Phobos in Stereo

Sometimes I just want to post a kewl image, and this qualifies! The above image of Mars’s moon Phobos stopped me in my tracks this morning, for a multitude of reasons’

First off, it’s color. I don’t recall any earlier color images of Phobos, although I’m too lazy to go check.

Secondly, it’s available in stereo! Which is to say, stereoscopic, not stereophonic. What the rest of the world calls “3D.” This happens to be on my mind, since I’m involved with this crazy construction project, which will eventually house a gorgeous planetarium (of course) as well as a stereoscopic theater. I’m keenly interested in finding content for it, particularly real-world content that isn’t computer-generated. (If you want to watch a video of me from the recent CineGrid conference, you can learn more about my vision for media in the new California Academy of Sciences.)

But lastly, I was especially surprised because the image was taken by the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). HiRISE has taken all kinds of spiffy images of the surface of Mars, but I can only attribute it to a lack of imagination on my part that HiRISE snapping a picture of one of Mars’s moons never occurred to me.

Poisoned Intution

The above image comes from a NASA multimedia piece released the other day. Although the caption doesn’t say so, I’m 99% sure that’s exaggerated terrain. It would be nice if the caption indicated that.

This actually qualifies as one of my “Planetarium Pet Peeves” and thus requires little further complaint on my part. I’ll quote two of my colleagues on the topic, even though their words also appear on the “pet peeves” page…

As Chris Anderson puts it, “When we fly audiences over a vertically exaggerated landscape, we poison their intuition about the way these worlds would actually appear.” Or, as my colleague Carter Emmart has been known to observe, “even Iowa looks mountainous when you exaggerate its terrain by a factor of ten.”

A Decade Apart, But…

Having returned to New York from the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle, I thought I might blog about a non-astronomical topic. But then I saw the latest image from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HiRISE camera. Astronomy it is!

The above image (listed under “Topographic Map of Landing Site Region” on the aforementioned HiRISE page) shows the location of the Mars Pathfinder: the HiRISE image forms the background, while the color-coding (in addition to contour lines visible in higher-resolution images than the one above) represents the same topography as reconstructed from the stereo imagery from the Pathfinder itself. So we’re comparing two very different data sets here, collected nearly a decade apart. Normally, false-color imagery makes me wince, but I have to admit that the picture above makes good use of the technique.

You may also recall the famous panoramic image taken by the Mars Pathfinder, and the new HiRISE page offers a variation that shows the Sojourner rover at various points in its exploration of the site. The latter image has labels that match the false-color image above, so you can try to imagine the site from two very different perspectives, in much the same way that an earlier HiRISE image was coupled with Opportunity data.

Orbiter Sees Rover

Too freakin’ kewl. The HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) captured the above image of the Opportunity rover. You can also take a look at a higher-resolution version of the image or a close-up portion of the image that shows the rover.

Now compare it to what the Opportunity rover is looking at now. Coordinated observations! Yay!

Now, if only we could get a high-res camera in orbit around the Moon in order to take pictures of Apollo landing gear! Oh, wait,
that will happen eventually
, I guess. (Of course, people will still question the authenticity of such images, but… C’est la vie.)

High-Resolution Abstract Art

Having blogged remote sensing on Earth in my last post, I guess I should make the leap to remote sensing on Mars…

So, what annoys me about the way the press release describes the above image is that, although the story is “the highest-resolution camera ever to orbit Mars,” the reader is given no sense of scale. You have to go to the caption on the mission webpage to find out that the resolution is about a foot per pixel. If nothing else, the press release could indicate the size of something in the image—for example, the small crater in the lower right-hand corner is about 15 feet across (I checked).

To be honest, I’d like to see a graphic scale on the image, marking out a distance of, say, 100 feet. But that ruins the aesthetic that has started to develop around NASA images. Images from the rovers have their own appeal, but the Mars orbiters send back images that function more as abstract art (take, for example, the Mars Express image of Aureum Chaos). A little scale in the corner of the image would ruin that. I have in mind Elizabeth Kessler’s thesis about Hubble images and their relationship to American culture as I write this.