Last night I attended a truly mind-blowing presentation in the planetarium at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco; the first ever public presentation on a huge screen of a visualization of real Martian topography data, showing how it would look if you were flying over the surface of the planet. Piecing Together Mars: Understanding a Sister World The presentation was done by Carter Emmart, Director of Astrovisualization, American Museum of Natural History and Jeff Moore, Planetary Geologist, NASA-Ames Research Center. It was the first time they had seen their data and images shown on the huge planetarium screen (normally they look at it on computer monitors) and I think they were as excited as the audience because they would comment to each other things like “Oh that’s interesting, I hadn’t noticed that before.” The data was derived from various Mars missions including of course orbiters that are active right now. Various areas of the planet have been mapped in varying degrees of detail from anywhere to a half a kilometer to less than a meter of resolution, and a team of people are working on assembling and correlating the data and have developed software that allows you to “fly” over the surface and view it from varying heights and angles. The image data is stored on various servers and was accessed through a high speed connection; during the presentation you could see it rendering and details filling in or dropping out as the presenters controlled the image during the “flight”. This image is based on real data and shows a 5,000 ft peak in Valles Marineris that has been eroded by wind over the past 3 billion years. The image is not distorted: that is how it would look if you were flying at that altitude and looking that direction. Colors are as accurate as they can make them based on the data. During the presentation we “flew” through the Valles Marineris, which is over 4,000km long, 200km wide, and up to 7km deep. The scale of that is hard to appreciate: the Grand Canyon would fit into a small tributary canyon of the Valles Marineris. The presentation also showed the area that the Opportunity Rover has explored to date, showing real image data that had enough detail to just barely make out the Opportunity landing platform and associated airbags, the aero shell and parachutes many meters from the landing site, and even some of the tracks the Rover has made on its journey to its current location on the edge of Endeavour Crater. I was anticipating that the presentation would conclude with a flight up to the top of Olympus Mons but unfortunately that didn’t happen. Besides Valles Marineris we did get a close look at various other areas, including Hellas Planitia, as well as details of fluvial planes (formed in the past by water), sedimentary depositis (also formed by water), ancient river deltas (including an oxbow!) and collapsed escarpments that resulted in huge landslides on a scale that we do not see on Earth. While watching it, I thought to myself “Elon would love this”. But I didn’t see him in the audience. If he had been there I would not have been surprised. This was the first time such a presentation had been shown publicly, and as I said even the presenters had never seen their data shown on a huge screen. Nothing was announced about the presentation being shown again.