Inside story Mars development

Space Expo

Since 2013 I am working on a 3d landscape of Mars. The landscape is based upon real data and contains the area that Curiosity currently investigating. The first version is launched at the Space Expo in Noordwijk. The purpose now is to improve my landscape modeling experience as well as realistic rendering of large terrains.

Further development…

The first version has been made in Unity. The engine has been pushed to the limits trying to get a 20KM big landscape running in Unity. After a lot of research, development and assets from the store I actually made it possible to build a selfmade terrain engine with a custom terrain shader with tessellation.

I used triplanar setups, procedural placements of rocks, sand and so on but Unity could not hold the very big amount of data and generating the huge amount of slices.

I switched to Unreal that comes with open world tools to do exactly this.


Since 2016 I am using Unreal to continue working on the Mars landscape. I quickly got the engine to know and learned that it comes with more proffesional tools to create shaders, unlike Unity where you have to buy additional assets to accomplish the same thing. The results are promising and by studying the picture that curiosity is sending each day I am learning a lot about nature, geology in general and understanding of why things look like they do.

One file to rule them all…

I mostly choose the trick to combine several textures into one file. One grey image for diffuse, the green channel for Roughness, the blue for height, or anything else. Or combining two normals into one file and extract the Z component through code. The setup depends on what I want to do.

A few requirements of the landscape I want to lock down…

  • At the end, I want to load a 20Km big landscape with the open world tools.
  • it has to look organic, natural, and not textured. Performance is a bottleneck, but currently this al really is more about pushing the limits.
  • It doesn’t have to match the pictures as long as the rocks, the overal look and feel is the same.
  • There is no coincidence, there is only reason why the landscape has a certain look. Questions on why there are such rocky strata rocks, sand hills…those al can be answered. Randomly painting doesn’t make sense.

Used software:

  • Maya for the rocks.
  • World machine to proces the satelite data. The data is 1 meter per pixel.
  • Substance designer for the textures.
  • Mudbox for additional sculpting.
  • Unreal Engine since 2016
  • Unity (2013 – 2015)