Not long ago, ORBITER came across a stunning video that shares much in common with our magazine’s name.
ORBIT: A Journey Around the Earth in Real Time is a video project by Seán Doran, an artist with a love for the cosmos. ORBIT was created using time-lapse photography taken on board the International Space Station (ISS) by NASA’s Earth Science & Remote Sensing Unit.
The film is 92 minutes and 39 seconds long—the exact amount of time it takes ISS to orbit the Earth once. The remarkable visuals are accompanied by the music of Phaeleh.
Doran also produces beautiful still images of space and planets, which he creates from raw data generated by satellites.
We wanted to know more about his work, so we interviewed him via email.
Orbiter: How did the ORBIT project come about?
Seán Doran: ORBIT came about after I discovered the archive of photography from the International Space Station. I realized some of their time-lapse sequences were suitable for conversion into real time video footage. The image quality was so great I thought it would be an opportunity to create something fresh and compelling with relatively unnoticed data.
Were you commissioned to do this? How long did it take?
I embarked on creating ORBIT purely as a passion project. It was difficult to resist once I started solving some of the technical hurdles I had to overcome. The entire project took around three months to complete. The last month was a fairly intense production with many hardware issues, software instabilities, and problems with YouTube hosting the 40GB source file.
What were you hoping to accomplish with this project?
I wanted to create a meditation since I figured if you were in Earth orbit onboard ISS, you would spend all day long gazing out of the window at the planet below.
How did you get access to all that footage for ORBIT?
I created the footage you see on screen but the source data is found at NASA’s Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth.
Does the project have NASA’s blessing? Are you employed by NASA?
I haven’t received any formal acknowledgement from NASA about the film. I’m not employed by NASA with no connection to the organization except through ransacking their publicly accessible archives of data for my nefarious creative purpose!
Processing of raw images from space seems to be a bit of an industry. Is it a job for you, or just a hobby?
I started dabbling with “space data” when I stumbled across the Unmanned Spaceflight forum. There I found amateurs & professionals alike discussing the adventures of a Martian rover in one post and the challenges of processing the latest Saturn images returned by the Cassini probe in the next.
The people producing the images are a mixture of academics & hobbyists, of which group I belong to the latter. I am in the process of converting my hobby into a “job” by transforming data into art. Previously I worked in comics as an illustrator before moving into animation and then making games. My focus now is on filmmaking.
How would you describe your work? Seems like a blend of science and art.
I would describe it as Art driven by Data. I use the data to make animations, landscape portraits, abstract compositions and feature length & short films. To date I have created many artworks featuring the Sun, Mercury, Earth, Moon, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn & Pluto / Charon.
This story refers to you as a “citizen scientist.” Is that accurate?
“Citizen scientist” is a catchy term bestowed by the Juno team upon anyone who takes the data from JunoCam and works it into an image. There are a lot of very talented people getting great science out of the data. I merely make pretty pictures with an eye firmly on aesthetic appeal and detail. I just use the term “artist” to describe my contribution.
How do you go about choosing the music for a video?
ORBIT exists in large part to my discovery of Phaeleh‘s music. It helped bring the project together and give it form. I consider him a great composer and I was very fortunate to receive permission to use his music. There is a lot of luck and serendipity involved, and Phaeleh’s music seems like a perfect fit for what I was trying to achieve.
Can you describe the process of making the ORBIT video?
Each sequence was processed in Photoshop. A dirtmap was made in order to repair dust, blemishes, and hot pixel artifacts that would otherwise confuse the re-timing phase of the workflow, resulting in strobes and distracting blurs. Image processing techniques were used to emphasize features on the Earth’s surface. Every sequence consists of a number of layers that when masked, processed, and blended correctly produce the final look of each shot. To make sure each sequence was recreated faithfully to the actual rate of speed observed, I referenced time-stamps on the first and last frame in the sequence and used frame interpolation software to produce the other 59 frames for every second.
Could you explain that in more layman’s terms?
In order to convert a time-lapse image sequence into real-time video footage, I need to use interpolation software which will create the intermediate frames necessary to make the video appear smooth. In order for that process to be successful, I need to remove anything in the image that will complicate the interpolation process. Like dirt on a window. If I don’t clean the dirt, then it will create a very obvious and very distracting strobing effect on the final video.
ISS windows are quite dirty, with dust, marks and scratches. I need to identify all those anomalies and clean them for every source image used in the time-lapse. I use Photoshop for this process. It can get very detailed depending on the amount of cleaning I need to do for each sequence. After “cleaning” the windows, I then do some standard image processing to correct for exposures, color balance, and contrast, just like any photographer would do.
Why are you so interested in space?
From a young age I was inspired by almost anything to do with space. I saw the original Cosmos TV series back in 1981 and I saw Star Wars later that same year. The scope of the universe as we understand it versus how we imagine it was revealed to me then. Both absolutely captivated me. Later when I experienced 2001: A Space Odyssey, it became a catalyst for creative expression. I started looking for a way to share my enthusiasm for science & art.
What’s been the most exciting thing in space discovery in recent years?
It’s difficult to answer that since we seem to be experiencing a renaissance of interest in space and exploration in general, with exciting new discoveries and events happening with great regularity. If I had to choose, I would go with the Juno mission. The images returned have been beautiful.
Are you involved in other kinds of photography too?
I have used photogrammetry, the science of making measurements from photographs, to create 3D models of locations for use in a virtual reality application. I also make photo mosaics from photography captured by the Martian rovers to build stereo panoramas, also for use with a virtual reality headset.
Anything else you’d like to add?
We live in a beautiful universe filled to the brim with wonder. Using creative tools to make art from data is a real privilege.