365DaysDate:  January 19, 2009


Title:  Bootleg Postcards — Armchair Astronauts Exploring the Solar System

Podcaster:  Doug Ellison

Organization:  Unmannedspaceflight.com

Description:  Imagery from robotic spacecraft is often put onto the web in near-real time.  A community of enthusiastic amateurs has grown around this imagery.  Doug Ellison discusses their efforts, results, and the opportunities beginning to open for those who want to explore the solar system from their armchair

Bio:  Doug Ellison is Multimedia Producer by day, and the dictator-for-life of Unmannedspaceflight.com by night.  In his spare time he processes imagery from spacecraft and gives talks to societies and schools on the Mars Exploration Rovers and other spacecraft exploring the solar system.

Today’s Sponsor:  Greg Thorwald on behalf of his favorite museum, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science


This is Doug Ellison from Unmannedspaceflight.com

A few days ago, Bill Dunford from Riding with Robots gave you a brief tour around the various websites that let you ride along with spacecraft exploring the solar system, the unmanned envoys of earthbound scientists.

Spacecraft conducting systematic monitoring of Earth and space, such as weather satellites, or the SOHO solar observing satellite have been putting their data onto the internet in very short order for the better part of a decade.  The first mission of exploration to do this was the twin Mars Exploration Rovers which landed in January 2004.

Principle Investigator Steve Squyres and Payload Element lead for Pancam Jim Bell, both from Cornell University, independently came up with the idea of sharing the images from the 10 different cameras onboard each rover via the web the moment they were on the ground.

That decision is one that certainly changed my life, and has influenced many others.  With those uncalibrated, compressed images – I was able to reconstruct the mosaics and colour images being taken by the rovers, and see Mars as quickly as the scientists and engineers driving the rovers.   To share my early, primitive efforts, I started a simple forum to discuss techniques and results.  That forum has since evolved into Unmannedspaceflight.com, known to many just as ‘UMSF.’ 

So what do people do with images from Spirit and Opportunity?

Using cheap, free, or even home-brewed image stitching  software, people can take the individual frames and convert them into stitched colour panoramas extending to tens of mega-pixels in resolution.  Because of the sheer number of people looking at the images, and the amount of ‘photoshop talent’ out there on the web, after a typical drive by one of the rovers, it is not uncommon for new panoramas from the rover to be stitched together and be on the forum within 6 hours of them being taken on Mars.  Quite a different state of affairs to the days when we would wait for new images to be published in science magazines and journals perhaps months after they were taken.

One especially well known creation was spotted by former Aviation Week journalist Craig Covault, a visually interesting panorama that had been put together from near the absolute summit of Husband Hill by Spirit.  What many don’t know is that the images were in-fact a mistake – two frames that fit beautifully to the bottom of the mosaic showing the back of the rover in context, should actually have been taken of the front of the rover, showing the potential work volume of its robotic arm. But what a beautiful mistake it was.

At the behest of Craig, a team led by Ken Kremer including Bernhard Braun, Marco di Lorenzo and myself, produced a stitched, tweaked, polished and then colourised panorama that made the cover of Aviation Week Magazine under the headline ‘Rocky Martian High’.  As if that was not enough, it later went on to feature on the popular ‘Astronomy Picture of the Day’ website, became one of New Scientists ‘ Images of the Year’ for 2005, and was even seen in the science supplement of a Belgian newspaper.

Dan Crotty has made it his job to produce a calibrated colour version of every pancam sequence from the twin rovers.  These stitch together, perfectly, to make beautiful panoramas, and feed into the quite brilliant ‘Midnight Mars Browser’ written by Mike Howard.

Mike began by making a simple tool that automatically fetched new imagery from the rovers.  It has since evolved into an interactive tool that will download and sort the images, produce colour composites, stereo anaglyphs and even reproject the imagery into virtual 3d space so that Pancam and Navcam imagery can be seen in context, site by site, sol by sol.  For the ultimate MER experience, I created a low resolution virtual 3d model of the MER rovers which Mike puts into the images, so that from the perspective of the rover on one sol, you can watch it drive to the next site.  This whole combination comes together as beautiful movies showing Spirit driving across the summit ridge of Husband Hill, or Opportunity riding the rim of Victoria Crater.  The ability of the virtual rover to follow the tracks made by the real rover is uncanny.  Rob Sullivan, a Senior Research Associate at Cornell University turned to Steve Squyres as I showed them a movie of Opportunity driving between the dunes of Meridiani Planum “Steve – it’s like their reading our minds” he said.

To keep track of where the rovers have got to – the forum has its mapping guru – Eduardo Tesheiner.  As quickly as the new panoramas appear, Eduardo will put another virtual pin into a map showing the route the rovers take across Gusev Crater or Meridiani Planum.

