NASA engineers have been using visualization technology from Silicon Graphics (SGI) to help overcome the challenges of communicating across 106 million miles of space to remotely pilot the two Mars Exploration Rovers—including Spirit, which landed on the surface of Mars Jan. 3.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., is using SGI’s Onyx 300 systems and the OpenGL Performer real-time graphics API to combine 360-degree photographic images taken each morning by the Spirit Rover with terrain data to create a virtual Mars environment. This environment integrates the 3D visualization of the surrounding Martian geography with an interactive model of the Spirit Rover.
As a result, NASA engineers can safely pilot the Rover while compensating for round-trip space communication lag times of up to 20 minutes.
Each of JPL’s two SGI Onyx 300 supercomputers feature a dual-pipeline SGI InfiniteReality4 graphics subsystem, allowing engineers to visualize the virtual Mars in a 3D stereographic format providing better depth perception while piloting the Rover. As the JPL team interacts in the virtual Mars environment, they create scenarios from a list of approximately 900 different Rover commands. Alternative scenarios can be simulated and examined on Earth, with only the safest and most scientifically valuable selected for execution on Mars by the Rover.
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