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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Michael Frederickson (03/17/04)

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to explore Mars in the CAVE last class. As a computer science concentrator focusing specifically on 3D graphics, this was an experience I had been looking forward to since it was announced during the first class. I have seen many other programs run in the CAVE, but many of them seemed to be purely aesthetic, or simply proof of concept programs. Exploring the geometrical topology of Mars in the CAVE was the first significantly scientific application of the technology that I have personally viewed.

Technologically, there are many pros and cons about the current setup of the Mars topology data in the CAVE. After my group had the opportunity to explore the surface, many people mentioned they would have liked to see higher detail in the close-up views of the terrain. The software was generating higher resolutions as the user zoomed closer into the terrain, but I was told by a technician that on the tiles we were looking at, the highest level of detail was created by procedural fractals, or, in other words, randomly. Though I was told that a group of almost fifty processor in the next room can run the Mars simulation and offer better frame rates and surface detail, I feel that this random fractal pattern is misleading. I overheard several classmates assuming that these bumps were actually terrain features, when in reality they are only aesthetic. I understand that the terrain detail is limited by processing power and the actual data from the orbiter, but before this simulation can be truly effective, higher resolution topographical data must be retrieved from an orbiter. Mapping photographic data at high resolutions might be helpful as well, as it would allow users to understand the link between topology and the actual surface appearance. In addition, I think the actual user interface device might need a little work, as I found some people were struggling with the navigation inside the CAVE. For people to truly make the best use of the technology, it must be readily accessible.

Aside from the technical standpoint, it was extremely interesting to be ‘flying over' Mars. Though I thought, and gathered from conversations with other students, that the scale was misleading and could perhaps be changed to be more accurate to true Martian proportions. Our group focused on Olympus Mons, Valles Marineris, and terrain featues near Valles Marineris. I initially didn't go into the simulation thinking I would find craters that were large enough to be measured by the orbiter. In addition, I wasn't sure we would find them anywhere but on the “sea level” of Mars. Interestingly enough, it seemed that large impact craters were present on the top of some volcanoes, and they were large enough to be viewed in high detail in the CAVE. Also, curious surface features in line with Olympus Mons piqued my interest about their formation without plate tectonics. Clearly much more research needs to be done as to how Mars' surface became the way it did without tectonics. The Valles Marineris was quite disorienting in terms of scale, as it seemed small while we “flew through it.” Regardless, by comparing it to the scale of Olympus Mons it gave me a true understanding of the canyon's depth. I think it would be prudent for us to explore the depths of this canyon, as the bottom would likely yield some telling information about the canyon's formation and possibly Mars' subsurface geological characteristics.

Realizing the array of terrain features on Mars led me to believe that humans could likely navigate Mars in a much more efficient way than a rover. After listening to Jay's rover update, it became abundantly clear that what would be an easy task for a human, such as traveling to the other side of a crater to look back for exposed rock, is a time consuming struggle for a current rover. Still, I feel this constraint can not justify sending humans to Mars. Due mostly to the risk of human life, along with the tremendous research that would need to be done to be able to bring humans back, it seems imprudent to put humans on Mars. Rovers can likely perform any task that humans could with enough time and funding, and seem to be the obvious method of exploration for the future. The CAVE exploration made me realize that with better data, we could likely better inform the rovers about their surroundings, and thus allow them to traverse the surface faster and more efficiently. More accurate data would also allow humans to virtually explore Mars on this planet, doing research here, and sending rovers only when specific geological testing is necessary.

I think the first of the four most fundamental scientific questions about Mars that needs to be answered is how Mars' terrain features were formed without plate tectonics. In order to answer this question, I feel that we need to examine the subsurface, and also examine other planets. Our class on geology informed me that looking at other planets at different stages of planetary development can tell us more about our planet, and Mars. I think at this time, comparison and extrapolation are our most important scientific tools. I think the question of whether water existed on the surface is extremely important as well. Clearly, this lends itself to discovering if life was ever present on Mars. Given the opportunity to try to answer these two questions myself, I feel that I would follow the same path that NASA is currently following. Close exploration of the geological makeup of the surface by mechanized rovers is the safest, most effective and economical method to search for water and life. Finally, I think the fourth question springs from that of whether or not life existed on Mars. Once we discover the answer to this question, I think we must assess the nature of life itself. Is life unique to earth? If life did not develop on Mars, does this necessarily mean we should stop searching elsewhere? After we know if life existed or not, this fourth question can only be answered by carefully scrutinizing what conditions incubated or prevented life on the red planet. In terms of the geographical locations that need to be visited to answer these questions, I think NASA has pursued many of them already. Careful analysis of rocks, as well as exposed rock in impact craters seem to be very important sites to examine for signs of life and water. I personally think we should later examine the bottoms of canyons, as well as the polar regions and subsurface Mars.

I look forward to our discussions next week, as I think the dry-valleys tell us much about the human research that can be done on Earth and still be pertinent to Mars. This kind of Earth-central human exploration, in combination with mechanical exploration, should be the most economical and safe breed of future discovery.
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