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Touring Mars, old and new

USGS via Google Earth
This view from Google Earth's
virtual Mars highlights the Red
Planet's north polar ice cap.


Google has upgraded its Red Planet browser to reveal fresh as well as long-faded views of Mars, marking the latest advance in a visualization revolution.

Today's add-ons for Google Earth 5.0 include a "Live From Mars" layer that incorporates the latest available imagery from NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft, as well as historical maps of the planet's "canali" as seen by 19th-century astronomers and guided tours that are narrated by NPR's Ira Flatow and Bill Nye the Science Guy.

It seems as if there's a new dose of astronomical gee-whizzery available every couple of weeks. Google unveiled its 3-D virtual Mars just last month, as part of a package that also included deep-ocean views and historical imagery.

A couple of weeks ago, Microsoft showed off a new interface for its WorldWide Telescope that lets you use your hands to zoom through the universe as if you were in a scene from "The Minority Report." (Microsoft is a partner in the msnbc.com joint venture.) And just this week, NASA unveiled a cool new Web site that brings climate data to life and even gives you a 3-D satellite tracker to play with.

All these online visualizations are designed to do more than just give you pretty pictures - although the pictures are pretty great. They also aim to convey a better understanding of the science behind the pictures, served up on an easy-to-use, easy-to-adapt platform.

"Our hope is that Mars becomes more than just a public science demonstration program," said Michael Weiss-Malik, a Google software engineer who took a lead role in developing the upgrade announced today. "We're hoping that NASA and other scientists use it as a primary distribution mechanism for communicating science to the public and to each other."

The "Live From Mars" layer is an example: As soon as NASA releases fresh imagery from the THEMIS thermal imager on its Mars Odyssey orbiter, those pictures will be incorporated into Google Earth's Red Planet image database.

This week, the computer on Mars Odyssey had to be rebooted - and as a result, Google said the first "Live From Mars" images won't be quite as live as originally planned. "As soon as images start flowing again, Mars in Google Earth will be one of the first places to see them, very soon after the images are received on the ground by NASA," the company said in a statement.

Another layer adapts historical maps of Mars from the days when astronomers actually thought they saw water canals on the Red Planet. Among the views you can peruse are Nathaniel Green's 1877 sketch and Giovanni Schiaparelli's rendering of Mars' "canali" (by which he more likely meant natural channels or rivers rather than constructed canals).

The seemingly straight channels are actually the product of the way humans piece together patterns from the information at hand - much as later observers could make out a Face on Mars (or Happy Face on Mars) in orbiter imagery. No one was better at pattern-making than Percival Lowell, who made detailed maps of the canals and theorized that they were built by an endangered extraterrestrial culture. (You can read Lowell's "Mars and Its Canals" in its entirety online).

Lowell's maps are included as a layer for Mars on Google Earth - along with the 1909 maps from Eugene Antoniadi that showed the canals weren't really there.

Google's Mars also offers tourist tips from "A Traveler's Guide to Mars" - as well as those guided tours, narrated by Flatow and Nye. The tours take advantage of a feature that was built into Google Earth 5.0, which allows users to record their moves as they navigate through the software and add an audio track.

Such tours have been part of the WorldWide Telescope since its debut last year. Developers at Microsoft as well as Google have been encouraging software users to create a wide variety of these presentations for sharing.

"Our vision for the platform is to reach a tipping point where most of the content that's visualized on it doesn't come from us," Google's Weiss-Malik told me. The virtual Mars, for example, draws upon collaborations between Google and NASA, the University of Arizona (which plays a key role in the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission) and Arizona State University (which is involved in the Mars Odyssey mission).

"We enjoy working with these groups," Weiss-Malik said. "It's this great pairing, where they have the content and we have this great platform that's just begging to be exploited."

Today's new features should be automatically available to anyone who has Google Earth 5.0. Just look under the "Mars Gallery" category.

And while we're on the subject of cosmic visualization, I should give a shout-out as well to projects such as Celestia, Stellarium, Heavens-Above, Gravity Simulator, Slooh and Universe Sandbox. Check out this previous posting for a roundup, and feel free to add your favorites in the comment section below.