NASA Puts Its Space Rock Collection Online
NASA has a wealth of space rocks, known more properly as astromaterials. Some of them came directly from the surface of the moon during the Apollo era, and others were discovered after falling to Earth in Antarctica. Now, you can check out NASA’s collection in extreme detail using the new Astromaterials 3D Explorer site. Not only do you get high-resolution photos of the surface, but you can also peer inside the rocks using X-ray computed tomography.
Getting these precious samples ready for their online debut wasn’t as simple as snapping a few photos and slapping some HTML together. First, photographer Erika Blumenfeld captured images of each rock from at least 240 different angles — that’s enough to produce what NASA calls a “research-grade 3D model.” Because the samples are so rare, the entire photoshoot takes place with the sample inside a sealed nitrogen cabinet, which is itself inside a cleanroom. NASA even includes data on the camera, which was a Hasselblad H4D-60, a $30,000 camera with a 60MP resolution. The HC 120 II lens Blumenfeld used costs about $2,500 all by itself. The visual data is measured in tens of gigabytes for each rock.
Following the photoshoot, each of the two-dozen astromaterial samples was scanned using X-ray computed tomography (CT). This allows researchers (and now you) to examine the internal structure of the rocks without damaging them. The Explorer site integrates the 360-degree 3D mesh from the photos with the internal data to produce a virtual representation you can examine from any angle.
On the site, you can choose between the Apollo moon rocks and the Antarctic collection. The Apollo rocks were collected by hand on the surface of the moon and returned to Earth in the cargo hold of the Apollo command module. The Antarctic objects plummeted through the atmosphere and impacted the frozen wasteland. These dark rocks are easy to spot against the white backdrop, making them easier to find than asteroids in other regions. The asteroid samples are organized by their origin — there are typical C, K, and M-type asteroids, as well as some that came from Mars, Vesta, and the moon.
The Explorer interface includes a 3D model you can observe from all sides with different lighting and measurement tools — there’s even a 3D anaglyph mode. The CT scan data lets you isolate slices from the interior for closer examination. You can even view a high-resolution image of each individual X-ray slice. The Astromaterials 3D Explorer also links to the uncompressed TIFF images for each rock, clocking in at a few gigabytes per rock.
NASA says this is just the start of an ongoing project. It wants to get as many of its samples as possible digitized so everyone from students to researchers will be able to examine these space treasures in detail. The agency says more samples will be live by summer 2021.