There you are, standing on the surface of Mars. You can’t quite pick up that rock by your foot—not yet at least—but you can stand in places the Curiosity rover has explored, see that orange-yellow sky with red terrain on all sides, and feel like you’re on an alien world.
If Mars is too pedestrian, maybe you’d like to jump 40 light years away to the alien surface of the planet TRAPPIST-1d. You’ll see a dim red star from your vantage point, and looking up to the skies will reveal six “full moons” that are actually planets just 240,000 miles away from each other. Or maybe you just want to actually see and feel what a rocket launch is like, or examine the not-yet-built Space Launch System in exquisite detail.
All of these things have become (virtually) possible in the last few years, and it’s thanks to a few innovative thinkers within NASA.
Squint And You Can See the American Southwest
Sasha Samochina was once a newly-minted social media editor at NASA-JPL. But a chance encounter with the possibilities of augmented and virtual reality shifted her trajectory at the agency.
Part of NASA’s charter is to release new research into the world as it hits. Samochina saw an opening to incorporate images into YouTube’s then-new 360 video format, changing the way the Jet Propulsion Lab traditionally relays news in the digital age—press releases, images, the odd video here and there.
“I was really excited about doing that in a really creative way by incorporating moving images more,” she told Popular Mechanics at the Interplanetary Festival, part of Futurition in Santa Fe, N.M. As the conversation developed into how to use years of images in a newly minted digital space, Samochina saw a big opening with one of our nearest planetary neighbours.
Mars is the most well-studied planet outside of Earth, with dozens of missions over 50-plus years developing an understanding of the dry, arid, cold Red Planet. Once, Mars was lush and had oceans, but today it’s a terrain both alien and familiar. Squint and you can see the American Southwest. At least for a few minutes.
This quality of Mars—rocky, easier to explore than hellish Venus, a six-month transit time away—make it an easy study in comparative planetary science. It also makes it a fascinating world to present to the public.
“We already have these panoramas from years and years ago from the Opportunity mission that are full panoramas that could be put into a 360. So then the challenge was accepted by me to try to figure out how to cram that into the API that they were putting out,” she says.
Not long after she began putting together the Opportunity panoramic view in 2016, the Curiosity rover team released another panorama, this time from Gale Crater, the site of an ancient lake bed. It became a popular outreach tool, especially because you can slap on a Google Cardboard and get a virtual reality impression of the planet.
Since then, JPL has used it for other missions. The Cassini mission at Saturn received a send-off from the agency, incorporating a 360 view of the probe’s final moments as well as a view inside mission control as the craft entered its fiery demise in the top cloud layers of Saturn.
Standing on New Earths
There are other ways the agency is catching up to augmented and virtual reality. NASA is working with Microsoft on the HoloLens platform, which will guide engineers and scientists through a virtual Mars as they make their next moves on, say, the Curiosity rover. It can help those scientists figure out an interesting feature to explore by immersing them on the Red Planet.
Samochina has also helped engineers take CAD models and turn them into 3D visualizations. These, in turn, have been presented outside the agency as part of the Spacecraft AR platform, which puts a Mars rover or giant rocket in the palm of your hand.
“My end of everything is always, ‘Here you go everybody, here is something that scientists and engineers work on at JPL, I want you to be part of the storymaking, I want you to be excited about this stuff,'” she says.
There have been a few other applications of the device. It has not only taken astronaut training and turned it into an immersive experience and given a 3D view of the long-delayed Space Launch System, but also recorded rocket launches for VR consumption. Oh, and created an entire planetary experience based on a world 40 light years away.
The TRAPPIST-1 system includes seven sort-of-Earth-sized worlds around a cool star 40 light years away. All seven could be considered in the broad habitable zone of their star. Taking what information they had on the star and its collection of planets, JPL created a view from the surface of TRAPPIST-1d. Put on the right equipment and you can stand on the surface of this alien world, view its Jupiter-sized star, and see all six planetary nneighboursin the sky as if having seven partial-or-full-moons in the sky.
NASA isn’t just about robotic probes, of course, but human explorers as well. Depending on who you ask, we could be stepping on Mars within the next 20 to 30 years. Those six months to Mars could, for astronauts, be a fraught time. VR could immerse them in virtual worlds away from a claustrophobic ship. Imagine a 360 video of home during a family event. A HoloLens could end up a powerful medical tool that could save lives in transit to our tiny neighbour.
“Human factor in AR and VR are going to be hugely important not only for keeping your mental health but also for performing surgery on someone when their body is scanned and you don’t know how to do the surgery,” Samochina says. “These kind of science fiction things I think will become a reality. Thinking through those … I get excited about it.”
And maybe once they get there, we can get a 360 video beamed back home of the first time humanity will have set foot on another planet in our first step beyond the moon.