NVIDIA Lends Helping Hand to NASA

The company whose graphics cards power many of the world’s PCs and Macs is now on the Martian surface. Sort of.

NVIDIA Corp. has announced that NASA is using its technology to transform data sent from NASA’s Martian rover into a photorealistic virtual-reality that NASA boffins can move through in real time on planet Earth. The simulations gives scientists the opportunity to rehearse a variety of rover scenarios, mapping out moves and experiments, prior to directing the vehicle to undertake actual tasks on Mars.

The NASA rover Spirit, which landed on January 3, 2004, is on a mission to see if life once existed on the Red Planet. Another rover, Opportunity, is scheduled to join Spirit when it lands January 24, 2004.

“NVIDIA graphics allow NASA scientists to interactively plan rover movements using 3D photorealistic views of the surface so commands transmitted to the rover are more likely to result in successful experiments and data gathering,” says Laurence Edwards, Mars team-lead for 3D visualization and surface reconstruction from the NASA Ames Research Center. “Data transmissions from Mars involve massive amounts of image data that must be quickly viewed, studied, and shared. Three-dimensional visualization in photorealistic virtual reality is the most effective way to maximize distance traveled and knowledge gained.”

NVIDIA graphics are rendering photographic imagery more than three times as detailed as images sent back from 1997’s Sojourner mission. Traveling up to ten times farther than Sojourner, Spirit often takes 10,000 measurements per foot. The data stream is intense. Each day rover missions are underway, one group of NASA scientists focuses on that day’s rover operation while another plans the following day’s activities by studying the data and interacting with NVIDIA’s 3D model.