Mars Cameras Make Panoramic Photography a Snap

Aside

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

The Gigapan robotic platform holds a digital camera.
The Gigapan robotic platform now enables photographers on Earth to capture and create super-sized digital panoramas.

If you wish to explore a Martian landscape without leaving your armchair, a few simple clicks around the NASA Web site will lead you to panoramic photographs taken from the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Many of the technologies that enable this spectacular Mars photography have also inspired advancements in photography here on Earth, including the panoramic camera (Pancam) and its housing assembly, designed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Cornell University for the Mars missions. Mounted atop each rover, the Pancam mast assembly (PMA) can tilt a full 180 degrees and swivel 360 degrees, allowing for a complete, highly detailed view of the Martian landscape.

The rover Pancams take small, 1 megapixel (1 million pixel) digital photographs, which are stitched together into large panoramas that sometimes measure 4 by 24 megapixels. The Pancam software performs some image correction and stitching after the photographs are transmitted back to Earth. Different lens filters and a spectrometer also assist scientists in their analyses of infrared radiation from the objects in the photographs. These photographs from Mars spurred developers to begin thinking in terms of larger and higher quality images: super-sized digital pictures, or gigapixels, which are images composed of 1 billion or more pixels.

Gigapixel images are more than 200 times the size captured by today’s standard 4 megapixel digital camera. Although originally created for the Mars missions, the detail provided by these large photographs allows for many purposes, not all of which are limited to extraterrestrial photography.

Partnership

The technology behind the Mars rover PMAs inspired Randy Sargent at Ames Research Center and Illah Nourbakhsh at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) to look at ways consumers might be able to use similar technology for more “down-to-Earth” photography and virtual exploration.

In 2005, Sargent and Nourbakhsh created the Global Connection Project, a collaboration of scientists from CMU, Google Inc., and the National Geographic Society, whose vision is to encourage better understanding of the Earth’s cultures through images. This vision inspired the development of their Gigapan products.

After seeing what the Pancams and PMAs could do, Sargent created a prototype for a consumer-version of a robotic camera platform. He worked with Rich LeGrand of Charmed Labs LLC, in Austin, Texas, to design and manufacture the Gigapan robotic platform for standard digital cameras.

Product Outcome

The Gigapan robotic platform is, in essence, an intelligent tripod that enables an amateur photographer to set up detailed shots with ease. A user sets the upper-left and lower-right corners of the panorama, and the Gigapan simply will capture as many images as the user or scene requires. With this level of automation, a 500-picture panorama is no more complicated than a 4-picture panorama; only the camera’s memory limits the size of the panorama.

The Global Connection Project also created two other Gigapan products: a Gigapan Web site and panorama stitching software born from the Ames Vision Workbench, an image processing and computer vision library developed by the Autonomous Systems and Robotics Area in the Intelligent Systems Division.

A high-resolution composite photograph shows a monk atop a temple in Nepal, the temple at a distance, and a restaurant behind the temple.
Gigapan allows a photographer to capture extremely high-resolution panoramas, which a user can explore in depth. In this wide view of Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal, it is possible to zoom all the way into the smallest, barely visible points in the picture, such as the monk standing on the roof of the temple or the sign above the Tibet Kitchen Restaurant and Bar.
Gigapan panoramic image courtesy of Jessee Mayfield.

The robotic platform works with the stitching software by precisely manipulating and aligning each shot ahead of time. The Gigapan software complements the robotic platform by arranging the parts of the panorama (potentially hundreds of individual photographs) into a grid where they are stitched together into a single, very large Gigapan image.

The Global Connection Project won a 2006 “Economic Development Award” from the Tech Museum Awards for its work in creating photographic overlays for Google Earth of areas affected by natural disasters. Government workers and concerned citizens used the images on Google Earth to see which areas needed help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita, and the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir.

On the Gigapan Web site, a user can display a wide bird’s eye panorama and can then zoom in with impressive bug’s eye high-quality detail. On first impression, a panoramic photograph on Gigapan’s site might seem to be simply a wide-angle cityscape of a temple in Kathmandu. With each successive click, however, the user can zoom deeper and deeper into the photo, revealing more and more clear details: a monk hanging prayer flags on the roof of the temple and the Tibet Kitchen Restaurant and Bar a few blocks behind the temple, with a sign extolling passersby to taste their gourmet food.

As part of a continuing effort to connect people and cultures, the Global Connection Project encourages all users to upload their own panoramas from around the world on the Gigapan site. Users can explore such varied landscapes as a temple in Nepal, the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, a market in Guatemala, or the Boston skyline from the Charles River. Because of the much greater number of pixels, the resolution is unprecedented; the Gigapan software and robotic platforms can theoretically produce prints on 40-foot-wide paper without any loss in quality.

