NASA powers space exploration with immersive technology

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Space and other planets are no longer destinations for a privileged few thanks to the advances made in immersive technology, and the work of agencies such as NASA

Quick read

➨ NASA and Google collaborated to create Access Mars, which uses photos taken by the Curiosity rover, a resident of the Red Planet since 2012
➨ Among NASA’s other immersive technology-powered projects are its own browser-based solar system Treks, as well as a partnership with Fusion Media Group Labs to create the Mars 2030 virtual experience and Ireland-based Immersive VR Education to develop its Apollo 11 virtual reality experience
➨ The agency’s datasets are also being used by US-based AstroReality, a company that sells Moon and planet models with augmented reality features that are accessible through a smartphone app

The story

US space agency NASA has revealed how its vast library of imagery and data are being deployed to create immersive virtual and augmented reality experiences.

Access Mars is a free 360° virtual reality experience of the Red Planet. It contains interactive landmarks and narration by a NASA scientist, and uses the Planetary Data System (PDS), a free archive of digital data products returned from NASA’s planetary missions that actively supports production and use.

NASA and Google collaborated to create Access Mars, which uses photos taken by the Curiosity rover, a resident of the Red Planet since 2012.

Users can navigate Curiosity’s path, including the rover’s landing site, its current location, and Martian landmarks such as the Pahrump Hills, Marias Pass, and Murray Buttes, with wind hissing steadily in the background and explanations provided by NASA scientist Kathryn Stack Morgan.

Access Mars is a 360° virtual reality learning tool for school students and, as such, is accessible via smartphone or desktop device, rather than a headset.

The experience proved particularly popular after the outbreak of Covid-19 and lockdowns began requiring students to begin learning from home. Google saw a 15-times increase in visitors starting in mid-March. Access Mars tends to be active Monday through Friday, while schools are in session, and then traffic dips over weekends.

NASA’s collaboration with Google to develop Access Mars was actually born from the past work of the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Ops Lab, which used the same data to develop a Mars app for the HoloLens mixed reality headset with Microsoft.

The resulting HoloLens app, OnSight, allowed planetary geologists at NASA to study the surface of Mars by walking through the virtual terrain captured by Curiosity.

The OnSight app won NASA’s Software of the Year award in 2018 and the space agency’s Mars scientists still use it to visualise and understand the terrain around the rover, but due to data constraints, it wasn’t easily accessible to the public.

As a result, NASA shared the same Martian terrain data with Google to make the more accessible Access Mars experience.

The original files were too big for the internet, so Google rebuilt the terrain data into smaller files that load faster and are less demanding.

Sasha Samochina, deputy manager of the Ops Lab at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said: “Our data is out there to be used. The more accessible and the more understandable we can make it, and the more we can put it into easily digestible experiences, the better it is for us and for people who are trying to learn about what NASA is up to, what we’re doing.”

Among NASA’s other immersive technology-powered projects are its own browser-based solar system Treks, as well as a partnership with Fusion Media Group Labs to create the Mars 2030 virtual experience and Ireland-based Immersive VR Education to develop its Apollo 11 virtual reality experience.

PDS datasets are also being used by US-based AstroReality, a company that sells Moon and planet models with augmented reality features that are accessible through a smartphone app.

With the app installed, users can hold a smartphone over one AstroReality’s Moon models and view information about individual craters and other topographical features.

AstroReality’s Moon model
AstroReality’s Moon model

JR Skok, chief science officer at AstroReality, explains the company’s aims: “Rather than learning everything on a computer, we’re trying to merge digital experiences with the best and most up-to-date data we can find with something you can hold in your hands.”

AstroReality uses NASA sources such as the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter, which is onboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that has been orbiting the Moon since 2009, to create its models.

The company serves space enthusiasts and also works with the Aldrin Family Foundation to bring space to children through schools and curricula.

Skok said: “There’s something the human mind gets when you can actually feel the craters on the Moon. There’s an interplay between feeling it with your fingers, seeing it, and then getting the deeper detail through the technology. It creates a human experience, and that makes a difference.”

Space and other planets are no longer destinations for a privileged few thanks to the advances made in immersive technology, and the work of agencies such as NASA.

Virtual, augmented and mixed reality offer a new level of immersive experience for those in education and represent an opportunity to teach the next generation about our world and the universe around us.

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Main image: Google’s Access Mars

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