For space enthusiasts who just can’t wait for humans to get to Mars, NASA’s got the next best thing. The space agency has teamed up with Microsoft’s WorldWide Telescope (WWT) website to offer armchair astronauts an opportunity to barnstorm the Red Planet in 3D.
It beats watching cheesy Hollywood movies that usually get the special effects wrong when depicting Mars. Or, to paraphrase a line from the 1982 film E.T. – the Extra-Terrestrial: “this is (virtual) reality, Greg.”
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Over the past decade, NASA Mars orbiters have assembled a huge database of images of the Red Planet, along with surface altimetry information. The slick WWT interface allows visitors to zoom in on a mosaic of a half-billion of these high-resolution views knitted together. With a few mouse clicks you can skim over volcanoes, immense canyons and myriad craters.
The virtual Mars was assembled from 13,000 gigapixel-scale images taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Those monster images were blended with 74,000 photos from the earlier Mars Global Surveyor (MGS).
3D information was added from the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter, which flew on MGS. Scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California combined the data with regular images to come up with 3D views.
I’m bemused by the fact that a century ago Boston aristocrat Percival Lowell spent many nights at his Flagstaff, Arizona observatory viewing what he thought were Martian canals. He would have never imagined that 100 years later humans could take virtual flyovers of the Red Planet seeing an alien geology (sans canals) of grand proportions and razor-sharp detail.
When the globe of Mars first appears in the WWT window it's tantalizing to be able to rotate it like a toy and zoom in and out of selected regions. You can switch from a visible light map to a false-color topographic globe that is great for budding planetary geologists. The interface also presents a host of photos of high-res orbital views of specific geologic features that you can click on and descend to the surface.
A hallmark of WWT is narrated guided tours of its astronomical data sets of the celestial sphere and planets. This one has tours narrated by veteran NASA Mars scientists Jim Garvin and Carol Stoker.
The stand-alone version of WWT only works on PCs. If you use an Apple operating system you’re stuck with the WWT Web client. It was too sluggish on my iMac computer to be usable. Even the Windows interface on my home PC seemed to struggle along with the stand-alone version. Perhaps the Microsoft servers are simply overloaded with users on this product debut.
I hope that school children will use WWT to sit alongside their parents and be joint Mars explorers. OK, they can’t blow the heads off of Mars aliens and see green blood spurting across the screen, but it could still be a fun Web session nevertheless.
The NASA press release reported that the interactive map “may lead to new scientific discoveries.” OK, but pull-ezze doesn’t send me any images of alleged Martian monuments, sphinxes, pyramids, or abandoned cities.
“By providing the Mars dataset to the public on the WorldWide Telescope platform, we are enabling a whole new audience to experience the thrill of space,” says Chris C. Kemp, chief technology officer for information technology at NASA Headquarters in Washington D. C.
Be careful NASA, people may get so accustomed to being virtual explorers they could wind up caring less about going to the danger and expense of really sending people to the Red Planet.
http://news.discovery.com/space/armchai ... -tour.html
put on your 3d glasses
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