Virtual Mars

terra_meridiani
(Click to view details) Terra Meridiani, hematite-rich and a probable test for the Mars’ wet hypothesis
Credit: Malin Space Systems/ARC/JPL/NASA

NASA scientists have modified a scientific Web site so the general public can inspect big regions and smaller details of Mars’ surface, a planet whose alien terrain is about the same area as Earth’s continents.

After adding ‘computer tools’ to the ‘Marsoweb’ Internet site, NASA scientists plan to ask volunteers from the public to survey the vast red planet virtually and to look for important geologic features hidden in thousands of images of the surface.

"The initial reason to create Marsoweb was to help scientists select potential Mars landing sites for the current Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission," according to Virginia Gulick, a scientist from the SETI Institute, Mountain View, Calif., who works at NASA Ames Research Center, located in California’s Silicon Valley. "The Web site was designed just for Mars scientists so they could view Mars data easily," she added.

steve_ruff
Using the same maps as Mars’ scientists, the public is engaged in the search. "We’ve done as much as we can …they’re off to Mars now." -Steve Ruff, ASU
Credit: NASA/JPL

But when the first Mars Exploration Rover landed on Mars in January, the general public discovered Marsoweb. More than a half million ‘unique visitors’ found the page, and the Web experienced about 26.7 million ‘hits’ in January.

"An interactive data map on Marsoweb allows users to view most Mars data including images, thermal inertia, geologic and topographical maps and engineering data that includes rock abundance," Gulick said. Thermal inertia is a material’s capacity to store heat (usually in daytime) and conduct heat (often at night). "The engineering data give scientists an idea of how smooth or rocky the local surface is," Gulick explained.

To examine a large number of distinctive or interesting geologic features on the red planet close up would take an army of people because Mars’ land surface is so big. Such a multitude of explorers – modern equivalents of America’s early pioneers – may well survey details of Mars through personal computers.

Researchers hope that volunteers will help with an upcoming Mars imaging experiment. NASA scientists are getting ready for the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) that will fly on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) mission, slated for launch in August 2005. Gulick, co-investigator and education and public outreach lead of the HiRISE team, said that the experiment’s super high-resolution camera will be able to capture images of objects on Mars’ surface measuring about a yard (one meter) wide.

Matt Golombek
Matt Golombek oversaw the site-selection process for both MER missions with scientists’ recommendations. Credit: NASA.

User-friendly ‘Web tools’ soon will be available to the science community and the public to view and analyze HiRISE images beginning in November 2006 and to submit image observation requests, according to HiRISE scientists. If all goes according to plan, a request form will be on the Internet for use by scientists and the public about the time of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter launch in 2005. Marsoweb computer scientist Glenn Deardorff, Gulick and other HiRISE team members are now designing Web-friendly software ‘tools’ to allow the public to examine and evaluate HiRISE images.

"We will ask volunteers to help us create ‘geologic feature’ databases of boulders, gullies, craters – any kind of geologic feature that may be of interest," Gulick explained. "Scientists or students can use these data bases to propose theories about Mars that could be proven by future exploration."

Preliminary details about Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HiRISE’s exploration of Mars are on the World Wide Web .

The current Marsoweb site includes animated ‘fly-throughs’ of some Mars locations. The site also permits users to fine-tune Mars images for brightness, contrast and sharpness as well as make other adjustments.


NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, operated by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., manages the Mars Exploration Rover and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter missions for the NASA Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C. MER flight planning chronicled in the diary of the principal investigator for the science packages, Dr. Steven Squyres: Parts 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5 * 6 * 7 * 8 * 9 * 10 * 11 * 12 .

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