EXCLUSIVE: Secrets of Google's 3-D Mars, Moon

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November 3, 2009—Want to meet a Martian or spark lunar conflict? Two former NASA specialists give tips for making the most of Google's 3-D space offerings—and offer hints for finding some little-known gems.

© 2009 National Geographic; Images courtesy Google

Unedited Transcript:

Michael Weiss-Malik, Product Manager, Mars in Google Earth So, Moon and Mars in Google Earth are a lot like a video game. You know, it's pretty popular right now to have these 3-D virtual reality games where you can walk around or sometimes fly around. And in Mars and Moon it's just like that except that you can actually explore another planet and they're based on real data, so instead of exploring you know, a fake world and shooting aliens you can actually explore a real alien world, and dive in and see craters and explore and, and also read some of the human stories on those planetary bodies where you can find out how humans have explored those places.

Michael So, we did Mars first because, prior to joining Google we actually both, Noel and I, wrote software for NASA Mars missions and, we actually started the original Google Mars which is a, a Web site before we came to Google. We called Google up and asked them if we could make it, basically.

Noel Gorelick, Lead Engineer, Mars in Google Earth Prior to coming to Google, I worked on seven Mars missions and the Cassini mission to Saturn, for Arizona State University as a NASA contractor.

Noel Pretty much anything that involved a computer on the ground for those missions, that were based at ASU, I was the lead for.

Michael Mars in Google Earth actually has imagery that I helped create and that Noel helped create. We both worked on the Themis camera on board Mars Odyssey and there's a global infrared map of Mars, both a daytime and a nighttime map, that lets you see what the planet would look like if your eyes could see in infrared.

Michael So Mars and Moon in Google Earth were a big challenge for Google Earth because fundamentally it was designed for just one planet. Nobody ever thought that we'd necessarily do other planets with it. It was called Google Earth. So a lot of the systems assumed that there was only one planet. They also assumed that the planet looked like Earth. Mars and moon have much higher, lower, and steeper terrain than you find anywhere on Earth, so a lot of these things broke assumptions about you know, that the software makes about the planet it's processing data for. So we had to enhance a lot if those things.

Noel One of the reasons that we put, wanted to put Mars and Moon inside of Google Earth is that Google Earth is already a really rich environment. It supports a lot of additional features that we haven't even gotten to yet. But the 3-D models that we've included are Sketchup models and there's nothing the we did that's, any different than what another, a user could do.

Noel In addition to Sketchup, you know, Google Earth, the language that you use to talk to Google Earth is KML. So, using KML you can put your own data, your own, lines, points, polygons, basically draw on the planet in 3-D and produce, things like uh, exploration plan. Here's where you think the first explorers of Mars should go, here's the path they should follow, here's where they should stay.

Michael So, the data in Mars and Moon both come from a variety of sources. We worked closely with NASA, most of the imagery comes from NASA. There's also some European Space Agency data, all of this from orbiting spacecraft, and then there's of course, imagery close to the ground from the rovers and from the astronauts themselves. They actually took, stood in place and rotated around and took photos, and we reconstructed those into panoramas.

Michael Besides having the European Space Agency, Moon also has terrain data from JAXA, the Japanese space agency. And without this we wouldn't have had kind of the full global 3-D effect, it would have been a flat planet.

Noel My favorite part of Mars is the historical maps. Nathaniel Green in the late 1800s, he was actually a naturalist, so he painted really good images and he turned his attention to Mars one summer and painted a really great natural scene of Mars in 1870s. That was kind of blown out of the water the next year by, Schiaparelli, who did the same thing. The difference was is that Nathaniel Green was, was a naturalist and, and was good at observing details and Schiaparelli just kinda did it, he, it was not his thing, and he, he made a very fantastic map of Mars that had very little, bearing in reality.

Michael Yeah so, Mars in Google Earth has at least one little hidden secret. There's a search tab just like all the other Google products you can search, and if you search for the Face on Mars, that will take you to a very prominent and well known landmark that, in the 60s, the shadows kind of all collided in a way that made it look like a face. Right next to the face on Mars, there's a little marker for it, is a little chatbot called Meliza and if you click her open you can actually chat with a Martian live. This is based on an old, 1960s artificial intelligence program called Eliza. We had a lot of fun putting it together. And she'll kind of play the part of a psychologist and try to help you with your problems, or if you ask her about Mars she's got a bit of trivia knowledge.

Michael Yeah, the biggest thing I want people to be aware of is that, Mars and Moon in Google Earth aren't just stand-alone products, they're platforms. And we really hope that NASA embraces both Mars and Moon in Google Earth, to do a lot of science outreach and to do a lot of actual research communication.

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