A method of generating solid models of terrain involves the conversion of topographical data into a form useable by a rapid-prototyping (RP) machine. The method was developed to enable the use of the RP machine to make solid models of Martian terrain from Mars Orbiter laser-altimeter topographical data. The method is equally applicable to the generation of models of the terrains of other astronomical bodies, including other planets, asteroids, and Earth.

Topographical data describe a terrain in terms of a set of three-dimensional coordinates [e.g., Cartesian (x,y,z) or polar (latitude, longitude, radius) coordinates] of points or nodes on the terrain surface. The input data for the RP machines are required to provide a three-dimensional description, not of a single surface, but of a volume — in this case, a ground volume that underlies the terrain surface. The description is required to be in the form of triangular elements that connect the nodes of all the surfaces and that completely bound the volume, with no open areas, no overlap of triangles, and no extraneous geometric elements.

The software used in the present model-generation method was written in IDL — an advanced programming language that affords a number of tools, including subroutines that triangularize surfaces. The software creates a volume from the topographical surface data by adding sides to the edges of the terrain surface and joining the sides with a bottom surface. Each of the sides is triangularized by use of IDL subroutines, and then the software searches for extraneous elements and removes them.

Topographical data are usually presented in a grid corresponding to polar coordinates, so that a model generated from such data is equivalent to a topographical map in Mercator projection. However an RP machine is fully capable of including the curvature of a planetary body in a model that it makes. Therefore, the software also offers a capability to transform the topographical data to a projection onto a surface having a curvature corresponding to that of the surface of the modeled planet.

This work was done by John W. Keller of Goddard Space Flight Center. For further information, access the Technical Support Package (TSP) free on-line at www.techbriefs.com/tsp under the Information Sciences category. GSC-14897-1

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the September, 2005 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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