NASA–Microsoft technology to virtually explore Mars

NASA and Microsoft have teamed up to develop a technology that would help scientists “explore Mars” without being on the red planet. Named OnSight, the new technology will enable scientists to work virtually on Mars using wearable devices called Microsoft HoloLens.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, is developing OnSight to give scientists a means to plan and, along with the Mars Curiosity rover, conduct science operations on the Red Planet.

“OnSight gives our rover scientists the ability to walk around and explore Mars right from their offices,” said Dave Lavery, program executive for the Mars Science Laboratory mission at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “It fundamentally changes our perception of Mars, and how we understand the Mars environment surrounding the rover.”

OnSight will create a 3-D simulation of the Martian environment using real rover data from the Curiosity mission planning tools. Scientists from all over the world can see this. The simulation will also allow programme scientists to examine the rover’s worksite from a first-person perspective, plan new activities and preview the results of their work firsthand.

“We believe OnSight will enhance the ways in which we explore Mars and share that journey of exploration with the world,” said Jeff Norris, JPL’s OnSight project manager.

Until now, scientists were examining Mars imagery on computer screens and made inferences about the visuals. But the visuals lacked perspective that human vision employs to understand spatial relationships.

The OnSight system uses holographic computing to overlay visual information and rover data into the user’s field of view. Holographic computing blends a view of the physical world with computer-generated imagery to create a hybrid of real and virtual.

Microsoft Hololens helps scientists view the holographic realm which surrounds them with images from the rover’s Martian field site. The tool provides access to scientists and engineers looking to interact with Mars in a more natural, human way.

“Previously, our Mars explorers have been stuck on one side of a computer screen. This tool gives them the ability to explore the rover’s surroundings much as an Earth geologist would do field work here on our planet,” said Norris.

The OnSight tool also will be useful for planning rover operations. For example, scientists can program activities for many of the rover’s science instruments by looking at a target and using gestures to select menu commands.