"NVIDIA technology allows NASA to visualise the Martian terrain in photorealistic virtual reality, greatly enhancing scientists' understanding of the environment and streamlining analysis," said Laurence Edwards, Mars team lead for 3D visualisation and surface reconstruction from NASA Ames Research Centre. "With this capability, scientists step into a visually engaging model of the planet's surface and interactively study multiple perspectives — front, back, side views — of every object the rovers investigate to fully explore all options for rover routes and experiments."
NASA scientists use NVIDIA graphics to visualise high-resolution photographic imagery more than three times as detailed as images sent from Sojourner in 1997. Because the new rovers travel six to ten times farther than Sojourner, taking approximately 6,000 to 10,000 more measurements per foot, the data visualised with NVIDIA graphics is transformed into a particularly detailed, visually enhanced representation of the planet's terrain. Each day rover missions are underway, one group of NASA scientists focus on that day's rover operation while another plans the following day's activities by studying and interacting with this graphically rendered photographic and measurement data — taken from targeted, but as yet unexplored Martian terrain.
"NVIDIA graphics allow NASA scientists to interactively plan rover movements using 3D photorealistic views of the surface so commands transmitted to rovers result in successful experiments and data gathering," said Edwards. "Data transmissions from Mars involve massive amounts of image data that must be quickly viewed, studied and shared. Three-dimensional visualisation in photorealistic virtual reality is the most effective way to maximise distance travelled and knowledge gained."
Two NASA rovers, Spirit, which landed on Mars on January 3, 2004, and Opportunity, which is scheduled to land on January 24, 2004, will explore locations that suggest the one-time presence of water. By converting the data collected from cameras and scientific instruments on the rovers into knowledge through visualisation, NVIDIA graphics technology help NASA scientists learn more about the history of water on Mars in the hopes of determining whether life currently exists on or beneath the surface.
"Today, with this new technology, NASA can simulate the lighting and surface conditions expected on Mars when an experiment is to be conducted," said Edwards. "If a rock will cast a shadow, obscuring a feature of interest, scientists on the ground will know about this effect in advance and plan around it. In the future, we envision scientists sitting within a large wrap-around display and programming rover movements and experiments using simple touch-screen or voice commands."