Date: September 10, 2010

Title: Googling The Solar System


Podcaster: Bob Hirshon

Organization: American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) –

Description: Google Earth is a powerful tool for exploring our planet and, increasingly, a way to visit other planets as well. In this episode of the 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast, AAAS radio producer and media education director Bob Hirshon interviews Google’s Eric Kolb, a key player in the Google Earth project and a planetary geologist by training. Hirshon heads up a project to add Mercury to the family of planets offered by Google, along with a suite of Mercury tours and games.

Bio: Bob Hirshon is Senior Project Director at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and host of the daily radio show and podcast Science Update. Now in its 23rd year, Science Update is heard on over 300 commercial stations nationwide. Hirshon also heads up Kinetic City, including the Peabody Award winning children’s radio drama, McGraw-Hill book series and Codie Award winning website and education program. He oversees the Science NetLinks project for K-12 science teachers, part of the Verizon Foundation Thinkfinity partnership. Hirshon is a Computerworld/ Smithsonian Hero for a New Millennium laureate.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by the Education and Outreach team for the MESSENGER mission to planet Mercury. Follow the mission as the spacecraft helps to unlock the secrets of the inner solar system at


Welcome to the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast. I’m Bob Hirshon, host of the AAAS radio show and podcast, Science Update.

So I just did something to prepare for this podcast that I’ve never done before: I googled Google. I was afraid for second my computer might melt or something, but it just churned for an eighth of a second and then returned over nine billion hits. Which must be some kind of a record. I mean, the word “sale” returns only six billion; the term “Internet” gets you about a billion; and “sex?” Only 600 million.

I didn’t check out all nine billion. But I did click on the Wikipedia entry, and found that Google’s mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Not long ago, the “world’s information” came to include the world itself, with the launch of Google Earth.

Eric Kolb is a Geographic Information System, or GIS, specialist at Google, and he’s been instrumental in implementing Google Earth—especially the cool astronomy features that it now includes, like Google Mars and Google Moon. Kolb is a planetary geologist by training, and he was able to make use of that background thanks to Google’s Twenty Percent policy:


So for 20% of your time, you can essentially follow your own research muse, and mine of course is planetary geology, so I was looking for a space-based project and I found a few other space enthusiasts here at Google and um, we started fiddling around with, or making, fitting planetary data to a Google Earth type of globe.


Google Earth was originally a product called EarthViewer 3D developed by a company called Keyhole. It could map data onto a sphere and allow you to zoom and spin the globe. The company was acquired by Google, and GIS specialists there began to add functionality to the original program. Kolb and his colleagues worked for months to figure out how to adapt it to accept and display planetary data from NASA.


So there was a, probably a good three or four months initial lag where we simply tried a bunch of simple test cases to see how we could fit, essentially, a planetary geoid to earth. And make it look right, and report right elevation values and things like that.

And once we got a proof of concept, we started in earnest working with some folks at NASA-Ames to begin, en masse, bringing in large amounts of data and creating the Google Mars and Moon projects you see today.


Now, creating this functionality took a lot of hours, and then implementing the planetary data was a huge effort, and finally the whole thing needs to be maintained and updated. That costs Google a lot of time and money. Which led me to wonder:

(on phone)

Now is Google doing this to be nice, or is this a plot to take over the entire solar system?


That’s a good question and one that comes up fairly often. The answer is it’s all part of Google’s mission to organize the world’s information. And so this is basically an off-shoot of that. And on top of that you have me as well as several others here, you know, personal interest in space and all things astronomy based. So we’ve combined those two efforts into making a product in which we’re excited mostly for the outreach potential for it, the science awareness that it brings to the public. Most of this data that we’ve incorporated into Mars and Moon are hard to digest at least from a public perspective, so what we’ve been able to do is bring the product down in an easily accessible way to the public and then hopefully, that transcends into more interest in science and a positive feedback type of loop.


So in a way, it is a plot: they’re trying to get people, especially kids, hooked on science, to create better educated citizens, with an unquenchable thirst for information, and a more talented labor force that can supply highly skilled workers for Google. Diabolical.

Of course, just putting up 3D globes won’t do the trick. They need education features like tours and games. For Google Mars, Kolb and the team got Bill Nye and Ira Flatow to narrate animated tours of the planet.


Well, first of all, I think we had a meeting and we said “who would we like to have narr—do some of these tours” and naturally names like Ira came up because they’re known to a lot of people. So it was fairly easy to get them on board, I mean we just asked them and they seemed very excited about it.


He says regular users also contribute content.


So any user of the project can with one or two clicks of a mouse button can create their own tour, so if there’s an area of interest to you on the surface of, say, Mars, you can zoom into it, and all the while you’re recording it and if you have a microphone there you can narrate it and then you can simply save it out as a file that you can share with the rest of the world. So you might even get something viral going out of that.


So far, in addition to earth itself, Google Earth has a cool astronomy feature called Google Sky. Then there’s Google Mars and, most recently, Google Moon. So what’s next?


Well, as you know, there’s a lot of terrestrial bodies out there. And many of them haven’t been fully explored and in some cases are only now beginning to be explored. So we’re always constantly on the lookout for new datasets, so if anything comes our way, particularly through government agencies, we will gladly incorporate it and hopefully create a compelling product from it.


In fact, I’m working with the Education and Public Outreach team for the MESSENGER spacecraft Mission to planet Mercury, and our goal is to add Mercury to the Google Earth menu. MESSENGER has made three fly bys of the planet, sending back a mosaic of images covering most of the planet’s surface. That dataset has been knit together by GIS experts working on the MESSENGER science team.

Now it takes overlapping data of the same terrain, taken from different angles, to create 3D maps, and there is very little of that kind of coverage available for Mercury from the flybys. So our first version of Google Mercury will be a 2D map covering a sphere. In other words, little or no actual topography, but lots of surface features, like craters and scarps, linked to different images and additional information.

Then in just a few months—in March of 2011—MESSENGER will go into orbit around Mercury and begin sending back a huge amount of data. And that will allow the sort of 3D mapping you see now on Google Mars. We’ll add that in as it becomes available, along with tours, and even games. And, as with Google Mars and Moon, you will be able to create your own tours and games for yourself, your friends and students—even for the world.

Now we’re working on this in hopes that Google will find it cool enough to post. We’ll update you on our progress with Mercury in a future podcast. In the meantime, Kolb says he’s busily adding features and imagery to Google Earth and the planets they already include.


There’s always something exciting going on here in Google, particularly in the geo section and so I would say just keep Google Earth open, keep looking at maps, and it’s amazing there’s almost something new, there’s something new coming out almost every day.


For the 365 Days of Astronomy, I’m Bob Hirshon.

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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