What do you get when you ask a former Disney animator and veteran NASA climate geomorphologist to help explain global change?
How about cartoon satellites and a laser that can write your name on Titan?
Using gaming technology, animators and programmers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory designed a 3-D, browser-based program that lets people fly along with 15 NASA Earth observation satellites in real time. The program, called "Eyes on Earth 3-D," requires a plugin that's compatible with almost any Web browser.
Click on each satellite to zoom in and you can follow its track across the globe in real time, in fast forward or in reverse. The satellites appear as they do in space, and every detail from the stars to the moon's phase is taken into account. Click on the "car" button and a cartoon Porsche 911 appears next to the spacecraft to put its size in context.
The program also includes Metropolis, a game that sends a subtle yet strong message about human-caused atmospheric carbon dioxide: Users compete to quickly uncover 10 major cities by erasing a shroud of CO2 enveloping Earth. And with CASSIE, the Cassini At Saturn Interactive Explorer, you can fly with the Cassini probe to Saturn and its moons, where you can use a "laser" to write your name on your chosen orb's surface. It's like NASA's own version of Google Earth, only it's based in your browser, and it includes the freshest possible data.
"We try to give the general public a virtual presence with our missions," said Kevin Hussey, manager of Visualization Technology Applications and Development at JPL.The programs are designed to highlight NASA's work on global climate change and give the public and professional researchers better access to the agency's wealth of Earth sciences data.
"We have a whole fleet of satellites that are monitoring the globe. But not long ago, when you did a Google search for global change, we didn't come up until like page 10," Hussey said.
NASA wanted to change that, and managers decided to use its own employees' animation skills, rather than incorporating climate data into Google Earth.
"Now don't get me wrong, I love Google Earth. I get excited about it. But there are just some limitations," Hussey said. For one thing, its programming language isn't designed to accommodate NASA's massive data sets, and Google Earth doesn't allow users to see the satellites that collected its images.
"Of course, our satellites are important to us," Hussey said. Eyes on the Earth lets users hover above each probe so they can be seen in action; three key satellites, Aqua, CloudSat, and the Ocean Surface Topography MissionWeb are represented by 3-D cartoons.
A Google partnership may be in the works, however. A University of Utah program already incorporated CloudSat data into Google Maps, and Hussey said he was optimistic Google Earth would eventually add climate data, too. He demonstrated Eyes on the Earth's capabilities at a recent conference, and Google representatives told him they should get together, he said.
"It's just [a matter of] time. I predict that we will, in fact, be doing more work with Google," he said.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.