NASA has provided us with some truly fantastic images of the Moon over the years. We’ve gotten to see Earth’s friendly little neighbor from just about every angle, and anyone who wants to scour images of its surface for interesting sights should have no problem doing so.
But photos are two-dimensional and as cool as high-resolution photos can be, they’re not quite as cool as a fully-realized 3D model. Now, using a wealth of information gathered by NASA’s own Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, the space agency has produced a pair of maps that can be used to create the most detailed and accurate model of Earth’s moon ever, and anyone can download it.
The maps, which NASA is calling the CGI Moon Kit, include a visible color map of the Moon’s surface weighing in at nearly half a gigabyte on its own. That image, combined with a displacement map that provides elevation data for a 3D model, can easily be applied to a simple sphere in a variety of model programs to generate a stunningly accurate digital version of the Moon.
Virtual 3D models are often made of several layers, including color, depth, and texture. In this case, the displacement map gives the resulting 3D model the peaks and valleys we see on the Moon, many of which were produced by impacts. This simple animation offers an easy way to grasp how such a model might be made using the available images:
The displacement map allows for the model to react realistically to light, giving the ridges around craters the ability to cast shadows over the surface. The result is a photo-accurate model of the Moon that can be used for any number of purposes.