Since NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover Curiosity landed on the red planet, each sol (a Martian "day") of the mission sees a flood of new photographs from Aeolis Palus -- the plain inside Gale Crater where Curiosity landed on Aug. 5. In September 2012, mission controllers sent the command for Curiosity to flip open the dust cap in front of the robotic arm-mounted Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). Until that point, the semi-transparent dust cap only allowed MAHLI to make out fuzzy shapes -- although it did a great job imaging Curiosity's "head" and it is also famous for capturing Curiosity's first color photograph. But since the true clarity of MAHLI has been unleashed, we've been treated to some of the most high-resolution views of the rover, Martian landscape and, most importantly, we've seen exactly what MAHLI was designed to do: Look closely at Mars rocks and dirt, assembling geological evidence of potential past habitability of Mars.
The Business End
Curiosity is armed with 17 cameras and MAHLI is designed to capture close-up photos of geological samples and formations as the rover explores. MAHLI was designed and built by Malin Space Science Systems and is analogous to a geologist's hand lens -- only a lot more sophisticated. Its high-resolution system can focus and magnify objects as small as 12.5 micrometers (that's smaller than the width of a human hair!). This photograph captured by the rover's Mastcam shows the MAHLI lens (with dust cap in place) in the center of the end of Curiosity's instrument-laden robotic arm.
To aid its studies, MAHLI is equipped with four LEDs to light up the imager's samples.
The first photograph to be returned from MAHLI without the dust cover in place was received on Sol 33 (Sept. 8) of Curiosity's mission. Shown here is a view of the ground immediately in front of the rover. Although this photo was a test, mission scientists were able to do a very preliminary study of the large "pebble" at the bottom of the picture: "Notice that the ground immediately around that pebble has less dust visible (more gravel exposed) than in other parts of the image. The presence of the pebble may have affected the wind in a way that preferentially removes dust from the surface around it," they wrote.
How Did Lincoln Help MAHLI?
On Sol 34 (Sept. 9), MAHLI was aimed at Curiosity's calibration target. This target is intended to color balance the instrument and provide a "standard" for mission scientists to refer to. The 1909 Lincoln penny was provided by MAHLI's principal investigatory Ken Edgett. Using a penny as a calibration target is a nod to geologists' tradition of placing a coin or some other object of known scale as a size reference in close-up photographs of rocks, says the MSL mission site.
Although MAHLI will be used to examine microscopic scales, it is showing its prowess at generating some spectacular high-definition views of the rover. Shown here is a mosaic of Curiosity's three left-side dusty wheels.
Hazard Avoidance Cameras
Hazard Avoidance Cameras, or Hazcams, have become "standard issue" for the last three rovers to land on Mars. Mounted on the front and back of rovers Opportunity, Spirit and Curiosity, these small cameras provide invaluable information about the terrain and potential hazards surrounding the rovers. These cameras are not scientific cameras -- they are engineering cameras. Shown here, MAHLI has imaged the four front Hazcams on Curiosity. Interestingly, it was these cameras who returned Curiosity's first dusty image after touch down in August.
Using the flexibility of the robotic arm, MAHLI was able to check the underside of Curiosity. As the camera can focus on objects from 0.8 inch (2.1 centimeters) to infinity, MAHLI has incredible versatility allowing mission controllers to focus on the very small features of Mars to checking the health of the rover to viewing the impressive vistas beyond.
In October 2012, the Internet was abuzz with speculation about a "mystery object" lying beneath the rover during digging operations at "Rocknest." Sadly, after studying the translucent object, mission scientists deduced that it wasn't anything native to the alien environment, it was actually a piece of plastic that had fallen from Curiosity. Yes, Curiosity is littering the red planet.
The MAHLI camera was very attentive while Curiosity dug trenches in the Mars soil at "Rocknest."
In early 2013, MAHLI snapped another curious photo. This time, after driving to a rocky outcrop at a location dubbed "Yellowknife," the camera picked out what appeared to be some kind of organic-looking object embedded in the rock. Nope, it's not a Mars "flower" -- more likely it's a concentration of minerals.
In what has become an iconic photo of Curiosity, MAHLI was commanded to capture dozens of high-resolution pictures of the rover. Like an "arms length" shot you may have in your Facebook profile, Curiosity did the same, composing a mosaic of pics taken with its outstretched robotic arm.
Curiosity Cleans Up!
The Mars rover isn't only a scientific superstar, it also has a talent for cleaning. This circular pattern on a Mars rock was brushed aside by Curiosity's Dust Removal Tool (DRT), helping the rover carry out analysis of the rock surface beneath the layer of dirt.
