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NASA super-sizes Mars rover pictures

NASA has burned through thousands of square feet of paper, printing  super-sized pictures of Mars that are sent to dozens of museums.
Kris Capraro rolls up a photograph that was taken by the Opportunity rover on Mars and printed at the Image Processing Laboratory at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.Ric Francis / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Thirty pints of ink, 3,000 square feet of photographic paper — and counting.

That’s what NASA has burned through printing otherworldly, super-sized pictures of Mars that are sent to dozens of museums, many of which display them immediately. It’s part of NASA’s aggressive effort to promote interest in the Red Planet and the agency’s stunning photos.

The Martian landscapes appear just as big and colorful as those seen by NASA’s twin rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, 130 million miles (208 million kilometers) away.

The largest photograph NASA has printed so far is a monster panorama as long as a motorhome.

“Bigger is better,” said engineer Myche McAuley, who works in the image processing lab at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Eighteen cameras
Each rover carries nine cameras, from the panoramic to the microscopic. There are more — and better — cameras on Mars today than ever before.

“It was always our intent to build a set of cameras capable of revealing Mars just as if you were standing there,” said Cornell University astronomer Steve Squyres, the mission’s main scientist. “But it’s hard to find a display medium that does it justice.”

An Imax movie is in the works. Until it’s in theaters, there’s engineer Kris Capraro.

Working in a cramped room at JPL, Capraro steadily produces the largest photographs NASA has ever printed during an ongoing space mission.

To do so, he runs two oversized Hewlett-Packard Co. ink jet printers, costing about $20,000 apiece. Each is loaded with rolls of paper 5 feet (1.5 meters) wide and 100 feet (30 meters) long. He’s used six of the rolls so far — part of the price of feeding the enormous public appetite for new pictures from Mars.

“The public is who foots the bill, and what they’re most interested in are the pictures,” Capraro said.

His output includes a 39-foot (12-meter) panorama that gives a 360-degree, three-dimensional view of Spirit’s landing site in Gusev Crater. The sweeping mosaic, hanging in a JPL conference room, contains 176 million individual picture elements, or pixels.

“It looks like the horizon on the wall,” Capraro said of the picture, printed from a 504-megabyte computer file.

Big pictures for planetariums
NASA shoots most of the images to the Web as soon as it receives them. It also packages and ships them to 150 museums and planetariums around the country, including the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington and the Hayden Planetarium in New York.

Eventually, scientists hope to create a panorama of Opportunity’s landing site that can be projected in planetariums, since the crater it landed in just happens to be the same size as a typical planetarium dome.

Today’s technology is a far cry from 1965, when scientists actually used crayons to color tiny strips of paper to create Mars photos. Their crayon color choices were based on long strings of digits representing the 21 pictures transmitted by Mariner 4.

“God, talk about labor intensive,” said Jurrie Van der Woude, a retired image coordinator for JPL who helped glue together and hand-color those first Mariner pictures.

'Piling on the pixels'
Today, nearly 40 years later, Spirit and Opportunity already have transmitted 3,500 pictures to Earth.

“We are just piling on the pixels,” said Cornell University astronomer Jim Bell, the lead scientist for the panoramic camera on the rovers. “It’s a lot of fun.”

San Francisco’s Exploratorium wasted no time posting a 14-foot panorama of Spirit’s landing site. The science museum also has four big screens where it displays the latest pictures and animations, updated every few hours.

Cody Duane-McGlashan of San Anselmo stopped by the Exploratorium on a recent afternoon with his grandfather, marveling at the latest additions.

“I don’t know how to describe it. It’s just cool,” the 8-year-old said. “It looks like just a different place altogether.”