3-D Google Mars? Great Swans of Olympus Mons!

Those sneaky folks at Google. Even as waves of coverage come pouring forth about the newly launched oceans layer in Google Earth, a short NASA press release and no more than a few lines in a couple news articles note that, oh, yeah, and by the way, there’s a new 3-D Mars layer too.


Sure enough, it’s in the new Google Earth version 5.0, and It’s beautimous. Just launch Earth, click the top tab with the Saturn-looking icon on it, and toggle between Earth, Sky, and Mars.


—Google Earth, Mars layer screenshot

[Google Sky, btw, was launched in 2007 and features a ridonkulous amount of astronomy data, from pretty pictures to current and historical sky charts. Fun.]

Google Maps has had a Mars version for a while now, but I’ve always found it tough to figure things out in the flattened strip of rainbow topography they made available, plus it feels like there’s a lot of repeating images.

The 3-D model, on the other hand, looks pretty close to natural color, and it lets you fly around from landmark to landmark, zooming in and out to get a good idea of where stuff lies on the global map.

It paints a very vivid picture, for example, of just how far the two Mars rovers are from each other, or the distance Opportunity had to shlep to reach its current position outside Victoria Crater.

One quirk is that the outer shell is built on all sorts of images from NASA and ESA, including huge tracts of land covered by orbiters with higher resolution than the base picture. The overall effect is a striped, reddish brown globe littered with colorful squares and tiny flags.

The digital confetti, of course, is those “more information” tags that fans of the Google app have come to know and love—although on my computer I can’t seem to get the information to appear inside the pop-up bubbles. Boo.


System failure.

—Google Earth, Mars layer screenshot

Luckily the folks over at Universe Today have a couple screengrabs on their site of what this is supposed to look like, if you wanna preview before you download.

In addition to being an obvious public relations boon, the Mars layer is being touted as a research tool, since scientists anywhere can use the Google software to add their own content. For instance, I’d be excited to see a mode that tracks the merits of each candidate landing site for the Mars Science Lab.

I’m also encouraged by the alt tag for that little toggle icon, which instructs you to “switch between Earth, Sky, and other planets.”

Other planets, eh? That’s pretty open-ended. So any day now we’ll get Google Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, right?