Tuesday, July 13, 2010

NASA delivers Mars in high definition

A virtual rendering of the planet Mars, provided by the WorldWide Telescope program, is centered on Arsia Mons, one of the suggested targets for a human mission to the Red Planet.
NASA is partnering with Microsoft Research's WorldWide Telescope to offer half a billion high-resolution images of Red Planet sights, ranging from past rover tracks to future landing zones for Mars-bound astronauts. The collaboration is part of NASA’s public-private strategy for making cosmic imagery more widely available to students and space fans.
"We want to have this be an example of what public outreach means ... not just putting things up on a website, but really connecting with an audience," Chris Kemp, chief technology officer for information technology at NASA Headquarters, told me today.
"Our hope is that this inspires the next generation of explorers to continue the scientific discovery process," Pete Worden, director of NASA's Ames Research Center in California, said in today's announcement about the project.
The virtual Mars database was unveiled today at a gathering for researchers at Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, Wash. (Microsoft and NBC Universal are partners in the msnbc.com joint venture.) It's now available as part of the latest version of the WorldWide Telescope as well as WWT's Web-based client.
The good stuff includes a new series of Mars-themed guided tours, narrated by a couple of NASA's best-known Marsologists, Carol Stoker and Jim Garvin. Stoker's tour addresses the question"Is there life on Mars?" and focuses on the findings of NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander. Garvin traces the three geological ages of Mars (Noachian, Hesperian and Amazonian) and points out three of the leading sites for future human missions to Mars:
• Jezero Crater in Nili Fossae, which provides a window on the Noachian age, when water is thought to have flowed freely on Mars.
• Mangala Valles, whose channels may record the transition between that ancient warm, wet planet and the current cold, dry world.
• Arsia Mons, one of Mars' giant shield volcanoes, which is the site of glacial deposits as well as caves that could provide a haven for human visitors.
You can zoom in on high-resolution views of the planet, fly over mountains and craters and touch down for a virtual landing on the Martian surface. "The new Mars experience allows people to feel as though they're actually there," Dan Fay, director of Microsoft Research's Earth, Energy and Environment effort, said in a NASA news feature.
The dataset includes 13,000 gigapixel-scale images from the main camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, known as the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment or HiRISE for short. Those giga-images are blended with 74,000 images from an earlier probe, Mars Global Surveyor, then broken down into mosaics that comprise a half-billion smaller pictures.

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