Whether or not photographers use the Gigapan mounts and software, anyone can upload their panoramas to the Gigapan Web site. Many users of Gigapan have uploaded standard panorama photographs, as well (although the site suggests photographs be at least 50 megabytes). This is just fine with the Gigapan and the Global Connection Project coordinators, whose aim is simply to encourage exploration and understanding of the various cultures in our world.

The Fine Family Foundation is sponsoring work with the Global Connection Project to enable botanists, geologists, archeologists, and other scientists around the world to document different aspects of the Earth’s cultures and ecosystems using Gigapan technology. Scientists are using Gigapan to document life in the upper redwood forest canopy in California, volcanoes in Hawaii, and glaciers in Norway.

There are also educational uses for the Gigapan: The Pennsylvania Board of Tourism uses Gigapan for Web site visitors wanting to explore Civil War sites virtually. Also, in collaboration with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Global Connection Project has distributed Gigapan to students in Pittsburgh, South Africa, and the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, encouraging them to photograph their local culture and share those panoramas with the world. “The hope is that students will be able to have deeper connections to other cultures,” said Sargent.

A time-lapse Gigapan robotic mount is now in development, and a professional unit for larger SLR-style cameras may be released before the end of 2008.

Gigapan is a trademark of Carnegie Mellon University.

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Committee Approves Bipartisan NASA Authorization Act

Washington, D.C. – The Committee on Science, Space, and Technology today approved the NASA Authorization Act of 2014 (H.R. 4412) with unanimous bipartisan support. The bipartisan bill reaffirms Congress’s commitment to space exploration, both human and robotic, and makes clear that human spaceflight to Mars is NASA’s primary goal.

Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas): “Today’s bill ensures that NASA will continue to innovate and inspire. The scientists, engineers and astronauts who find creative and new solutions to the challenges of exploring the universe serve as role models for our students. NASA has accomplished some of the most awe-inspiring and technologically advanced space initiatives in the history of humankind. There is strong, bipartisan support for NASA’s unique role, and the Manager’s Amendment offered today reflects this.”

The bipartisan Manager’s Amendment, offered by Space Subcommittee Chairman Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.) and Ranking Member Donna Edwards (D-Md.), increases the use of the International Space Station for science research, encourages commercial use of space, protects us from the effects of solar flares, helps remove orbital debris, and supports the development of a new space telescope that will detect Earth-sized planets.

Subcommittee Chairman Palazzo: “I would like to thank Chairman Smith, Ms. Edwards, and Ms. Johnson for their efforts in pulling together this agreement, as well as all of our staff who labored over this bill. I look forward to continuing our work to pass this bill on the House floor. I am proud that we are able to put our names on a bipartisan bill for the sake of our nation’s space program, national pride, and our national security.”

The NASA Authorization Act of 2014 continues the consistent guidance Congress has given to NASA for nearly a decade by reaffirming a stepping stone approach to exploration in a go-as-you-can-afford-to-pay manner by developing an exploration roadmap.  It supports the development on the Space Launch System and the Orion Crew Vehicle to push the boundaries of human exploration, and focuses NASA’s efforts to develop a capability to access low Earth orbit and the International Space Station so that America can once again launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil.

The bill also supports a healthy science directorate that reflects the input from the scientific community and an aeronautics research directorate that contributes to our nation’s aerospace economy. 

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Drill Here? NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover Inspects Site

Sandstone Target 'Windjana' May Be Next Martian Drilling Site

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has driven within robotic-arm’s reach of the sandstone slab at the center of this April 23 view from the rover’s Mast Camera. The rover team plans to have Curiosity examine a target patch on the rock, called “Windjana,” to aid a decision about whether to drill there. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

 

April 25, 2014

The team operating NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is telling the rover to use several tools this weekend to inspect a sandstone slab being evaluated as a possible drilling target.

If this target meets criteria set by engineers and scientists, it could become the mission’s third drilled rock, and the first that is not mudstone. The team calls it “Windjana,” after a gorge in Western Australia.

The planned inspection, designed to aid a decision on whether to drill at Windjana, includes observations with the camera and X-ray spectrometer at the end of the rover’s arm, use of a brush to remove dust from a patch on the rock, and readings of composition at various points on the rock with an instrument that fires laser shots from the rover’s mast.

