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NASA Is Taking Leisurely Virtual Reality Strolls Around Mars

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nasa oculus riftIf you think you’ve missed the train to Mars, don’t bother settling for counting stars. (Hum reference!) Just head on over to NASA‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where they’re walking around Mars like nobody’s business. Well, they aren’t actually setting foot on the red planet, but rather virtually traversing the dusty ground with the combined use of an Oculus Rift VR headset and Virtuix’s Omni treadmill. When combined, you get all of the high-resolution planetary exploration with none of the eye-bulging death by suffocation.

This experience is made possible by the massive amounts of imagery obtained over the last year by the Curiosity rover, as well as satellite imagery from above. The lab had previously combined all this into a panorama which could be “explored” in two dimensions using an Xbox 360 controller, and before that even, they allowed Xbox users to land the rover on Mars last year. But after getting hands-on with the Oculus Rift and feet-on with the Omni, NASA contacted both products’ companies to get the equipment in the lab.

And now, a fully immersible experience can be had, though neither of these products is on the market just yet. (The headset is planned to ship out pre-orders in September, while the treadmill is set to ship in January 2014.)

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NASA’s Billion-Pixel Mars Panorama Shows The Red Planet In Amazing Detail

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NASA’s Curiosity rover has been providing plenty of amazing images from the Red Planet for armchair astronauts such as myself to pore over. But while we’ve seen tons of looks at Curiosity’s path across Mars so far, NASA just raised their game by releasing a 1.3 billion-pixel interactive panorama of Curiosity’s Martian surroundings. Yes, that’s billion with a b.

In this first shot, you can see Aeolis Mons, or “Mount Sharp,” looming in the distance to the southeast of the rover. The image below is zoomed out around two-thirds of the way, so you can see Curiosity in the foreground. At full zoom, you can clearly make out ripples in the sand on the side of the mountain. (You can click all the below images for larger versions.)

MarsMountSmall

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Mars Photographed At Night For The First Time

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As kitschy as black lights are, they’re responsible for quite a few amusing memories from my teenage years, even if many of them got wiped away by Dateline NBC’s Gross Police. Leave it to NASA to make UV rays exciting again, even if the final product is slightly underwhelming visually.

It's Mars, but at night, bro.

It’s Mars, but at night, bro.

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NASA Backpedals On The Historic Martian Discovery Claims

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One of the most important things to keep handy when you’re working in any kind of journalism is a nice big salt lick, just so you’ll have plenty of grains around anytime somebody reports something that seems far-fetched, too good to be true, or just plain unlikely. Case in point: last week John Grotzinger, the principal investigator for the Curiosity mission, told NPR that they had discovered Something Interesting in a Martian soil sample, something that was going to be “one for the history books,” but of course they couldn’t say what it was just yet. Naturally, this news soon spread across the interwebs, leading to speculation that they might have, maybe, just possibly, found some sort of life up there on the Red Planet. Well, here we are a week later and NASA has downgraded their announcement from “earthshaking” to “interesting.”

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NASA Teases Major Mars Announcement

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One of the main mission goals of NASA’s Curiosity rover is to search for evidence of life on Mars — both any signs of it currently, or further insight as to whether it might have existed in the past. Sure, the former is a definitely long-shot, but you never know, right? I’m fairly certain Curiosity isn’t going to wander into a secret subterranean Martian city, but life could be found in more humble forms, such as bacteria. With all that taken into account, when NASA scientists start hinting that they have some major Curiosity/Mars-related announcement coming up, you can probably guess how websites all over the internet are going to react.

OMG THEY FOUND LIFE ON MARS!!!!!!!!!!!!

Which is all well and good, presuming they, you know, actually did find life on Mars. But they haven’t said that. Not yet. So while the science geek in me wants to seize on that wondrous possibility and begin jumping up and down, the cynical, misanthropic journalist in me is doing its level best to moderate my expectations.

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Beautiful Panoramic Images From Mars

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No lie, Mars looks quite a bit like the Old American West. And I’m only joking a little. Don’t believe me that the Red Planet resembles the landscape of a John Ford movie? Check out this stunning new panoramic photograph from the Curiosity rover.

Click here to see the full picture.

Can’t you imagine a band of horse-riding desperados galloping through this frame, on their way to rob a stagecoach, find some hidden Confederate gold, or some similar errand?

The image is a composite, pieced together by Stuart Atkinson from NASA photographs. At the moment, Curiosity is bouncing about near the Gale Crater, and this pic gives you a ground-level view of the Martian horizon. There’s not really much to say. All I’ve been doing is gawking at this, thinking how this landscape is simultaneously so familiar and so foreign. Get in the right frame of mind, and for the briefest second you feel like you know what it is like to stand on the surface of Mars. And you get that experience while still being able to breathe. Bonus.