Geo016 - Exploration of Mars

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Geo016 / Exploration of Mars / (M) 3:00-5:20 / Lincoln Field 105 / Prof. James Head

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Daniel Finn-Foley (03/17/04)

Last weeks class at “the cave” was one of my favorite classes yet. Talking about Mars is all well and good, but the fact remains that Mars is in reality 20 minutes away (if you're a beam of light). Being able to be on the surface of mars was a real treat.

There were two options for how to explore the surface of Mars at the Cave. One was the Cave itself, and immersive virtual reality simulation of the surface. While one half of our group went there, myself and several other went to the 2D model. That allowed us to navigate a projection of Mars on a 2D screen, which in motion was almost as impressive as the Cave itself. With my vast experiences with video games I got a grasp of the navigation controls quickly and was able to explore what I really wanted to see in person, Olympus Mons. This mountain, when described, is unfathomably large, the mere escapements rivaling the tallest Hawaiian volcanoes. When viewing it as part of a flat model of the surface, it seems even larger. I piloted our “camera” up the volcano and into the Caldera for a first person view of what it would be like to sit atop the tallest mountain in the solar system. It not only offered a great view of “Mars” but also allowed me to explore the insides of the caldera, where I found a smaller crater imbedded in the larger one, perhaps the result of a meteor impact or smaller eruption.

The program at use at small resolutions seemed very accurate. The terrain gradually sloped upwards at points, and the closer one got to the surface, the more details he or she could pick out. I enjoyed this almost more than the Cave itself, since there were several limitations to the Cave's system. First at higher resolutions, the imperfections in the orbital data became evident. At ground level the terrain seemed to be spiked, with sharp points of rock extending out from the ground at random points. We even came across a spike sticking out of the plains that rivaled Olympus Mons in height. Clearly on Mars such massive spikes do not really exist, and this was merely an error resulting from the imperfect collection of data and the imperfect portrayal of that data as a 3D rendering.

Another problem was the 3D mechanism, which often made objects nearby seem horribly out of focus. The closer one got to an object, such as the wall of a valley, the less it seemed to fit in with the rest of the surrounding landscape, but instead jumped out at you as a distorted double image.

Despite these shortcomings I thought our trip to the rock was amazing. Being up close and personal with Mars is an experience I wouldn't give up just because the data involved isn't perfect. This unique perspective really allowed me to appreciate what the planet looks like (at least topographically) and gave me a greater appreciation for the data NASA has collected and is still collecting from so distant a source.

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