Web surfers ride the Martian waves

Two new Web sites run by Google and NASA will permit space gawkers to get their fill of Mars imagery, just in time for the start of a new mission to the planet.

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter successfully put itself into orbit around the red planet March 10. The spacecraft will provide more scientific data than all previous Mars missions combined.

Today, Google launched the interactive map portal Google Mars in honor of the March 13, 1855, birthday of Percival Lowell, who spent years using a telescope to study and sketch Mars. Google uses data collected on previous space missions.

The company intertwined its map technology with scientific imagery in a partnership with NASA researchers from Arizona State University. The site offers three viewing options: an elevation map, digital imagery from previous Mars missions and an infrared map showing details hidden to the naked eye.

The elevation map was generated with data from the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter on NASA's Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft. The surveyor’s Mars Orbiter Camera shot the photographs. The infrared images came from the Thermal Emission Imaging System on the Mars Odyssey spacecraft. In the infrared map, clouds and dust in the atmosphere are transparent, providing a sharp view of the planet.

NASA will soon provide 3-D imagery of Mars. By downloading an upgrade to World Wind, NASA’s open-source program that displays satellite imagery, users can peer into Mars’ Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in our solar system, and dive into craters.

The new version of World Wind, which is due to be released in a few weeks, will draw from earlier mission data. Starting later this year, when the new Mars orbiter has collected information, the program will automatically update itself with the latest data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Patrick Hogan, program manager for NASA Learning Technologies, compares synthesizing the data for World Wind users to delivering a pizza for mass consumption.

“The kind of data that is being collected is in very thin strips,” he said, explaining that the camera is looking at tiny pieces or ingredients. “All those things end up looking like puzzle pieces, and then they have to be carefully assembled and then cut up into rectangular pizza slices for viewing on World Wind. As you zoom in, you get to eat that pizza imagery.”

Hogan said Google Mars differs from NASA’s World Wind in that the Mars world is flat on Google’s service. With NASA’s tool, you can “zoom about the planet as if you were there,” he said.

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