The foothills of Mt Sharp

As Curiosity makes her increasingly lengthy drives across the floor of Gale Crater, contuing to test her systems (all seems to be going really well!) she’s sending back lots and lots of images, many of them showing the foothills of Mt Sharp in great detail. Well, I say “in great detail”. Unless you’re a keen image processor, with access to kick ass software and hardware and the time and devotion to dig into them and ferret out that detail, like a pig snuffling for truffles in a forest, that detail is lost behind, and destroyed by,  a cyber lace curtain of spots and lines…

Now, there’s a hint of detail there, right? And you’d expect that, as is the case with images sent back by Opportunity, Cassini, Messenger and Dawn, when you clicked on it you’d see a bigger image with a lot more detail. Go on, give it a try, click on that previous image, I’ll wait…

I know, horrendous isn’t it?!! That’s basically the result – as has been explained in great detail elsewhere – of the images being sent from Mars uncompressed and then compressed before publication on the web, which is probably an automated computer process, not a physical process initiated for each image by a living, breathing human being.

At this point I should point out that by no means *All* of the images being sent back by Curiosity suffer from this, it’s only the Mastcam 100’s colour images that are showing this migraine-inducing pattern. There are lots of *other* images, but they’re either much smaller, or in black and white, or both. It’s the high resolution “Ooh, that’s GORGEOUS!” colour pictures that are being displayed in a way that makes them, frankly, a pain in the **** to view. Everything else – fantastic! But, let’s be honest, it’s the gorgeous colour views everyone wants to see.

Now, unlike some people I don’t think this is a deliberate act by the MSL team to stop people “playing” with their images and spotting things on them before the science team have a chance to. I’m not that cynical, and I choose to believe that NASA just wouldn’t allow that to happen. It’s fantastic that we’re getting images back so quickly, of course it is, and I don’t want to sound ungrateful; in the “Old days” we had to wait weeks if not months for pictures taken by a spaceprobe to be made public, now they’re online within hours, which is miraculous and very generous of NASA too. It’s just the way things are being done, right now, and hopefully it will change.

I’m very, very grateful that we’re seeing these images at all, don’t get me wrong. There are very few people who are bigger and more vocal supporters of NASA than myself, and because of that support I’ve been accused of being a “NASA apologist” and “propagandist” by some…

…but my love for NASA isn’t blind, and I’ll criticise if I think criticism is due. And I think the way these images are being displayed is a mistake. I think it’s making the mission and its images a lot less accessible to ordinary people, and I hope they change it.

I’ve been trying – hard! – to work with these images, but I’m almost ready to wave the white flag to be honest. I thought I’d found a way in Registax to make them usable, and managed to turn one griddy image into a clear(ish) colour view, but I haven’t been able to replicate that again since. I downloaded a whole bunch of images like the one shown above, stitched them together, tried a dozen different tricks and processes with my software, and still only got this *(click to enlarge)…

…which shows more detail than the originals, a lot of intriguing buttes, mesas, ridges, outcrops and “Homeplate”-like features, but it’s still poor, a combination of my own lack of image processing skill and kit. In the hands of someone like James Canvin, who is an imaging wizard, those same images can not only be stitched together to make a detailed, grid-free panorama, but a COLOUR, grid-free panorama. Take a look at James’ latest absolutely stunning work with the same images as I used above…

Foothills of Mt Sharp as imaged by James Canvin

That is spectacularly beautiful, and increases my admiration for James’s work by another magnitude. I could wander around that image for hours – and probably will…! I can’t wait to see what he does with the whole mountain, when more images of it are returned…

But that’s a view only a few people are seeing, at the moment, because the images on the MSL site are like… that… (shudder)

Why am I bothered by this? After all, I can enjoy the images, right? I know where to find the work of people like James (i.e. over on the UMSF forum), so even if I can’t create those images myself I can see them elsewhere, right?

Hmm. That’s not the point tho.

I do a lot of what we call “Outreach and Education” –  which is a fancy way of saying I give talks about space and astronomy to community groups, young and old, in school classroms, drafty church halls, and the like! – and at the end of my talks I always stress to my audiences that if they can get online – at home, at work, at school, in the library, wherever – they can access new images, taken by spaceprobes scattered across the solar system, for free, and become “armchair explorers”. In the run-up to the landing of MSL I was saying just that, again and again, telling people how, after landing (if all went well!) they’d be able to go tothe MSL website and see, every day, great new images from Mars. But that’s not the case at the moment. These Bayer-patterned horrors are just foul. And I’m sure they’re putting some people off following the mission, which would be a great shame if it’s true.

Anyway, I hope someone gets to grips with this. There are people out here – teachers stood in front of packed classrooms, astronomy students in bedsits, science enthusiasts in poor countries across the world – who haven’t got the technical know-how, or the computer kit, to turn these gridmarked images into real pictures, desperate to walk alongside Curiosity as she explores Gale, desperate to see what she sees.

Come on, NASA, show them the beauty of Mars too.

That’s one of the reasons you went there in the first place, isn’t it? 🙂


4 thoughts on “The foothills of Mt Sharp

  1. ted says:

    I’m going on record to say that these pictures are nothing short of disgusting. And as an american who paid tax money for this mission, I not only would like, I also DEMAND better pics than these. Listen, before the mission was was launched the rover’s high rez camera’s were touted as the next leap in imagary form another world. Where are they? Since the average Joe on the street doesn’t know or care about the nuts and bolts science of these missions, what does grab them are stunning photos.
    The fact that these pics are such a mess because of software comprtession issues and human choice on the part of JPL is in my opinion INNEXCUSABLE. The team at JPL need to get their act together on this FAST…why? Here’s why:
    Folks, you are in a budget crisis for NASA…get your act together and give the people the WOW factor that will insure popular opinion supports future missions!
    How simple can that be? WAKE UP!!! You are not working in a bubble. The world is watching!!!

  2. Andyj says:

    Of course they do not want the public to get one ahead of the science teams! I’m totally flummoxed why they are not firstly heading off to the rocky land on the East. Can’t miss it. On certain views it looks like a spiral. Possibly due to cover by dust wind?

    They have not trained high quality images towards glenelg. The meanderings seem almost random. I read they were avoiding sand. I cannot find it. The views are forever looking back. They keep rotating the rover. Why? It’s got more eyes than a spider and a rotating turret. I’m wondering if they will be happy to have this rover climb down into the lower sections of Glenelg, never mind the huge and steep climbs where the money shots are supposed to be

    A quick and dirty but not perfect way to clean up these “bayerised” images is to use pixelize set to 2×2 then “equalize” to maximise the contrast, all on GIMP.
    So, Filters > Blur > Pixelize
    and Colors > Auto > Equalize.

    Good blog! 🙂

  3. pinobot says:

    The easiest way is to reduce the size of the image to 50% and then enlarge them again by 200%.

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