askance through time

The sun sets over a canyon on Mars. Lost among the layers in the blue dusk light, a lone astronaut looks out across this dried, 2.5 kilometer-wide riverbed. This image was rendered from the highest resolution 2D and 3D imagery we have of the Mars surface, and shows an ancient river canyon a few kilometers southwest of Curiosity rover. The layers exposed in the canyon tell a complex geological history that we cannot understand from orbital data alone. I wanted to center the idea of incomprehensibility and wonder—of how the most intriguing mysteries of volcanoes and river valleys, glaciers and ice caps on this planet will largely remain unknown to us without an impossible amount of orbital and on-the-ground survey, even when people do explore Mars. We will always be the astronaut looking over immense cliffs in wonder. Still, the sun rises and sets over these landscapes, and time continues.

Here are two snapshots of some of my Mars visualization work-meeting-art. These two scenes show exposed layers in a channel-like feature in Gale Crater, Mars, visualized from 3D terrain data in a 3D vis software called NASA DERT. In geology, layers of rock act as a time capsule, giving clues as to what processed shaped the rock over time. The final work of my Ph.D. has involved characterizing the geometries of these layers—that is, measuring the thicknesses and angles of visible layers, sorting them into related categories, and comparing this information to models of how this area of Gale Crater formed. 

It’s hard to not be struck by the beauty of these images. Here, I’ve added an imperceptibly small 3D model of an astronaut to the 3D environment, colorized the terrain in the software, and further colorized and modified snapshots from the software to simulate a dusk view. In the top image, I’ve also imposed a view of the sunset in Gale Crater as captured by the Curiosity Rover, and this was submitted to the 2020 UCL Research Images as Art / Art Images as Research contest with the above text.

Take a look at a video “flyover” of this scene below!

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