This is part of IEEE Spectrum's Special Report: Why Mars? Why Now?
I slowly scan the nearby rocks and crags, letting my gaze drift up toward the horizon. My eyes are searching for a recognizable shape—anything that’s not a rock—to give me a sense of scale. I come up empty.
Mars is all around me, here in the StarCAVE, a virtual reality enclosure at the University of California, San Diego. Five projectors transform a room the size of a walk-in closet into a 360-degree panorama of the view from the basin of the large Gusev Crater.
For the near future at least, only robots will touch Martian soil. But even after the rusty surface becomes a trampled mess of human boot prints, we—you and I—probably won’t qualify for the trip. So even if ”mankind” one day reaches the Red Planet, most of us are destined, at best, to experience its exploration secondhand.
The good news is that such secondhand participation is likely to be a lot better than it is today. Improved communications, imaging, and visualization technologies will allow NASA to bring much of the experience of being on Mars back to those of us stuck on Earth.
To obtain this one view, for instance, the Mars rover Spirit parked on a small hill near the Home Plate plateau and began snapping a few pictures a day as it waited out the Martian winter in 2006. Over the next four months, it gathered more than 1400 images, which NASA digitally stitched together into a single 130-megapixel panorama. Standing in the middle of it is so immersive that I immediately feel the urge to explore the scene, to peer around rocks and see what’s behind them.
”You can go into a room, and you’re on Mars,” says Larry Smarr, director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, or Calit2, which runs the StarCAVE. The idea of re-creating Mars here sounds appealing, but it is not just fantasy—only by maximizing what can be done from the ground can NASA make Mars exploration politically sustainable and financially worthwhile.
From their inception, U.S. and Soviet space agencies recognized the value in connecting with the public directly. When Sputnik became the first artificial satellite, in 1957, it carried a radio transmitter instead of a scientific payload. If you had a shortwave radio, you could hear the beeps from the craft as it passed overhead, proving beyond all doubt that the Soviet Union had conquered space. The Apollo 11 moon landing had similar public-relations value. It would have been considered a great engineering feat in any case, but the event became a shared global experience when its live video broadcast brought the lunar surface into living rooms around the world.
Since winning the space race, however, NASA has abandoned such showmanship in favor of more rational, pragmatic, and scientific pursuits: remotely exploring the solar system and learning how to live in orbit. The unfortunate side effect is that the public’s engagement with the space program has waned, even if inherent interest in space hasn’t. The draw of Mars, in particular, goes back centuries, and every time a new technology has provided better access to the most Earth-like planet in the solar system, the public has embraced it.
Take the Pathfinder mission, which carried the first rover to Mars in 1997. Individual shots from the lander didn’t look much better than the photos the Viking missions had gathered two decades earlier. But this time there was one big difference: the emergence of the World Wide Web. NASA put the Pathfinder photos online as soon as they came back from Mars, sparking an Internet sensation. The images attracted 47 million hits in a single day, one of the biggest 24-hour bursts of traffic in the history of the Internet to that point.
We’re now on the cusp of another revolution in Mars exploration, where public outreach and scientific investigation will go hand in hand. Increasingly sophisticated imaging systems will allow robots to transmit not just individual photos but also enough data to create huge panoramas and virtual environments for anyone to explore. The sheer amount of information will require and reward more human scrutiny than professionals alone can provide. NASA is also learning, if a bit haphazardly, how to leverage Web 2.0 technologies to make missions interactive. Directly connecting with constituents in this way will be no easy task, but it’s NASA’s best opportunity to create a sustainable future for the space program.
The two Viking missions, in the 1970s, were a great success, providing more than 50 000 images of Mars, including the earliest photos from the surface. But the most powerful imagers, the twin cameras on each Viking orbiter, had a resolution that was no better than what you’d find on a cellphone camera today. Compare that with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which has been circling the planet since 2006. Among its science instruments is the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), a camera capable of taking 1200-megapixel black-and-white images and resolving features as small as a meter in size (including the tracks left by the rovers).
MRO sends the images to Earth via the fastest connection in deep space, capable of transmitting nearly 6 megabits per second. It has already sent back 80 terabits of data, more than all the other deep-space missions combined. After it’s finished collecting data, MRO is slated to remain in orbit to serve as a high-speed communications link for future missions.
Once Mars pictures make it to Earth, however, NASA faces an enviable problem: The resolution of the stitched-together panoramas is so great that agency scientists have no way to view them with conventional monitors. At Calit2 the institute has another display called Varrier, around the corner from the StarCAVE. It consists of 60 liquid-crystal displays arranged in a half-cylinder with a total of 115 million pixels. A photographic-film screen affixed to a glass panel is mounted in front of each LCD and, combined with a head-tracking system, provides stereoscopic three-dimensional images without the need for special glasses. ”When you map a panorama into this,” Smarr says, ”you see the global structure of this place but also the fine details.”
Starting with a view of the whole planet, I use a wireless handheld controller to zoom in and swoop down inside Valles Marineris, a vast chasm that puts the Grand Canyon to shame. I can sense the depths of the canyon from the steep walls at the periphery of my vision. In February, Calit2 and the NASA Lunar Science Institute set up a smaller three-by-three grid of screens—which they call an OptIPortal—giving NASA its first 40-million-pixel display. It may be small compared to the Varrier, but it’s a huge improvement over any other NASA screen. The agency is interested in building more.
But NASA is not alone in noticing the potential of the new technologies. The U.S. Congress also seems to have some sense of how these technologies might benefit the people who, after all, pay the space program’s bills. In the 2008 NASA Authorization Act, the House of Representatives stipulated that the agency ”develop a technology plan to enable dissemination of information to the public to allow the public to experience missions to the moon, Mars, or other bodies within our solar system by leveraging advanced exploration technologies.”