Orbiting approximately 187 miles above the surface of Mars, a powerful high-resolution camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) captures detailed images of the planet’s terrain. The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera, developed by Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., provides UA researchers with stereo images of Mars which are taken from different angles of the planet’s surface.
HiRISE’s lead digital terrain modeler, Sarah Mattson, and co-investigator Shane Byrne, interpret the data collected by the camera. They have recently teamed with AZ-LIVE (Arizona Laboratory for Immersive Visualization Environments) to create much larger images of Mars in the three dimensions.
Operated by the HiRISE Operations Center based at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL), the massive HiRISE camera captures Mars’ images by taking photos of the surface from its orbits. Mattson works closely with her team of student workers as well as with her colleagues in the US Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona. At LPL, HiRISE stereo images are combined to produce 3D topography data. One of Mattson’s student workers, Niloufar Emami, an undergraduate at the UA College of Architecture, processes the data to be sent to UITS scientific visualization specialist Marvin Landis in AZ-LIVE. Landis helps researchers view their terrain data from the eye-level perspective by running a 3D gaming engine in the lab that allows him to tile multiple image maps across the terrain in high resolution and even apply special effects to the virtual environment.
Illustrating the advanced imaging capacity of the HiRISE camera, Byrne says, “Previous orbiters have generated Mars images with pixels about the size of an average office. With HiRISE we’re getting pixels of about 25cm, which is much more meaningful because we’re getting closer to viewing Mars from the human perspective.” This higher resolution complements AZ-LIVE’s immersive 3D imaging.
Recent AZ-LIVE upgrades allow HiRISE investigators to view their 3D topography models in an immersive lab setting. Before, images of Mars’ Gale crater could only be viewed from an aerial perspective on a computer screen. The crater can be projected in high-resolution across three large green screens in AZ-LIVE, giving researchers a 3D panoramic view, as well at the ability to navigate the depths of the crater from all angles using a handheld controller.
“The new hardware and software in AZ-LIVE allows us to take HiRISE data and tile strips of multiple image maps across the terrain,” says Landis, “Gravity and collision detection can also be assigned to the models so the user can move around on the surface of the terrain, just like one of the Mars rovers.” With the new visualization capabilities, HiRISE researchers are able to experience the crater depths and slopes to scale. HiRISE researchers are excited about the possibilities for exploring future findings using AZ-LIVE.
The HiRISE team emphasizes collaboration in their work, a concept that is encouraged by HiRISE principal investigator Alfred McEwen. The team is excited about the prospect of sharing even greater advancements in their Mars research with the public and with the science community. While the MRO is operated by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, the HiRISE team is based at the UA and collaborates with team members from several U.S. and European institutions.
Though the HiRISE team is still in early stages of collaboration with AZ-LIVE, the promise of even greater investigative feats, including future planning for landings and rover exploration, lie just on the horizon. “One goal for the near future is to bring a time-series of Mars images to AZ-LIVE,” says Mattson. “This will allow us to see surface changes happening on Mars by viewing a series of images of the same location, and AZ-LIVE is a super powerful tool for that.”