A Mixed-reality Trip to Mars

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A ceremonial ribbon is cut for the opening of new “Destination: Mars” experience at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida. From the left are Therrin Protze, chief operating officer of the visitor complex; center director Bob Cabana; Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin; Kudo Tsunoda of Microsoft; and Jeff Norris of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Photo credit: NASA/Charles Babir


It’ll be years before the first astronauts leave the launch pad on Earth to journey to Mars. But starting Sept. 19, visitors to the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida will get a taste of what those astronauts will see when they touch down on the Red Planet.

“Destination: Mars,” a mixed-reality experience designed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, and Microsoft HoloLens, held a kick-off event for media at the Visitor Complex on Sept. 18. The experience uses real imagery taken by NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover to let users explore the Martian surface.

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin joined key representatives to introduce the limited-time experience, which runs through January 1, 2017. He said that the moon landing cultivated what became known as “the Apollo effect” — an enthusiasm for space research that inspired a generation to study science and engineering.

“Technology like HoloLens leads us once again toward exploration,” Aldrin said. “It’s my hope that experiences like “Destination: Mars” will continue to inspire us to explore.” 

Aldrin and JPL Curiosity rover driver Erisa Hines both appear in “Destination: Mars,” where they guide users across the landscape and offer a tantalizing glimpse of a future Martian colony. The technology that accomplishes this is called “mixed reality,” where virtual elements are merged with the user’s actual environment, creating a world in which real and virtual objects can interact.

The public experience developed out of a JPL-designed tool called OnSight. Using the HoloLens headset, scientists across the world can explore geographic features on Mars and even plan future routes for the Curiosity rover.

“The origin of “Destination: Mars” is part of what makes it so authentic and unique,” said Jeff Norris, who directs the JPL Ops Lab, which designed OnSight. “Everything you see in the experience came directly from our spacecraft.”

For Microsoft, partnering with JPL allows its HoloLens technology to be applied in innovative ways. The mixed-reality headset lets researchers work in new, naturalistic ways, whether it’s jumping to locations on the Martian surface or marking them with virtual annotations that collaborators can examine.

“We’re thrilled to partner with NASA JPL in enabling a whole new way for its scientists to study Mars via Microsoft HoloLens, and now we’re excited to finally offer the public a glimpse into NASA’s use of this transformative technology,” said Scott Erickson, general manager, Microsoft HoloLens.

For more information about “Destination: Mars,” visit: https://www.kennedyspacecenter.com/things-to-do/destination-mars.aspx