180 C all water here is frozen hard as rock. In fact, the surface landscape of Titan is indeed mostly mad of frozen water ice. But Titan’s atmosphere is rich in hydrocarbons such as methane and ethane, and the low temperature is perfect for these elements to occur naturally in three states; frozen, liquid and gas. So, just as on Earth where we have a water cycle (ice melts, becomes water, water evaporates into clouds, turning into liquid and becomes rain and so forth), Titan has a methane cycle. Methane evaporates and rises to form clouds, eventually turning into rain, falling over the surface. And this is the most amazing part; the rain in some places is enough to fill entire lakes. Lakes of methane!
Titan is the only place in the Solar System, other than Earth, known to have large bodies of liquid on its surface. And they are really there, huge lakes, with shorelines, islands and small archipelagos. This scene takes place over a lake know as Ligeia Mare, the second largest on Titan, about 500 kilometers in diameter, located in the north polar region of the moon.
The second fantastic feature I wanted to illustrate is the combination of Titan’s very dense atmosphere and its relatively low gravity. As a human on Titan you would weigh about 14% of what you do on Earth, and in the dense atmosphere it would be enough to strap wings on your arms to make you able to fly like a bird. On Titan you could fly like a bird, over lakes of methane! (If you wore some really warm clothes of course.)
This scene is built entirely in CG, but I used this radar map mosaic of the lake as reference for the shape of the landscape. And I also got a lot of inspiration for the coloring from this mindblowing video. It shows real video footage from ESAs Huygens Probe as it descends through Titans atmosphere in a parachute and lands on the surface. There are no lakes in this particular region, but if you allow some speculation, the rounded rocks on the ground, seen at the end are similar to the ones you’d find at the bottom of a dried out river bed.
There is plenty of information about Titan and its lakes available online (Wikipedia is a good place to start), and as the Cassini spacecraft is still operational in the Saturn system, news are currently being updated.
Verona Rupes, Miranda, moon of Uranus
Base jumping off the tallest cliff in the Solar System, located on Uranus’ moon Miranda. Uranus itself, along with a few other moons (from the top left to bottom right: Ariel (here on the far side of Uranus), Belinda, Puck and Portia) are seen in the background of the last shot.
On Uranus´small moon Miranda lies a monumental cliff wall believed to be the tallest in the Solar System. It is called Verona Rupes. Observations are limited but it is certain that the cliffs rise at least 5 kilometers above the ground below. Maybe even twice as much. This extreme height combined with Miranda´s low gravity (0,018g) would make for a spectacular base-jump. After taking the leap from the top edge you could fall for at least 12 minutes and, with the help of a small rocket to brake your fall toward the bottom, end up landing safely on your feet. Miranda´s close orbit around giant Uranus also makes a magnificent huge cyan ball in the sky.
The scene is built mostly in CG, except for the people who are shot live action and composited into the environment, and the foreground cliffs in the first shot which are made from several photos of a place in Norway known as "The Pulpit Rock". For building the landscape I used (amongst others) this satellite photo of Verona Rupes, taken by NASAs Voyager 2 during the flyby of Uranus in 1986. For the color and texture of Uranus I used this photo as reference. Also by Voyager 2, NASA.
Saturn rings, view from Saturn’s top clouds
This is one of the most awesome views I can imagine experiencing in the Solar System; floating in a light breeze above Saturn’s cloud tops at night, looking up at the glorious swaths of the Rings in the sky, and witness how they wash the cloudscape with the light they reflect from the Sun. The ringshine.
Saturn is a huge ball of gas with no surface to stand on (apart from a small rocky core that may hide in its very center), so any human visit there would have to be suspended in balloons or dirigibles, like seen here. The atmospheric pressure at the upper layers of clouds ranges between 0,5 and 2 times the pressure at sea level on Earth, so in theory you could "hang around" under the open sky there without the need of pressurized a space suit. You would, however, need to bring along oxygen to breathe and it would be very cold – temperatures at this altitude range between -170 and -110 C.
So, I have taken some liberties with realism here but I wanted to show a person without a space suit for this final shot, and just hope the future might bring along some incredibly insulating material to make it possible to take a stroll on a balcony beneath the sky of Saturn wearing just a jacket and a face mask.
The winds on Saturn also blow pretty hard. The highest speeds are around the equator, where they can reach 500 meters per second, and slow down towards the poles. However, when suspended in a balloon or dirigible like here, you would be floating along with the wind, hardly feeling anything more than a light breeze.
There is obviously no photographic reference for a shot like this and I have used my imagination to guess what a spectacle like this would look like. I did have a lot of inspiration from Björn Jonsson’s renderings of what Saturn’s skies may look like. More of Björns space renderings can be seen here. For the shape of the Rings I used a texture created by John Van Vliet for the virtual space simulator Celestia and for the clouds I used a wide range of photos I found online to create this 3-dimensional composite. Unfortunately I don’t know the names of the photographers for these images.
Someone at some big studio or Netflix or whoever the hell, someone must hire Erik Wernquist to turn all of The Pale Blue Dot into full-length animation film with Carl Sagan narrating it. I would watch it on repeat forever.
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