Wednesday, May 5, 1999 Published at 08:08 GMT 09:08 UK
When worlds collide
Fly above the rings of Saturn
By Dr Chris Riley of BBC Science
We watched in awe as an object the size of Mars approached the Earth, crossing space on a collision course at over 30 kilometres a second.
But this cosmic catastrophe was all in the silicon belly of a supercomputer in West London.
The result is The Planets, a breathtaking new BBC Science series that will air in the UK from Thursday, 29 April.
That there were 63 moons in our Solar System was a fact that Series Producer David McNab admits to not knowing when we set out to make The Planets.
He's even happy to confess that he didn't know how many planets there were! But getting to grips with the geography of our cosmic neighbourhood was only the first step towards bringing these distant and diverse worlds to a wider audience.
"Most of the probes just carried crude still cameras."
And we'd dreamt of flying through the lethal radiation fields of giant Jupiter and taking an impossible journey along the rivers of plasma that encircle the Sun.
So to make it happen, we knew we'd have to try some ingenious tricks.
Directly beneath the searing roof, high-speed cameraman Peter Tyler had carefully covered his precious Miliken camera in protective glass and asbestos blankets. "Action," shouted FX director Alan Marshall.
Back in the office, artist Rita Kunzler would use all her skills to metamorphose the slow-motion flames into the surface of the Sun. "The trick was to give this relatively small scale flame a larger, grander feel.
"It had to feel like it was the surface of a star a million miles across," she explains. She tiled the flames into a blazing montage and then wrapped them over a sphere. The Sun shone.
Behind Rita sat Yugoslavian computer animator Aleksandar Stiglic. Using state-of-the-art software, he was creating the alien terrains of Mars, Mercury and the icy moons of the outer Solar System. He could make volcanoes that spat sulphur into space, canyons the size of continents, and craters as vast as countries.
"It was difficult to convey the size of this landscape without a scale reference," says Aleksandar. "So in the end, we made a four-shot sequence out of the original single shot story board, rising slowly out of the network of valleys from different heights until we were almost in orbit with a view of the whole canyon system".
By the time we finished, astronomers had discovered 18 more planets orbiting other stars and the first extra-planetary system other than our own orbiting the star Upsilon Andromedae.
Chris Riley was the Series Researcher on The Planets. The first episode will be shown on BBC Two on Thursday, 29 April, at 21:00 BST (20:00 GMT).