I’d be willing to bet that at least a few people reading this article will have at least thought about how it might feel to set foot on another planet. Sadly, as strong as the pioneering spirit may be for some of us, this is unlikely to actually happen anytime soon. For now, the next best thing is going to be provided by a new video game that will set you down in the middle of an authentic Martian surface.
Lacuna Passage puts you in the shoes of Jessica Rainer, an astronaut whose job is to explore the surface of Mars and try to find out what was behind the disappearance of the previous expedition. And this game has a little extra something, in all of the scenery that you see actually exists on the surface of the Red Planet.
Tyler Owen, at independent games studio Random Seed Games, decided that the best way to bring the surface of Mars to life was to use the actual surface of Mars, as recorded by NASA’s HiRISE instrument. One of a suite of instruments on board NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) has been sending back breathtaking images of the Martian surface since it arrived in orbit around our neighboring world in 2006.
HiRISE’s special skill is to produce stereo pairs of images. As well as entertaining people with 3D glasses, the images allow the topography of Mars’ surface to be measured down to a 0.25 meter accuracy. It was this topographic information that caught Owen’s eye.
“At first it was almost a necessity,” explained Owen, who intends to let players roam a 25 square mile patch of the Red Planet. “I started this project as a single developer working in my free time and in order to create an open world game with the scale that I wanted it was almost impossible to create all the geography by hand. I started researching the use of actual Mars satellite data and it seemed like a great solution to my problem.”
As was highlighted recently in the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, video games and real life space exploration captivate people for many of the same reasons, with games designers noting that their enthusiasm to explore is closely linked to their desire to create virtual worlds for others to explore.
Other prominent panelists at the conference — including SETI’s Jill Tarter and LeVar Burton who many will recognize from his role as Geordie LaForge in Star Trek: The Next Generation — pointed out that some video games set in space could benefit from being less about violence and shooting and more about building experiences and keeping calm, using imagination to progress a storyline. It’s possible that a game like Lacuna Passage might be exactly the kind of game which could fit the bill.
As well as using the HiRISE data to get elevation profiles for the Martian landscape, the game’s design takes references from photographs sent back from Curiosity, as well as its predecessors Spirit and Opportunity. After all, artists are still needed to create all of the models and textures for every last rock and pebble you see in the game.
The surrounding environment is essentially a character in the game, so it needs to be more than just scenery. A high level of detail is essential, both in the depiction of the terrain and in weather events. Things like the famous Martian dust devils and other dust storms are intended to be recreated in-game as faithfully as possible.
After working so closely with Mars terrain data, Owen elaborates that he has “developed a profound appreciation for the natural landscapes of Mars.” By mixing and matching pieces of data from HiRISE, Lacuna Passage is set to be a true depiction of being on Mars, albeit not a perfect recreation of any single piece of the planet. This allows the landscape to fit with the narrative and game objectives. As Owen says, “I think it helps add a level of real depth to the exploration in knowing that most of the features actually exist on another planet.”
Storylines and Simulators
Video games have collided with real life space exploration before. For example, in 2010, NASA released a game called Moonbase Alpha. Available for free, either from the web or through Steam, the intention was to give players a taste of the actual running of a lunar colony. Then again last year, NASA released the game Mars Rover Landing. Free to download from Xbox Live, their aim this time was to give people a taste of exactly how difficult it is to land a vehicle on the surface of Mars.
However, simulators like these are not what Tyler Owen envisions for Lacuna Passage. Far from simply being an interplanetary Oregon Trail, the intent here is to create a game with a sense of urgency behind it. While the player may be free to explore the environment around them, there will be enough pressure to make you plan things out and keep hunting for a solution. For example, if you see a mountain in the distance, nothing will prevent you from going to climb it. Nothing, that is, apart from the question of whether you have enough oxygen to get there.
“With all of our attention to detail and accuracy we still reserve the right to artistic interpretation,” Owen continued. ”In this case I prefer a more expressionist version of Mars with the reds pumped way up.”
This does make perfect sense, as most people instantly recognize Mars as “the red planet.” Stylizing scenery is essential in any good game, and in this case it makes for a stark contrast between the red and browns of the surrounding planet, with the icy cold grays and blues of the technology and equipment used by the human explorers.
Overall, with its realistic terrain and interesting gameplay, I can’t wait for Lacuna Passage to become available. For anyone else who wants to keep track of the game’s development, a development blog is online at the Random Seed website.
Image: A screenshot of Martian scenery from the currently in-development Lacuna Lassage game. Credit: Tyler Owen/Random Seed Games