Google, NASA work on the big picture
Collaboration has resulted in several high-tech applications
It was May 2005, three months before Hurricane Katrina raged over the Southern states, that Google Inc. and NASA Ames Research Center first made eyes at each other.
Photographs of the disaster taken by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — a close cousin of NASA — were posted online in Google Earth, to powerful effect. The partnership between these Mountain View neighbors seemed so natural that a group formed to discuss how they might work together in the future.
It wasn't long before the Global Connection Project was born. This advanced-imaging project had its origins in a partnership between National Geographic and Carnegie Mellon University, which operates a campus at NASA Ames, said Dr. Terry Fong, director of the space center's Intelligent Robotics Group.
According to the Global Connection Web site, "The project's long-term goal is to help us learn about and meet our neighbors across this globe, and learn about our planet itself." Fong highlighted the project's early work, which included placing aerial images from NOAA, National Geographic and NASA into Google Earth.
With that under their belt, the Googlers and NASA engineers "threw around ideas about how to continue to work together," said Tiffany Montague, who five years ago was an Air Force flight test engineer in Washington, D.C. before Google lured her to Mountain View.
The business relationship progressed from "ideas on the back of napkins" into a full-blown, reimbursable "Space Act Agreement," signed in November 2006. Its purpose was "to explore areas of mutual interest," Fong said. "We also focus on technological problems and how to solve them."
Today Montague serves as the Google liaison to NASA, working closely with her former Air Force mentor, S. Pete Worden — the director of NASA Ames.
"He has been a great friend to Google," Montague said.
According to Montague, the Space Act Agreement has been "creatively fruitful. It is allowing brilliant engineers, on both sides, to reach a wide audience, with great coverage."
The fruits of the Space Act Agreement continue to be far-reaching (and far-seeing). Researchers noted three other important projects that have so far resulted from this symbiotic relationship.
Topping that list, in Fong's opinion, is GigaPan. The GigaPan Epic camera and software allow a photographer to snap a series of gigapixel photos and then merge them together into one composite panorama. Photos assembled in this way allow viewers to browse and zoom around the image to incredible levels of detail.
GigaPan images have been shot worldwide to document notable landscapes or special events. For example, former NASA Ames employee and astronaut Scott Parazynski captured two GigaPan images of Everest Base Camp at an elevation of 17,500 feet last spring on his way up the mountain. And GigaPan photos from the Masters, Yankee Stadium and the Olympics have been published by Sports Illustrated, said Fong.
Last year, during President Obama's inauguration, photographer David Bergman used a GigaPan camera in Washington, D.C., to compile 220 individual images into one panorama that has since been viewed online by 12 million people.
"This panorama was revolutionary," said Fong. "It was a huge wakeup that interactively explorable images could revolutionize the way we relate to and understand historic events." Fong believes this tool will be valuable in the future when it comes to exploring environments and documenting field work.
Another major group effort is the Planetary Content project. Fong said the collaboration means raw NASA planetary data is being transformed into stunning, accessible visual images and maps running on the Google Earth platform.
"Mars in Google Earth" was released in February 2009, and "Moon in Google Earth" debuted five months later on July 20, commemorating the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11.
"We're taking the NASA data that was collected and representing it into an immersive environment," Montague said. "It's a three-dimensional, engaging experience for teachers and students and parents."
Fong described how these technologies are combining and building on each other. GigaPan, for example, was inspired by the panoramic images that NASA's twin Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, sent back to Earth. One of Fong's engineers working on the Mars rovers created a program to let scientists interactively explore and immerse themselves in the images. "Then we thought: 'If we can do this for Mars, why can't we do this on Earth?' "
A third project, still in the works, is the "GeoCam." The endeavor draws upon cell phones with built-in cameras and GPS, such as the Android, to improve disaster response.
"After a hurricane, fire or earthquake," said Fong, "there are no street signs. But all you need is a camera, GPS and a little bit of software. With GeoCam, you can take pictures, upload them, and they will show up instantly on Google Earth. You will know exactly where you are."
The local application? Helping Cal Fire improve its response to those infamous California wildfires, like the ones that ravaged the Santa Cruz Mountains two years ago.
"GPS cell phones are very cheap," Fong said. "You don't have to be a professional responder" to provide accurate and up-to-date information.
"We can see Google's buildings from Ames," said Fong. "We at Ames understand the culture (at Google). It's a bit of a different culture from the other software companies here in Silicon Valley."
He went on to describe the two sides' "common corporate culture" and stated: "Both NASA and Google have benefited immensely by marrying NASA data to Google platforms."
"Both organizations have common interests," Montague agreed. "We want to get people interested in space. We want to be better global citizens. We are so in love with technology.
"NASA has the same ideals," she continued. "We hang out on each other's campuses."
To illustrate, Montague related an anecdote about NASA's LCROSS mission last year: As the lunar probe prepared to crash into the Moon on Oct. 9, Google hosted "a well-attended sleepover viewing party" at NASA Ames, open to all citizens of Mountain View and surrounding areas.
"We love to reach out to Mountain View," she said.
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