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SNAPSHOTS

JPL computer video lets you visit a place where human beings have never gone

February 25, 1988|ESTHER SCHRADER | Times Staff Writer

A Cecil B. DeMille epic it's not.

But in almost every aspect, "Miranda--The Movie" is a grandiose accomplishment of the kind the famed movie-maker could only have imagined.

It's a one-minute video simulating a surface flight over the Uranian moon Miranda. A team at Jet Propulsion Laboratories in La Canada Flintridge produced it from a single picture taken by cameras aboard the Voyager 2 spacecraft when it flew by Miranda--one of the planet's 15 moons--in January, 1986.

The video is a computer graphics tour de force that transforms a physicist's equations into a bird's-eye view of an astral body nearly 1.8 billion miles from Earth.

The four technicians at JPL who produced the Miranda video in December performed a bit of computer wizardry to come up with a technological breakthrough that brings the moon to life.

The short view of the moon's steep mountains and icy crags represents the first time a single, two-dimensional picture of a planetary body has been transformed into a three-dimensional perspective rendering.

"It's another, much more accessible way to see a landscape that we can't really visit," said Kevin Hussey, a technical group supervisor at JPL's Image Processing Laboratories. "When you're watching it, it's as if you're flying where no spacecraft has yet flown."

Inside buildings all over JPL's campus-like grounds, researchers who specialize in developing this kind of new technology say the work is of pressing importance.

"What we're doing is getting the best picture we can of the reality of a far-away place without being there," Hussey said. "An enterprising person with a satellite picture and this technology could give one of the nicest geography lessons you'd ever want to see."

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is studying the possibility of sending a robot-equipped spacecraft to the planets, Hussey said. The robot would travel the surface of the planets, collecting samples to bring back to the ship.

Scientists would like to be able to manufacture an accurate view of the surface of a planet before such a mission is undertaken. "You can keep the robot from falling over on its back or landing in a basin" by using the new video technology, Hussey said. "If that thing (a robot) falls over, there isn't going to be anyone around to help it up."

At computer terminals and monitors in a room painted all black, the four members of the team--two computer science specialists and two geographers--worked to make complex equations into an imaginary ride that takes the viewer zooming along accurately placed cliffs and craters as if in a spaceship.

The video ends with a simulated crash into a cliff.

The technicians who produced the video formed the three-dimensional perspective images from analyzing millions of numbers representing points of light of different intensities.

"We knew from the numbers that there were steep cliffs on Miranda, but we couldn't really visualize it," said Helen Mortensen, a technician who worked on the project. "So what we did is construct a three-dimensional model in computer space, that is, entirely out of software."

The Miranda video cost JPL $15,000 to make and is actually the second video of its kind. The first, produced in September, 1986, was manufactured from a single satellite picture of the Los Angeles basin from 570 miles up. Called "L. A.--The Movie," it was made to demonstrate the accuracy of the new computer graphics technique with a landscape that was known and measurable.

That movie cost $50,000 because of the expense of developing the original software.

"I can't draw a picture to save my life," said Jeff Hall, another of the technicians who worked on the project. "But I can process a great picture of Uranus' moons because I know the secret of these numbers. It's a really creative thing to do."

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