Feb 272015
New software developed b NASA and Microsoft uses holographic imagery to virtually place scientists on Mars.

New software developed by NASA and Microsoft uses holographic imagery to virtually place scientists on Mars. (NASA/JPL)

It’s not everyday I get to talk with someone who works on Mars.

So when I scored an assignment for The Atlantic magazine’s website (Jet Lag is Worse on Mars) on how Martian explorers will adjust to a longer Martian day, my first call was to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I was able to get an interview with Jennifer Trosper, deputy project manager for NASA’s Mars Rover Curiosity, who has worked on Mars rovers since the Pathfinder landed in the ’90s with its small auxiliary rover Sojourner. With each rover, Trosper spent a period of time, up to three months, working on Mars time. The Martian sol as it’s called is 40 minutes longer than an Earth day.

That continual rocket lag proved fairly exhausting, though my story for The Atlantic also focused on research that showed how Martian explorers could reset their bodies’ internal clocks to adjust to those extra 40 minutes. What Trosper and the other controllers at JPL are experiencing is taking the first steps toward virtually working on Mars.

It may not be as good as getting actual boots on Mars, but it’s the best we can do for now. And just recently, they took another small step that could lead to a giant leap in virtual exploration of the planet.

In January, NASA announced that JPL working with Microsoft developed new software called OnSight to work virtually on Mars, if only in those locations where the Curiosity has already physically travelled and visually recorded.

OnSight uses visual information and data from Curiosity to blend physical views of Mars with computer generated imagery to project a 3D holographic view onto Microsoft’s HoloLens, a headband and visor that wirelessly receives the information

“OnSight gives our rover scientists the ability to walk around and explore Mars right from their offices,” said Dave Lavery, program executive for the Mars Science Laboratory mission at NASA Headquarters in Washington. In a January press release from NASA, Lavery explains the system “fundamentally changes our perception of Mars, and how we understand the Mars environment surrounding the rover.”

“I’ve been a little skeptical of those things,” Trosper admitted to me as we strayed from living on Mars time to virtually walking on the Red Planet. But not long ago when she had the chance to put on the HoloLens itself, she became convinced of OnSight’s possibilities for virtual exploration.

With the headset on, she saw a holographic scene already captured by Curiosity. A project scientist stood across from her. “I could see Mount Sharp on one side of the background. In some cases, the tracks (of Curiosity).”

The holographic view allowed her to step closer to an interesting Martian rock to examine it from all sides. Trosper said for her to be virtually standing on Mars with the project scientist “spurred conversations that we wouldn’t necessarily have had.”

She said the difference was “just like looking at pictures of the Grand Canyon and then going there. “Because of the true 3D dimension OnSight gives, the holographic view allows scientists to walk around a point of interest such as a rock and provide a perspective they’ve never had before. “It’s going to make the science we do much better, with much better contextual understanding. Seeing the context of it all, that’s how it (lets us) come up with the grand theories…. I think it will be great.”

OnSight won’t leave actual nor virtual bootprints on the Martian soil, but at least it’s one step closer to being there.

What would you do with an extra 40 minutes?

In my article for The Atlantic,  I started out asking, “What would you do with an extra 40 minutes in a day?”

For Martian explorers and eventually those who emigrate to Mars from Earth, it will be up to them to decide. Probably during the work week, it will just be split up in unnoticed minutes to various tasks. Come the weekend, however, will they treat the extra time as something special?

Science fiction writers have already speculated on what they may do with those 40 minutes after midnight and before the Martian sol. In my audio drama Shalbatana Solstice, I call it Null Time. As for what the immigrant Martians may do with this half-step out of time, click on the following sound file.

Jet Lag is Worse on Mars, The Atlantic.com

NASA, Microsoft Collaboration Will Allow Scientists to ‘Work on Mars’, NASA

Mars Comes to Earth: Scientists ‘Visit’ Red Planet with Augmented Reality, Space.com

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