Our adventure begins in Holmbury St. Mary: A beautiful town in the Surrey countryside and home to the Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL). Situated in a manor house once belonging to the Guinness family, MSSL is an off-campus department of University College London (UCL) and home to the department of Space and Climate Physics. Its participants are scientists, engineers and magicians that have worked with 35 spacecraft missions to date, including Cassini and the James Webb Space Telescope!
Two weeks ago, Ricci and I ventured to this stunning venue to attend the Europlanet RPIF 3D Workshop on the processing of planetary images; specifically how to create 3D profiles of the surface of Mars from orbital data and Curiosity data. A total of 25 participants (including undergraduate students, postdoctoral researchers and cat enthusiasts) attended the meeting, from institutions in the UK, Spain, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Russia and even France!
Following a particularly bumpy minibus ride through the Surrey countryside, we were greeted by a beautiful view, somewhat reminiscent of an Emily Bronte novel, of rolling hills prior to entering the manor house. Information boards dotted the entrance hall with details of all of the space mission contributions made by the staff and students at MSSL, and a variety of rockets could be found standing in the staircases throughout the building. MSSL also has various 3D printing and manufacturing facilities in the upstairs workshops and the whole building is a hive of scientific research and engineering projects.
Presentations were given by a variety of staff and scientists at MSSL, UCL, and elsewhere covering introductory topics about using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and how to ‘geo-reference’ images to the surface of Mars (to provide the images with the correct latitude and longitude coordinates). We were also shown how to create 3D Digital Terrain Maps (DTMs) from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter data, in order to display the photographic images as a 3D surfaces.
Each afternoon was dedicated to a practical session using state-of-the-art computer systems for downloading and processing planetary images. The first afternoon included downloading raw spectral datafiles of the Martian surface, correcting them for variations in sun angle, and removing atmospheric effects, with the final products being usable spectral data of Mars’ surface.
Another afternoon was spent accessing images from the Curiosity rover that had been draped over 3D maps of the local area. This allowed for measurements of individual rocks and pebbles on the scale of a few centimetres, and the HD images displayed all kinds of sedimentary features present in the local Martian geology – the perfect application for a planetary geologist, although it is very much still in its infancy at the moment.
Two scientists from Berlin used film-generating software to create fly-bys surface features (such as craters or valleys) using the previously generated 3D surface of Mars. Within an hour, a ~20 second movie was created with a number of ‘way-points’ for the camera to focus on throughout the fly-by. This is a powerful way for planetary scientists to create short movies about interesting areas of any planetary surface.
Finally, a citizen science project will shortly be launched to find changes in landforms on the surface of Mars using images taken of the surface at different times. It is called ‘Mars in Motion’ and will be launched on the Zooniverse website with thousands of images of the surface waiting to be analysed. We were the ‘alpha’ testers and given a total of 1000 images to determine whether any surface feature changes were present, including new debris flows, dust-devil tracks, impact craters, and dune migrations. Mars in Motion will be available within the next couple of months for you to find any changing surface features on Mars! This was one of the most enjoyable tasks, with the images giving us all much to discuss and wonder at for hours! This same presentation was given to Martian gully experts at the Geological Society “Martian Gullies and their Earth Analogues” conference in July, and was welcomed with overwhelming praise.
It was certainly an enjoyable and highly useful meeting for planetary scientists working with martian data, but also for those working with data from other planets (as many of the techniques are applicable to other datasets, such as images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter). These images and datasets are available for anyone to download from NASA’s Planetary Data System (PDS), and a number of free to use GIS software is available elsewhere (such as Q-GIS). If you are interested in looking at images of planetary surfaces, we would highly recommend you visit the PDS and see what you can find!
We would very much like to thank MSSL and its staff, the presenters at the meeting, and Europlanet for giving us and all of the attendees the opportunity to learn with some of the leading experts in this field. It was a truly enjoyable week, and we hope the course goes ahead next year for a new wave of planetary scientists!
Here are some useful links for those of you who are interested in looking at planetary images in more detail:
And for more information about the EU funded Europlanet 2020 Research Infrastructure planetary science network see http://www.europlanet-2020-ri.eu/