Curiosity’s hammering drill collects powdered sample material from the interior of a rock, and then the rover prepares and delivers portions of the sample to onboard laboratory instruments. The first two Martian rocks drilled and analyzed this way were mudstone slabs neighboring each other in Yellowknife Bay, about 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) northeast of the rover’s current location at a waypoint called “the Kimberley.” Those two rocks yielded evidence of an ancient lakebed environment with key chemical elements and a chemical energy source that provided conditions billions of years ago favorable for microbial life.

From planned drilling at Windjana or some nearby location on sandstone at the Kimberley, Curiosity’s science team hopes to analyze the cement that holds together the sand-size grains in the rock.

“We want to learn more about the wet process that turned sand deposits into sandstone here,” said Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “What was the composition of the fluids that bound the grains together? That aqueous chemistry is part of the habitability story we’re investigating.”

Understanding why some sandstones in the area are harder than others also could help explain major shapes of the landscape where Curiosity is working inside Gale Crater. Erosion-resistant sandstone forms a capping layer of mesas and buttes. It could even hold hints about why Gale Crater has a large layered mountain, Mount Sharp, at its center.

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Project is using Curiosity to assess ancient habitable environments and major changes in Martian environmental conditions. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech, built the rover and manages the project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

The spectrometer on the rover’s robotic arm is the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS), which was provided by the Canadian Space Agency. The camera on the arm is the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), built and operated by Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego. The laser on the mast is part of the Chemistry and Camera instrument (ChemCam), from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the French national space agency, CNES. The rover’s wire-bristle brush, the Dust Removal Tool, was built by Honeybee Robotics, New York.

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Sensors Provide Early Warning of Biological Threats

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution 

A postage stamp-size biosensor holding millions of carbon nanotubes
Containing millions of carbon nanotubes, the NASA biosensor can alert inspectors to minute amounts of potentially dangerous organic contaminants.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates there are between 4 and 11 million cases of acute gastrointestinal illnesses in the United States each year—caused by pathogens in public drinking water. The bacteria Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Salmonella have within the past few years contaminated spinach and tomato supplies, leading to nationwide health scares. Elsewhere, waterborne diseases are devastating populations in developing countries like Zimbabwe, where a cholera epidemic erupted in 2008 and claimed over 4,000 lives.

Scientists have found an unexpected source of inspiration in the effort to prevent similar disasters: the search for life on Mars. The possibility of life on the Red Planet has been a subject of popular and scientific fascination since the 19th century. While Martian meteorites have turned up controversial hints of organic activity, and NASA’s exploratory efforts have delivered important discoveries related to potential life—the presence of water ice, and plumes of methane in Mars’s atmosphere—direct evidence of organisms on our closest planetary relative has yet to be found.

In order to help detect biological traces on Mars, scientists at Ames Research Center began work on an ultrasensitive biosensor in 2002. The chief components of the sensor are carbon nanotubes, which are the major focus of research at the Center for Nanotechnology at Ames—the U.S. Government’s largest nanotechnology research group and one of the largest in the world. Tubes of graphite about 1/50,000th the diameter of a human hair, carbon nanotubes can be grown up to several millimeters in length and display remarkable properties. They possess extreme tensile strength (the equivalent of a cable 1 millimeter in diameter supporting nearly 14,000 pounds) and are excellent conductors of heat and electricity.

It is the nanotubes’ electrical properties that Ames researchers employed in creating the biosensor. The sensor contains a bioreceptor made of nanotubes tipped with single strands of nucleic acid of waterborne pathogens, such as E. coli and Cryptosporidium. When the probe strand contacts a matching strand from the environment, it binds into a double helix, releasing a faint electrical charge that the nanotube conducts to the sensor’s transducer, signaling the presence of the specific pathogens found in the water. Because the sensor contains millions of nanotubes, it is highly sensitive to even minute amounts of its target substance. Tiny, requiring little energy and no laboratory expertise, the sensor is ideal for use in space and, as it turns out, on Earth as well.

Partnership

“Carbon nanotubes are the wonder material of nanotechnology,” says Neil Gordon, president of Early Warning Inc., based in Troy, New York. “The opportunity was ripe to put that technology into a product.” Gordon encountered the director of the Center for Nanotechnology, Meyya Meyyappan, at a number of industry conferences, and the two discussed the possible terrestrial applications of NASA’s biosensor. In 2007, Early Warning exclusively licensed the biosensor from Ames and entered into a Space Act Agreement to support further, joint development of the sensor through 2012.

