Planetary surface exploration missions present considerable operational challenges in the form of substantial communication delays, limited communication windows, and limited communication bandwidth. A 3D visualization software was developed and delivered to the 2008 Phoenix Mars Lander (PML) mission. The components of the system include an interactive 3D visualization environment called “Mercator,” terrain reconstruction software called the “Ames Stereo Pipeline,” and a server providing distributed access to terrain models. The software was successfully utilized during the mission for science analysis, site understanding, and science operations activity planning.

A “terrain server” was implemented that provided distribution of terrain models from a central repository to clients running the Mercator software. The Ames Stereo Pipeline generates accurate, high-resolution, texture-mapped, 3D terrain models from stereo image pairs. These terrain models can then be visualized within the Mercator environment. The central crosscutting goal for these tools is to provide an easy-to-use, high-quality, full-featured visualization environment that enhances the mission science team’s ability to develop low-risk productive science activity plans. In addition, for the Mercator and Viz visualization environments, extensibility and adaptability to different missions and application areas are key design goals.

Mercator is a cross-platform, adaptable, extensible, interactive 3D visualization software tool that enables users to manipulate and interrogate a simulated 3D environment. It is implemented in the Java programming language to be compatible with Ensemble, a NASA-developed ground data systems software component framework based on the Eclipse open source platform.

The Mercator User Interface (UI) is divided into a number of tiles or “elements,” presenting control panels and views into the 3D scene. The central UI element is an interactive 3D viewer with site interrogation and analysis capabilities. Each UI element can be repositioned, resized, iconified, or dragged out of the window frame.

In an effort to achieve simple, natural interactions, object-oriented, direct manipulation techniques were chosen where practical, and persistent user interface modes were minimized. For example, to measure distances, the user manipulates a 3D representation of a measuring tool in the scene. There is no explicit mode of measurement, and the user can continue to interact with the 3D environment (e.g., changing the viewpoint) as usual.

This work was done by Laurence Edwards, Leslie Keely, David Lees, and Carol Stoker of Ames Research Center. ARC-16434-1