It will be a very long time before we can afford to send humans to Mars, given the estimated cost of roughly $1 trillion for round trip fare.
But until then we can sit back and be armchair “virtual astronauts” thanks to our robotic emissaries that photomap the Red Planet. Combine those snapshots with powerful computer image processing — and you’re all but physically there!
British 3D animation expert Adrian Lark has created the most dramatic example to date. This is the first true visualization that makes me feel that I’ve really been to Mars. It is awesomely beautiful and mesmerizing. I could watch it over and over. It is vastly more enthralling than anything conjured up by Hollywood in science fiction films. Gustav Holst’s “Mars: Bringer of War” from “The Planets” symphony thumps in my head every time I see this video. (Holst’s Mars is often mistaken for the musical score from the film Star Wars.)
The virtual camera flies 300 feet above the martian terrain in the southwest corner of Candor Chasima. Billions of years ago large amounts of ice under the surface may have melted and carved large outflow channels. As a result, the surface collapsed where substantial amounts of ice were removed, forming the vast Valles Marineris canyon system.
Unlike earlier 3D visualizations of planetary terrain, the vertical relief has not been exaggerated. (A few years back this drove some pedantic scientists into conniptions because the visualizations were judged “inaccurate” — never mind that as kids we all had with 3D relief globes of Earth in the school library.)
After looking at hundreds of pictures of Mars over the years, this visualization made me realize how alien the martian terrain really is. Yes, as on Earth aeolian and hydrological processes sculpt Mars, but it’s all in 1/3rd gravity! So the towering spires, steep sand dunes, buttes and other features look spindly..
Lark constructed the 3D terrain model from comparison of pairs of NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HiRISE views taken from slightly different points of view. Advanced stereo-matching algorithms automatically combined features between the two images, and determined their relative elevations based upon how much they shift with the spacecraft’s perspective offset between orbits. He has set up a YouTube channel called MARS3DdotCOM with other visualizations. (The HiRISE team is now releasing digital terrain models that they produce in-house, so that anybody with 3D rendering software and some skill can try creating this sort of animation.)
I imagine that within the next 1,000 years, humans will make similar virtual flyovers of nearby terrestrial extrasolar planets, meticulously mapped from orbit in preparation for sending down surface exploration vehicles. We will be able to skim over alien landscapes far removed from us in space and time.