Product Outcome

Early Warning initially developed a working version of the NASA biosensor calibrated to detect the bacteria strain E. coliO157:H7, known to cause acute gastrointestinal illness. It also detects indicator E. coli, commonly used in water testing. In the process, the company worked out a method for placing multiple sensors on a single wafer, allowing for mass production and cost-effective testing. In April, at the 2009 American Water Works Association “Water Security Congress,” Early Warning launched its commercial Biohazard Water Analyzer, which builds upon the licensed NASA biosensor and can be configured to test for a suite of waterborne pathogens including E. coliCryptosporidiumGiardia, and other bacteria, viruses, and parasitic protozoa. The analyzer uses a biomolecule concentrator—an Early Warning invention—to reduce a 10-liter water sample to 1 milliliter in about 45 minutes. The concentrated sample is then processed and fed to the biosensor. The entire process takes about 2 hours, a drastic improvement over typical laboratory-based water sampling, which can take several days to a week. The sensor operates in the field via a wired or wireless network and without the need for a laboratory or technicians, allowing for rapid, on-the-fly detection and treatment of potentially dangerous organic contaminants.

The Early Warning water analyzer
Early Warning’s analyzer feeds a concentrated water sample to its biosensor, providing rapid pathogen detection.

“The sensor is incredibly sensitive and specific to the type of pathogen it is calibrated to detect in the water,” says Gordon. “Instead of just detecting coliforms in the water that may or may not indicate the presence of pathogens, we will know if there are infectious strains of SalmonellaE. coli, or Giardia that could sicken or even kill vulnerable people if consumed.” (Coliform bacteria levels typically indicate water and food sanitation quality.)

The water analyzer has multiple applications, notes Gordon. Early Warning’s system can monitor recreational water quality at beaches and lakes, which can be contaminated by animal feces, farming activities, and infectious pathogens in human waste. Agricultural companies may use the analyzer to test feed water for cattle, and food and beverage companies may employ the sensor to ensure the purity of water used in their products. Health care organizations have expressed interest in using the analyzer to test water from showers and other potential sources of pathogens like Legionella, which causes the flu-like Legionnaires’ disease.

Early Warning and Kansas State University, in Manhattan, Kansas, are collaborating on sensor enhancements such as improving the safety of imported produce. Since the skins of fruits and vegetables are potential sites of dangerous pathogens, inspectors could collect water sprayed on the produce and, using the analyzer, know within a few hours whether a particular shipment is contaminated. Last year, Kansas State was selected as the home for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, which could also benefit Early Warning.

“We’re eager to show how the private sector, government agencies, and academia can work together to evolve this platform into products that benefit our citizens,” says Gordon. With an aging U.S. water and wastewater infrastructure, increasingly severe weather systems, global travel and food imports affecting the proliferation of disease-causing organisms, and more than 1 billion people worldwide without access to safe water (according to the World Health Organization), the fruits of this partnership may be more necessary than ever.

5 NASA Inventions You Won’t Believe

 

Nanoceramics Cure Cancer, Make Hair Shiny

While working as a NASA scientist specializing in nano-materials (which are 10,000 times smaller than a human hair), Dr. Dennis Morrison developed nano-ceramics, which could be formed into tiny balloons called micro-capsules. These little balloons could be filled with cancer-fighting drugs and injected into solid tumors.

Where, you’re wondering, does space come into this process? In order to create the microscopic membrane around the liquid drugs, the micro-capsules had to be formed in low-Earth orbit. Dr. Morrison’s ceramic nano-particles contained metals that would react when the patient was subjected to a magnetic field, like what’s used in an MRI diagnostic machine. The capsules would melt, and the drugs would be released to fight the cancerous tumor.

It turns out that Dr. Morrison’s ceramic-magnetic particles were good for more than fighting tumors — they could also fight frizz. When incorporated into Farouk Systems’s hair styling iron and heated, the nano-particles released ions that made hair smooth and shiny.


 

Reflective Coatings Save Skylab, Manatees

When the Skylab space-based laboratory was set in position in 1973, a solar panel fell off during the launch, which kept another solar panel from deploying properly once in orbit. These panels had to be replaced — and fast. NASA turned to National Metalizing, a firm it had worked with previously, to create a new panel that would be ready to go into space in 10 days.

National Metalizing had originally developed reflective materials for NASA in the 1950s, so it was able to deliver the necessary thin plastic material coated in vaporized aluminum in time. The material can deflect or conserve radiant energy, depending on which is required — to keep something cool or to warm it up. This flexible reflective material proved so useful, it was inducted into the Space Technology Hall of Fame in 1996.

A former director of the company took this technology, which has been in the public domain for decades, and started a new company, Advanced Flexible Materials. The same materials used to protect Skylab now protects marathon runners from hypothermia after a race, as well as manatees, which can suffer from hypothermia at 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15.6 degrees Celsius), while they’re being tagged by researchers.


