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NASA Mars Rover

NASA Mars Rover - Visualizing the Red Planet with NVIDIA Quadro Graphics
The Mission

NASA scientists can drive the Mars rovers up to 40 meters per day, guided by 3D terrain maps visualized using NVIDIA Quadro graphics solutions. This image, courtesy NASA/JPL/Cornell/Maas Digital LLC, was created using NVIDIA graphics.
Fascination with the planet Mars has grown over the centuries. The discovery of canals by astronomers in the late 1800s, and the first views provided by the fly-by of the Mariner 4 spacecraft in 1965, inspired a search for life on the Red Planet. Today, the search focuses on water. It is still considered possible that life in some form exists in water on Mars, whether in underground springs or beneath thick ice caps. By learning more about the history of water on Mars, scientists hope to replace myth with reality and answer some of the larger questions about our universe.

NASA’s 2004 mission to Mars deployed two golf cart sized rovers equipped with cameras and scientific instruments for viewing and analyzing the surface. Mission scientists need a fail-safe way to plan the movements of the rovers, ensure successful operation, and maximize knowledge gained. NASA scientists chose professional computer graphics technology from NVIDIA Corporation to meet this need.

NASA is using NVIDIA Quadro® graphics solutions to reconstruct Martian terrain from transmitted rover data in photorealistic virtual reality, allowing scientists to explore Mars in 3D as if they were actually moving freely on the planet’s surface. This NVIDIA-powered environment serves as a precise visualization and planning system for NASA scientists, allowing them to rehearse a variety of Mars rover scenarios, mapping out moves and experiments by "flying" through highly realistic 3D reconstructions of the Martian surface, prior to directing the vehicle to undertake actual tasks.

'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. Data transmissions from Mars involve massive amounts of image data that must be quickly viewed, studied, and shared. Three-dimensional visualization in photorealistic virtual reality is the most effective way to maximize distance traveled and knowledge gained.' Laurence Edwards Ph.D., Mars project lead for 3D Visualization and Surface Reconstruction, Intelligent Robotics Group, NASA Ames Research Center

Dealing with Martian Data

Over the next three months, NASA will receive terabytes of data from two Mars rovers. The first rover, named Spirit, successfully landed in the Gusev Crater on January 4, 2004, three weeks ahead of the touch-down date for the second rover. The Gusev Crater was selected because it appears to have been eroded long ago by flowing water.

NVIDIA Quadro graphics, driving NASA’s Viz virtual reality software, display this 3D virtual terrain reconstruction showing a trail left by one of Spirit's airbags. Image courtesy NASA Ames/JPL/Cornell.
The landing site for the second rover, Opportunity, is half way around the planet in a region called the Meridiani Planum. This location is one of the smoothest, flattest places on Mars and is of interest because the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft found that it is rich in an iron oxide mineral, or rust, which typically forms in association with water.

Spirit sends data to Earth generated from two pairs of hazard-identification cameras mounted below the deck at the front and rear of the rover and from two other camera pairs that sit high on the mast rising from the deck. These cameras include a high-resolution panoramic camera and a pair of lower resolution cameras for navigation.

The cameras provide the views needed to navigate the rovers and collect scientific data about geological and weather conditions. Rover panoramic cameras send digitally massive high-resolution 360-degree panoramas of the surface as 1024x1024x16-bit images. A rover transmission may include hundreds of images.

3D Maps for Roving

NVIDIA Quadro graphics help scientists determine rover activities without having to sift through massive amounts of photographic data. NASA scientists use NVIDIA graphics to visualize high-resolution photographic imagery more than three times as detailed as images sent from the Sojourner rover 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 visualized with NVIDIA graphics is transformed into a particularly detailed, visually enhanced, 3D representation of the planet’s terrain.

Mars rover Spirit sends high-resolution terrain photos to Earth. NVIDIA graphics help NASA reconstruct the surface in photorealistic virtual reality with this and other transmitted data. This image, courtesy NASA/JPL/Cornell/Maas Digital LLC, was created using NVIDIA graphics.
Rover operations run continuously throughout a mission. One group of NASA scientists focuses on the day’s rover operation, while another plans the following day’s activities by studying and interacting with the NVIDIA-rendered photographic and measurement data taken from targeted—but as yet unexplored—Martian terrain. As terrain models are reconstructed with new image data, existing 3D map segments are merged into a master virtual environment, which will—upon mission completion—represent the totality of the rover’s movements.

Laurence Edwards, Ph.D., Mars team lead for 3D visualization and surface reconstruction at NASA Ames Research Center explains, "NVIDIA technology allows NASA to visualize the Martian terrain in photorealistic virtual reality, greatly enhancing scientists’ understanding of the environment and streamlining analysis. 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."

