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NASA delivers Mars in high definition

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.

NASA's Kemp explained that most of the full-resolution image data is kept on NASA's Nebula cloud computer servers, while high-interest imagery is served up by Microsoft. The WWT imagery hands off from one database to the other as users click around, and new HiRISE images are added on a near-real-time basis. "We see this as an evolving architecture," Kemp said.

WorldWide Telescope offers more than one virtual view of the Red Planet: For example, if you click through the collection of Mars imagery, you can follow the tracks of NASA's Spirit rover as it plowed through the Columbia Hills, or Opportunity rover as it made its way around Victoria Crater. But Martian windstorms recently erased some of the rover's tracks at Victoria. Fortunately, the database offers HiRISE images captured at different times, so you can still trace Opportunity's old route, Kemp said.

Based on my experience, I'd have to say that the stand-alone version of WorldWide Telescope works much more smoothly than the Web client - so if you have a Windows-based computer with the firepower to run the program, that's definitely the way to go. If you're on a Mac, the Web client is the only choice. And if you're running a different operating system, such as Linux, you'll probably have to run elsewhere.

There's more than one virtual Red Planet out there, of course: NASA also feeds image data from HiRISE and other sources into Google Earth's Mars database, which has received positive reviews from Mars mavens. Kemp said serving multiple platforms is a big part of NASA's public-private strategy for getting all of its cool pictures out to the public.

"We can't ignore the fact that there's a Facebook out there, we can't ignore that there's a WorldWide Telescope or a Google Earth out there," he told me.

Other virtual-telescope software programs include Celestia, Stellarium, NASA World Wind and the Digital Universe Atlas. And if you're looking for a cosmos you can play around with, check out Universe Sandbox.

More, bigger pictures
The virtual Mars database may be the headline act for the latest version of WorldWide Telescope, but there are other new features as well. Microsoft Research's Fay pointed to a new rendering of the night sky that's been smoothed out to remove all the seams between separate images from the Digitized Sky Survey. The full-sky image stored on the WWT server takes in 1 trillion pixels, he said.

"We think it's the world's largest seamless spherical image," Fay told me. "It would take about 500,000 high-definition TVs if you wanted to see it at full resolution."

WWT developer Jonathan Fay (no relation to Dan) told me that the new version also lets users track the swarms of asteroids and trans-Neptunian objects that are part of our solar system. To home in on a particular object in the asteroid belt or the Kuiper Belt - such as Eros, Eris or Pluto - you type in its ephemeral coordinates and create an orbit on the spot. You can use a similar strategy to pinpoint Earth-orbiting satellites such as the Hubble Space Telescope, and even stick in a 3-D model that looks just like the object in question.

Adding new elements or entire guided tours to WorldWide Telescope is supposed to be so easy a 6-year-old could do it. If that's so, I might just have to whip up a tour that gives Pluto and the other dwarf planets their due. But first, I'm off to find the caves of Arsia Mons ...

More about virtual space exploration:

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