Three years after Curiosity rover landed on Mars, NASA has introduced two new online mars research tools that will assist citizens, scientists, and students study the Red Plant and invite the public to help with its Journey to Mars.
Mars Trek is a free, web-based application that offers high-quality detailed visualizations of the planet using real data from 50 years of NASA exploration.
A NASA team is already using Mars Trek to aid in the selection of possible landing sites for the agency’s Mars 2020 rover, and the application will be used as part of NASA’s newly announced process to examine and select candidate sites for the first human exploration mission to Mars in the 2030s.
Developed by NASA’s Lunar Mapping and Modeling Project, Mars Trek includes interactive maps, which have the ability to overlay a range of data sets generated from instruments aboard spacecraft orbiting Mars. It also has an analysis tool for measuring surface features. Standard keyboard gaming controls are used to maneuver the users across Mars’ surface and 3-D printer-exportable topography allows users to print physical models of surface features.
Experience Curiosity allows viewers to journey along with the one-ton rover on its Martian expeditions. The program simulates Mars in 3-D based on actual data from Curiosity and NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), giving users first-hand experience of a day in the life of a Mars rover.
Experience Curiosity also uses real science data to create a realistic and game-ready rover model based entirely on real mechanisms and executed commands. Users can manipulate the rover’s tools and view Mars through each of its cameras.
Curiosity’s adventures on the Red Planet began in the early morning hours of August 6, 2012 Eastern Time (evening of August 5, Pacific Time), when a landing technique called the sky-crane maneuver deposited the rover in the 96-mile-wide Gale Crater. From there, the rover began investigating its new home, discovering it had landed near an ancient lakebed sprinkled with organic material. Billions of years ago, fresh water would have flowed into this lake, offering conditions favorable for microbial life.
NASA has been on Mars for five decades with robotic explorers, and August has traditionally been a busy month for exploration of the planet. Viking 2 was put into orbit around Mars 39 years ago on August 7, 1976, making NASA’s second successful landing on the Martian surface weeks later. MRO was launched on August 12, 2005 and still is in operation orbiting Mars. And, Tuesday, August 4 marked the eight-year anniversary of the launch of the Phoenix mission to the north polar region of the Red Planet.
Ten years after launch, MRO has revealed the diversity and activity of the Red Planet, returning more data about Mars every week than all six other missions currently active there. And its work is far from over.
MRO’s primary science mission began in November 2006 and lasted for one Mars year, equivalent to about two Earth years. The orbiter has used six instruments to examine Mars’ surface and atmosphere. The spacecraft has been orbiting Mars at an altitude of about 186 miles (300 kilometers) above the Red Planet, passing near the north and south poles about 12 times a day.
MRO has discovered that Mars’ south polar cap holds enough buried carbon-dioxide ice to double the planet’s current atmosphere if it warmed. It’s caught avalanches and dust storms in action. The spacecraft’s longevity has made it possible to study seasonal and longer-term changes over four Martian years. These studies document activity such as moving dunes, freshly excavated impact craters and mysterious strips that darken and fade with the seasons and are best explained as brine flows.
Although it has already served longer than planned, the spacecraft could remain a cornerstone of NASA’s Mars Exploration program fleet for years to come.
In addition to continuing to make its own discoveries about Mars, the mission delivers crucial support for surface-based missions. This support includes communication relay service and detailed observations of candidate landing sites for rovers and stationary landers past, present, and future.
It also took close-up images of a passing comet last year and supports next year’s InSight landing.
The Insight mission will place a lander on Mars to investigate the deep interior of Mars for clues about the formation and evolution of all rocky planets, including Earth.