 

Deformable Mirrors — Not for the Fun House

Any space nerd who remembers the Hubble Space Telescope launch in 1990 remembers seeing pictures and news videos of the giant mirrors being polished to perfection — or as close as humans can get, anyway. Minor flaws in the surface could obscure important discoveries.

Hubble and its amazing sheets of optical glass paved the way for the Terrestrial Planet Finder and its deformable mirrors, which will have 100 times the imaging power of its predecessor when NASA launches it in the near future. Deformable mirrors don’t need to be absolutely perfect the first time out — they can adjust their positions to correct for blurring or distortion, which in space can be caused by temperature, lack of gravity or getting bumped during launch.

Deformable mirrors are not so new. They were proposed by astronomers in the 1950s and developed by the United States Air Force in the 1970s. Each system consists of the deformable mirror itself, a sensor that measures any aberrations it finds hundreds of times a second, and a small computer that receives the sensor’s readings and tells the mirror how to move to correct for the problem.


 

Nanotubes Look for Life on Mars

No matter what the movies have been telling us for decades, Martians are not likely to be humanoid, sentient beings. They won’t have ray guns or space suits. If there is life on Mars, it will be very, very small, and probably not too far up the evolution ladder. Pity.

In order to find such small forms of life, small detectors were necessary. Enter nano-tubes, which is a fun word to say. Scientists at the Ames Research Center developed carbon nano-tubes, each 1/50,000th the diameter of a human hair, that can conduct heat and electricity. Each nano-tube is tipped with single strands of nucleic acid (the “NA” in “DNA”) from a microorganism. When it comes into contact with a matching strand, the pair form a double helix and send a faint electrical charge through the nano-tubes. This charge is how anyone looking at the bio-sensor, as the tiny apparatus is called, knows life has been detected.

Sadly, no life has yet been found on Mars, but these bio-sensors are being put to good use on Earth. Tipping the nano-tubes with waterborne pathogens like E. Coli and Cryptosporidium means an analyst can get results from the bio-sensor in the field within two hours — no lab work required.


 

Mars Missions Create Tough Armor

When the Mars Pathfinder (1997) and Mars Rover (2004) missions landed on the Red Planet, they landed hard. These were unmanned missions, of course, with some guidance from engineers on Earth — but not as much as they’d like. The equipment was designed to crash land, gently, with a cage of airbags to cushion the fall from space.

Obviously, not just any airbag would work. NASA required the material to be lightweight and able to withstand extreme temperatures for the interplanetary flight. The material also had to be tough enough to keep the airbags inflated as the whole apparatus bounced along the rocky, sharp surface of Mars.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory worked with Warwick Mills, the company that had woven the reentry parachutes for the Apollo missions in the 1960s, to create a layered, coated, liquid-crystal polyester fiber that would fit the bill.

Warwick took the technology and ran with it, creating TurtleSkin protective gear that can withstand punctures from needles, knives and even bullets. The flexibility of the tightly woven fabric, which helped keep the Mars landers safe, now also keeps military and police officers safe.

 

Happening Now: NASA Technology Days – Cleveland OH.

UStream Link

Happening November 28th – 30th at Cleveland Public Auditorium and Conference Center is a one-of-a-kind technology expo. Among the 20 planned speakers attending this event, you will find Mason Peck, NASA’s Chief Technologist. As the chief technology advocate, Peck communicates how NASA technologies benefit space missions and the day-to-day lives of Americans. Other speakers include Michael Gazarik, Tibor Balint, and Gregg Peterson.

The objectives of the event are twofold:

  • Day 1: Technology and Innovation at NASA General Session: An introduction and status update of NASA’s technology programs that explores new approaches to current missions and strives to address challenges for NASA’s future missions. Presentations will delivered by key NASA program executives and leaders throughout the day.
  • Day 2 and 3: A technology exposition will showcase NASA-developed technologies to individuals interested in commercialization or business development partnerships.

 

Get a comprehensive overview of NASA’s technology programs for space exploration and aeronautics, and discover innovative and advanced technologies which are stimulating the economy and sustaining our nation’s global competitiveness.  NASA’s Tech Days are free and open to the public, registration is required.

  • Learn about the Space Technology Program objectives, successes, and plans for the future
  • Get an in-depth overview of NASA’s potential industry partnerships and opportunities
  • Discuss Agency-wide technology transfer and commercialization efforts
  • Engage with program managers and network with peers on potential collaborative enterprises
  • Explore the technology showcase featuring mature technologies from the Aerospace, Advanced Energy, Automotive , Innovative Manufacturing, and Human Health industries. The demonstrations and exhibits will provide attendees opportunities for networking, business development and forging new relationships , while learning about the leading technologies contributing to American economic growth and innovation

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