"With NVIDIA Quadro graphics driving Viz, the virtual reality software we use for Mars missions, we can also model the lighting and surface conditions expected to be present on Mars when an experiment will 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 be able to plan around it. These NVIDIA-enabled capabilities allow NASA scientists to conceptualize a variety of scenarios and map out rover moves and activities prior to directing the rover to undertake actual tasks."

Advanced Visualization in PC Workstations

This 3D image of 'Adirondack,' a football-sized rock, was reconstructed using Viz and NVIDIA Quadro graphics. The rock was selected as Spirit's first target because it has a flat surface and is relatively free of dust—ideal conditions for grinding into the rock to expose fresh rock underneath. Image courtesy NASA Ames/JPL/Cornell.
"NVIDIA technology has been key to meeting our evolving visualization needs for Mars missions. The incredible performance, precision, and shadow mapping capabilities of NVIDIA Quadro solutions enables NASA to use standard PC workstations to visualize reconstructions of the Martian surface in great detail. NVIDIA Quadro boards, in individual systems and in clusters, allow us to construct 3D maps of the Martian terrain within a photorealistic virtual reality space that greatly enhances scientists’ understanding of the remote environment and streamlines the process of analysis," said Laurence Edwards.

Most scientists spend their time looking at terrain models using typical NASA science operations workstations armed with NVIDIA Quadro FX 2000 graphics. According to Edwards, "This NVIDIA-powered solution handles a good-sized portion of the overall terrain model and makes data access extremely cost-effective. For the highest resolution, 3D terrain models with wide 360-degree views of the surface, we use NVIDIA Quadro FX 3000s. We also plan to cluster a number of PC workstations armed with NVIDIA Quadro FX 3000Gs. Such a system will surpass the power of expensive supercomputers and bring high-end visualization to a larger number of scientists."

According to Jeff Brown, general manager of workstation product management at NVIDIA, NASA migrated Viz from supercomputer to PC-based workstations powered by NVIDIA Quadro graphics for reasons such as:
  • Performance:
    A previous-generation NVIDIA Quadro graphics board in a PC workstation displayed images 33% faster than the expensive, proprietary incumbent system.

  • Superior Shadowing:
    Allows Viz to optimally handle real-time, interactive shadow simulation to predict sun/shade situations for experiments affected by light levels.

  • Clustering:
    The ability to link multiple NVIDIA Quadro FX 3000G solutions allows Viz to run at or better than supercomputer performance levels at about one-tenth the cost.

  • Greater Application Accessibility:
    The full range of NVIDIA professional graphics solutions, from the entry-level NVIDIA Quadro FX 500 to the high-end NVIDIA Quadro FX 3000G, available in industry-standard PC workstations, makes NASA’s Viz virtual reality software accessible from virtually any desktop.
Visualizing Future Mars Missions

The NASA Ames 3D Visualization and Surface Reconstruction team constantly evaluates graphics technology. They are committed to keeping Viz on the leading edge and to ensuring that the scientific and communication requirements of upcoming missions are met. "We continually investigate advanced concepts for rover operator interfaces and science operations interfaces," says Edwards. "Our group is charged with bringing the latest technologies to the user interface portion of missions, and NVIDIA gives us several opportunities for future enhancements. We plan to demonstrate a large, wrap-around user interface using a cluster of NVIDIA Quadro FX 3000G graphics solutions to immerse scientists in a computer-generated display of the planet’s surface. We can see a point in the future where researchers would sit in such a display and program rover movements and experiments using simple touch-screen or voice commands."

Sharing Knowledge

By converting the data collected from cameras and scientific instruments on the rovers into knowledge through visualization, NVIDIA graphics technology helps NASA share the knowledge gained from Mars rover missions with the world. Scientists worldwide can access and study the largest and most topographically accurate 3D models ever constructed during remote space exploration. With the routine posting of NVIDIA-generated images on the Web, the public can also virtually participate in NASA’s search for life on Mars.

Rover movements are carefully choreographed. Scientists test each possible route and choose objects for study by 'flying' through the virtual reconstruction of Martian terrain.  This image, courtesy NASA/JPL/Cornell/Maas Digital LLC, was created using NVIDIA graphics. This 3D image of the approach to 'Adirondack' was generated using Viz virtual reality software from NASA Ames and NVIDIA Quadro graphics. Spirit's Rock Abrasion Tool will be used to flatten an area of the rock for closer examination with its Microscopic Imager. Image courtesy NASA Ames/JPL/Cornell. This panoramic image, transmitted to NASA by Spirit, may encapsulate the rover’s journey from lander to final destination toward the east hills (about two miles away). Images like this one, after being transformed along with other data into 3D virtual reality by Viz and NVIDIA graphics, allow scientists to better plan the rover’s journey. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL/Cornell.

More Information

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