Researchers used the same camera technology NASA deployed on Mars (photos ©Ulrich Wortmann)
  • First-ever Gigapixel images of three geological important locations in Death Valley
  • Super high-resolution images can be viewed in 360 degrees, down to the smallest pebble

Death Valley in the Eyes of Mars

By Peter Boisseau
The Freelance Bureau

On a clear desert night in Death Valley National Park in California, a group of intrepid researchers took a break from their work and – appropriately enough – snapped pictures of the dazzling night sky.

It was a fitting end to another successful day of trailblazing field research, using NASA technology popularized by the Mars Rover mission to take super high resolution Gigapixel images of one of the most beautifully austere landscapes on Earth.

The pictures were the first Gigapixel images ever captured of three important geological locations in Death Valley, including some terrain so rugged it could only be reached with a four-wheel drive vehicle.

The technology takes thousands of high-resolution pictures in a grid-like fashion that are combined into one gigantic image, and then integrated with Google Maps so it can be examined in a 360-degree view, from full scale down to the smallest pebble.

Challenged By The Desert

“The students struggled at first, and then it got easier every day as they learned to adapt and overcome,” says Professor Ulrich Wortmann of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Toronto, who led the 10-day field trip with undergraduates Xueya Lu, Alicia Hou and Syn Leong.

“When you study on campus you are faced with all these artificial problems and writing tests, whereas when you are out in the desert, you are figuring out real life problems, and that gives you a lot of confidence.”

Wortmann said the challenges ranged from working with equipment in gusting winds to chasing the right sunlight conditions for detailed pictures.

The purpose of the expedition was to explore the potential for “experiential learning” Gigapixel imagery offers both in the field and in the classroom.

“You can go to that picture and zoom in and walk around it and explore it,” says Wortmann, adding that because Gigapixel imagery is uniquely suited to geology, it is rapidly creating a new field.

“It’s all about how you get the student there mentally, to actually interact with what is in front of them and get an idea of the space.''

Wind, Sun and Volcanic Rock

Mornings would start early as they drank hot tea and munched on home-made Muesli, then started scouting locations and prepping for the day’s shoot, hiking around the area and talking geology while they waited for the best sunlight.

The locations explored were textbook examples of classic geological environments such as volcanic deposits.

The images they captured were shared online with students and professors at the university, as well as the wider scientific community.

Young Explorers

The geology students who accompanied Wortmann say they had a sense of making a real scientific contribution, even as they learned first-hand the value of field research versus classroom instruction.

“I’ve been able to relate things I learned on the trip to all my other classes,” says Lu, who will be making a presentation to an international conference about the group’s experiences. “It ties everything together and gives it a new level of meaning.”

She learned to temper her habit of getting frustrated when things don't go right, a lesson not lost on her fellow students either.

“I’ve never been in the field before so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I definitely feel more confident now, like I have an advantage over my classmates,” says Hou, who served as the group’s resident photography expert.

Leong said the group learned about the value of teamwork, each focusing on a different task, such as checking the images for any missing pictures as the day went on and doing the procedure over when required.

“You look for ways to apply your knowledge and make sense of what you’ve learned,” says Leong. “We didn’t expect some of the challenges we faced, but we’d discuss what to do, and fix the problem, and then we’d really understand.”

©2017 Peter Boisseau

Mars roverjpg
Mars rover Curiosity snapped this self-portrait on June 15, 2018 at Gale Crater during a
growing dust storm that went on to engulf all of Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The NASA exploration rovers have been are eyes on Mars for years, and the same technology was used to snap pictures of Death Valley here on Earth. All of that vaunted technology was put to the test recently when a giant dust storm on Mars – the largest since 2007 -- enveloped the entire planet recently with dust clouds reaching up to 40 miles high and obscuring the sun, silencing NASA's solar-powered rover Opportunity. NASA's other Martian rover, Curiosity, is nuclear powered and was largely unaffected. - Ed

Please contact us if you want publicity and earned media, we're here to help. For blog on the importance of storytelling, please go here. -- Ed

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Related Links

Research in Death Valley boosts skills -- U of T News 
First-ever Gigapixel images of three important geological locations in Death Valley -- U of T Arts and Science