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Take a spin on the moon and Mars

NASA file

Neil Armstrong's shadow appears in an image that was taken during the Apollo 11 lunar mission in 1969 for a 360-degree panorama. Click on the image to play with an audio-enhanced panorama from PhotoJPL.com.


The death of first moonwalker Neil Armstrong and the success of NASA's Curiosity rover have reignited interest in the idea of taking a spin on the moon and Mars, at least virtually. It may be a decade or two before astronauts once again walk on the moon, or take the next giant leap to the Red Planet. In the meantime, 360-degree interactive panoramas give you a sense of what those walks will be like. Here's a quick roundup of the coolest 360-degree views:


Walking on the moon
Armstrong, who passed away last weekend at the age of 82, was the first photographer to produce a 360-degree panorama on the surface of another celestial body. The pictures that make up the all-around mosaic show crewmate Buzz Aldrin working near the lunar module, the glare of the sun in the opposite direction, and Armstrong's shadow on the lunar surface.

Every Apollo mission that made it to the surface since then has featured at least one all-around picture. In Armstrong's honor, PhotoJPL.com has produced a zoomable, spinnable 360-degree display of the Apollo 11 scene. But to get the full Apollo lineup — including the must-see batch from Apollo 17, the last lunar mission — you'll want to check out Panoramas.dk or Moonpans.com

The Lunar and Planetary Institute offers an atlas of the source images, which were taken with the Hasselblad 70mm camera used on all of the Apollo missions. If you want to find Cat's Paw Hills in Armstrong's panorama, or Hadley Delta in the Apollo 15 panorama made by Jim Irwin, this is the place.

JPL-Caltech / NASA / MSSS / Hans Nyberg

A panoramic picture from Mars shows the shadow of the Curiosity rover in the foreground as well as Mount Sharp on the horizon. Gaps in this picture have been filled out by Hans Nyberg for a pan-and-zoom panorama. Click on the image to give the interactive version a spin.

Roving on Mars
NASA's Spirit and Opportunity rovers have sent back years' worth of 360-degree vistas from the places they've visited, and Curiosity has already added some fantastic views to the panoramic photo album. You'll find more than 30 all-around views at the website for the Pancam imaging system used on Spirit and Opportunity, plus scores of partial panoramas and mosaics. NASA's website for the Mars Exploration Rovers also rounds up lots of panoramic views, including 3-D versions.

Pan-and-zoom versions of the Spirit and Opportunity all-arounds can be found at Marspans.com and Panoramas.dk. The Mars Panoramas website offers the rover all-arounds as well as 360-degree views from the Mars Pathfinder lander (1997) and the Phoenix Mars Lander (2008).

When it comes to Curiosity, Hans Nyberg of Panoramas.dk has done up a great 360-degree view of the rover's landing site in Gale Crater. This version of the picture has been adjusted by NASA so that the lighting reflects earthly conditions rather than the dull red of filtered Martian sunlight. In addition, Nyberg has filled in the parts of the Martian sky that were missing in the data sent back by Curiosity.

Nyberg also has a black-and-white panorama of the Martian terrain as seen on Aug. 22, after the six-wheeled Curiosity made its first move. A similar view can be seen on the PhotoJPL website. Be sure to check out the rover's tracks in the foreground. 

Arounder Mars offers panoramas from Curiosity as well as Spirit, Opportunity and Pathfinder, although its sepia-toned view of Curiosity's surroundings doesn't include the latest pictures of 3-mile-high Mount Sharp (also known as 5-kilometer-high Aeolis Mons). PhotoJPL also has a Sharp-less panorama of the Curiosity landing site.

Over at the 360Cities website, Andrew Bodrov has updated his popular black-and-white Mars Curiosity panorama to include Mount Sharp — and he's added some real stunners, including this full-color, 360-degree view. The Wall Street Journal has an interactive graphic that serves up three 360s: the black-and-white and color views of the landing site, as well as a post-drive panorama in black and white only.

All these pan-and-zoom views are based on the imagery provided by NASA, of course, and there are several places you can go to get the full spread without the clickability. Here are just a few of my favorite haunts. Got more to add? Feel free to pass them along in your comments below.

Correction for 9:30 p.m. Sept. 4: An earlier version of this posting incorrectly stated that Nyberg enhanced the lighting in the color 360-degree panorama. Instead, he selected a rendering of the scene that was enhanced by NASA to look more Earthlike. This webpage from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Photojournal demonstrates the difference between the raw version and the enhanced version. Also, for a time, I improperly embedded Nyberg's panorama rather than providing an outward link.

More ways to satisfy your curiosity about Curiosity:

360-degree panoramic views from NBCNews.com:


Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.