April 11-14, 2007
San Francisco, California

Demonstrations: Description

Exploring Earth and Mars

Daniel Barstow, TERC, USA
James Harold, Space Science Institute, USA

On one screen we'll demonstrate "Virtual globe" systems combined with high resolution topographic and image data sets that promise to have an enormous impact on how we view and interpret information. Google Earth has been popularizing this approach for our planet, but what about the rest of the solar system? The MarsQuest Online web site ( will soon launch a fully 3D, global, hi-resolution Mars exploration system. Based on technology from GeoFusion, the system is web delivered: there is no executable or large dataset to install on local machines, only a browser plugin. With it you'll be able to explore Mars on your own or engage in a set of tours, flying from one location to another to discover everything from evidence of water to the graveyards of spacecraft.

On a second screen, we'll show 'Windows on Earth' which provides museum and web visitors with an engaging interactive experience, exploring Earth from space. This digital system uses state-of-the-art technologies to simulate the view of Earth as if from the window of the International Space Station. Visitors see the Earth in high-resolution, photo-realistic color and 3-D, passing by under them. Visitors can stop and explore when they wish, with sites of interest marked in many locations around the world, including animations of how various features were formed. The system includes real-time clouds, night lights, and other data to make the experience as realistic and interactive as possible.

The WinEarth system will soon be installed in the National Air & Space Museum, Boston Museum of Science, St. Louis Science Center and Montshire Museum of Science, as well as an open presence on the Web. Additional museums plan installations, once the project is launched.

This NSF-funded project uses the emotional connection of "being the astronaut" to engage visitors and to promote a deeper understanding of Earth's dynamic processes and their global interconnections - Earth as "Gaia". We have a special focus on the potential impacts of global climate change.

The underlying technology uses an advanced Earth visualization engine developed by GeoFusion, and a digital Earth based on satellite images. We worked with astronauts to color correct the data set to match a "real Earth" as seen from space. The system has hot links to real-time clouds, volcanoes, hurricanes and other Earth events, in collaboration with NASA and NOAA. The interface was developed in Flash, for use in museums and on the web. The museum version, designed by Jeff Kennedy Associates, has a very simple interface, enabling visitors to interact immediately. The web version has more advanced features for those who want to explore more extensively.

In collaboration with our museum partners, we have created special applications that make connections to other exhibits in the museum and/or to the local environment. For example, the installation in Montshire Museum in Vermont includes animations of the geological development of New England, with animations of plate tectonics and glaciation. The installation at the St. Louis Science Center includes an advanced simulator of the International Space Station, for use in their flight simulation computer lab.

Thus we have created not just an engaging museum exhibit, but a development environment that can be adapted for each museum's unique needs and interests, tapping into the power of seeing Earth from above.

TERC's Center for Earth and Space Science Education (the lead institution) has extensive experience with Earth visualizations in schools and informal institutions. We based the interface design and visitor experience on cognitive research and broad field-testing of how people engage with and make sense of Earth visualizations.

Demonstration: Demonstrations - 1 [Close-Up]

Keywords: mars, space, virtual globes