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NVIDIA Helps NASA Reconstruct Mars Rover Data in 3D

NVIDIA announced that NASA is using its Quadro Graphics technology to reconstruct Martian terrain from transmitted rover data in photorealistic virtual reality, allowing scientists to explore Mars in 3D as if they were actually moving freely on the planet's surface. This NVIDIA-powered environment serves as a precise vision and planning system for NASA scientists, allowing them to rehearse a variety of Mars rover scenarios, mapping out moves and experiments, prior to directing the vehicle to undertake actual tasks by "flying" through highly realistic, 3D reconstructions of the Martian surface.

"With this capability, scientists step into a visually engaging model of the planet's surface and interactively study multiple perspectives -- front, back, side views -- of every object the rovers investigate to fully explore all options for rover routes and experiments, explained Laurence Edwards, Mars team lead for 3D visualization and surface reconstruction from NASA Ames Research Center.

NASA scientists use NVIDIA graphics to visualize high-resolution photographic imagery more than three times as detailed as images sent from Sojourner in 1997. Because the new rovers travel six to 10 times farther than Sojourner, taking approximately 6,000 to 10,000 more measurements per foot, the data visualized with NVIDIA graphics is transformed into a particularly detailed, visually-enhanced representation of the planet's terrain. Each day rover missions are underway, one group of NASA scientists focus on that day's rover operation while another plans the following day's activities by studying and interacting with this graphically rendered photographic and measurement data -- taken from targeted, but as yet unexplored Martian terrain.

"NVIDIA graphics allow NASA scientists to interactively plan rover movements using 3D photorealistic views of the surface so commands transmitted to rovers result in successful experiments and data gathering," said Edwards. "Data transmissions from Mars involve massive amounts of image data that must be quickly viewed, studied and shared. Three-dimensional visualization in photorealistic virtual reality is the most effective way to maximize distance traveled and knowledge gained."

Two NASA rovers, Spirit, which landed on Mars on Jan. 3, 2004, and Opportunity, which is scheduled to land on Jan. 24, will explore locations that suggest the one-time presence of water. By converting the data collected from cameras and scientific instruments on the rovers into knowledge through visualization, NVIDIA graphics technology help NASA scientists learn more about the history of water on Mars in the hopes of determining whether life currently exists on or beneath the surface.

"Today, with this new technology, NASA can simulate the lighting and surface conditions expected on Mars when an experiment is to be conducted," said Edwards. "If a rock will cast a shadow, obscuring a feature of interest, scientists on the ground will know about this effect in advance and plan around it. In the future, we envision scientists sitting within a large wrap-around display and programming rover movements and experiments using simple touch-screen or voice commands."

NVIDIA technology also allows NASA to share the knowledge gained from rover missions with the world community. Scientists worldwide can access and study the largest and most topographically accurate 3D models ever constructed during remote space exploration and, with the routine posting of 3D images on the Web, the public can virtually participate in the search for life on Mars.

NVIDIA Corp. ( is a market leader in visual computing technology dedicated to creating products that enhance the interactive experience on consumer and professional computing platforms. Its graphics and communications processors have broad market reach and are incorporated into a wide variety of computing platforms, including consumer digital-media PCs, enterprise PCs, professional workstations, digital content creation systems, notebook PCs, military navigation systems and video game consoles. NVIDIA is headquartered in Santa Clara, California, and employs more than 1,800 people worldwide.