I can think of no finer testament to the quality and rapidity of the work these amateurs do that these words from Steve Squyres himself,

“Frequently I’ll get up in the morning” he said ” and the first place I go is unmannedspaceflight because I know I’m going to get the mosaics there rather than just raw images if I go through all the firewalls to JPL because nobody in Padadena has even woken up yet – I did it this morning to see how our drive went”

It’s not just Spirit and Opportunity that get the attention of the amateur panorama stitching crowd.  Phoenix, to, has had more than it’s fair share of photoshoping, chopping and mosaicing.   Dan Crotty was probably not the first person to notice the sublimation of ice out of one of the trenches dug by Phoenix but his posts on the forum were perhaps the first public airing of this unique discovery that truly clinched the ice claim inferred by Mars Odyssey.

Here in the UK space and astronomy are best covered by the very long-running TV programme the sky at night. On one episode about the Phoenix Mars lander they had an interview with one of the scientists from the Windsock experiment. In the background on the wall of the offices where Phoenix was commanded from I couldn’t help but notice a large printout of a mosaic that seemed strangely familiar. On closer analysis this was not a mosaic put together by the science team but  one put together by enthusiast James Canvin from the raw imagery put straight onto the web by the Phoenix team.

What about elsewhere in the solar system – what has this bunch of enthusiasts done beyond the orbit of Mars.

The new Horizons spacecraft was launched in January 2006, and in 2007 it flew past Jupiter to get a sling-shot on it’s  flight all way to Pluto. To fully exercised the spacecraft during the flyby a lengthy sequence of scientific observations were planned, however the science team did not have time themselves to identify any potentially attractive Kodak moments and so science team member John Spencer visited the UMSF Forum and asked if people there could suggest some.  To help – he provided a link to an online tool that would show the Jovian system from the perspective of New Horizons during the flyby.

One member in particular Richard Hendricks suggested several interesting possibilities which made it into the sequence for the flyby. Forum members eagerly awaited the imagery that was posted quickly to the internet by the science team.

And what images they were.  Arguable the two most famous images of the flyby are both Richard’s suggestions.  One, Europa rising out from behind Jupiter – but personally, my favorite is one showing Io and Europa in a single frame.  Europa appears as a slim yellowish crescent, and Io asa brighter crescent, the dark side filled in a little with ‘jupiter shine’ volcanos spewing forth, with the amazing Tvashtar throwing a plume high above Io.

To complete the circle of amateur participation, Emily Lakdawalla from The Planetary Society took the low resolution Colour image taken, and a higher resolution black and white image taken, and combined them into single sharp colour image that in a single frame demonstrates the beautiful dynamic nature of the Jovian system.

Since the successful Jupiter flyby John Spencer has returned to the form and asked people to suggest observations for the Pluto flight by in 2014. As you can well imagine suggestions have come thick and fast.

So what is the future for communities like UMSF and what of their involvement in real space flight operations?

Scott Maxwell lead Mars Rover driver gave a superb presentation at the Gnomedex conference talking about Mars 3.0, his vision for how the science and engineering communities can better interface with the public via the Internet not just as a means of communicating information out to the public but to enhance it into it two way interface where the public can feel a part of the adventure. At the moment, red tape and decades of habit are restricting great progress in this area, but perhaps in some small way the very beginnings of this process have already begun.  After it was announced that Opportunity was setting out from Victoria Crater for an epic journey to Endeavour crater, several for members turned their imaging and programming abilities into the analysis of HiRISE imagery of future driving terrain that rover will encounter.  The resulting ‘drivability’ maps correlate well with the 12 km of driving experience already covered.  Whilst currently the rover team cannot take such advice directly I am sure that something of value has been gained from this amateur effort to interpret imagery – perhaps future missions can use this talent directly.

So at whatever level you can, whatever skills you have, be it simply merging images into a mosaic or full on immersive 3-D software there is something for just about everybody.

The next rover to Mars, MSL, will carry high definition, video capable cameras.  A new fleet of spacecraft sent to the moon will surely send back more data than their science teams and possibly analyse. What is sure is that because of the decision by Steve Squires and Jim Bell in 2003, everyone at UMSF will be there to make the most of each bit of data that comes back. Join us – it’s a hell of a ride.

365 Days of Astronomy
The 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast is produced by the New Media Working Group of the International Year of Astronomy 2009. Audio post-production by Preston Gibson. Bandwidth donated by libsyn.com and wizzard media. Web design by Clockwork Active Media Systems. You may reproduce and distribute this audio for non-commercial purposes. Please consider supporting the podcast with a few dollars (or Euros!). Visit us on the web at 365DaysOfAstronomy.org or email us at info@365DaysOfAstronomy.org. Until tomorrow…goodbye.