Exploring Mars surface in 3D

Aircraft Engineering and Aerospace Technology

ISSN: 0002-2667

Article publication date: 1 June 2004



(2004), "Exploring Mars surface in 3D", Aircraft Engineering and Aerospace Technology, Vol. 76 No. 3. https://doi.org/10.1108/aeat.2004.12776cab.015



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Exploring Mars surface in 3D

Exploring Mars surface in 3D

Keywords: Space, Technology, Communication, Software

Using visualisation technology from Silicon Graphics, NASA engineers overcame the challenges of communicating across 106 million miles of space to remotely pilot NASA's two Mars Exploration Rovers – including Spirit, which landed on the surface of Mars on 3rd January.

Scientists and engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, used SGI Onyx 300 systems and the OpenGL Performer real-time graphics API to combine 360° photographic images taken each morning by the Spirit Rover with terrain data to create a virtual Mars environment. This environment integrates the 3D visualisation of the surrounding Martian geography with an interactive model of the Spirit Rover. As a result, NASA engineers can safely pilot the Rover while compensating for round-trip space communication lag times of up to 20 min.

Each of JPL's two SGI Onyx 300 supercomputers features a dual-pipeline SGI InfiniteReality4 graphics subsystem, allowing engineers to visualise the virtual Mars in a 3D stereographic format providing better depth perception while piloting the Rover. As the JPL team interacts in the virtual Mars environment, they create scenarios from a list of approximately 900 different Rover commands. Alternative scenarios can be simulated and examined on earth, with only the safest and most scientifically valuable selected for execution on Mars by the Rover.

Building on the success of the earlier Mars Pathfinder mission – which also used SGI Onyx systems for visualisation – the two new SGI Onyx systems were configured and provided by Rand Federal, an authorised SGI reseller. JPL is using one Onyx system to help pilot the NASA Spirit Rover and the other system will be used to pilot the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, scheduled to land on 24 January on the other side of the planet.

“Remotely piloting a robotic Rover on the surface of Mars requires the most sophisticated computing technology available, which made SGI Onyx 300 an ideal solution for JPL,” said Bob Peach, President of Rand Federal, a systems integrator with expertise in technical and scientific computing located in Phoenix, Arizona. “We are proud to continue our Just in Time solution supply relationship with JPL and SGI, and we look forward to more exciting NASA missions in the future.”

“For more than two decades, SGI has been a proud collaborator with NASA, and this latest mission is a thrilling new chapter in our working relationship,” said Paul McNamara, Senior Vice- President and General Manager, Visual Systems Group, SGI. “Not surprisingly, NASA has once again uncovered some of the most exciting and fundamentally important uses for computer graphics. SGI is delighted to see its Onyx graphics supercomputers and OpenGL Performer contribute to this exciting and successful effort.”