New Google Mars Reveals the Red Planet in 3-D

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At its base, Google Mars 3-D is an amalgam of results from four or five different endeavors, including the Viking probes, Mars Global Surveyor, and the Hubble Space Telescope.

Once Gorelick's team had collected enough images to map the entire planet, "we ran the whole thing through a food processor to turn it into something we liked," Gorelick said.

Lighter colored, horizontal stripes laid over the base image show where the map contains pictures from higher-resolution cameras, including the HiRISE imager aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Pictures from HiRISE are currently being used to help scientists decide where to land the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), a car-size rover slated to launch in 2011.

According to Gorelick, friends of his on the MSL team are excited about using HiRISE data within Google Mars 3-D as a planning tool for the rover.

By creating 3-D tours, for example, scientists anywhere could pick a landing site, plot a course, and find targets for scientific study or do hazard assessments.

"We're not only able to see features, we can see if the rover can get there," said JPL's Vasavada, who is deputy project scientist for the new Martian rover.

"For rocks and boulders, we can use a single image" to tell if there are obstacles in a given path, he said. "But to do things like [navigate] slopes … this would definitely be a good tool to use in an exploratory way.

"I totally believe it's useful for scientists."

And with 500 million downloads and counting since its June 2005 launch, Google Earth and its various iterations continue to be popular tools for the tech-savvy public.

According to Gorelick, anyone could use the tool to create personalized tours, build fanciful Martian cities, or even act as citizen scientists.

"What I like most" about Google Mars 3-D, Gorelick said, "is that scientists and nonscientists alike can put their own data into Mars."

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