Nashuan’s creation of ‘wet Mars’ makes big splash on Web
NASHUA – NASA’s rovers on Mars might have found a dry, dusty planet that has drawn loads of interest, but that hasn’t kept 1998 Nashua High School graduate Kevin Gill from creating a “wet Mars” that has drawn loads of admiration.
“I had been doing models of the Earth itself, so I figured I’d do it for Mars,” Gill said from enterprise software firm Thunderhead’s Manchester offices, where he works as a senior software engineer. “I’m interested in Mars, but mostly I did it to improve the software algorithms – as well as see what has come out.”
What came out is a sort of Mars equivalent of the “blue marble” pictures of Earth made famous by Apollo astronauts, with huge oceans, swirling clouds, and green vegetation, especially around the poles. The various hemispheres, rendered in incredible detail, are based on terrain elevation data – “the sort used to generate topographical maps” – from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, plus some reasonable assumptions.
“I picked atmospheric settings, cloud heights, appearance,” he said. “I keep fiddling with it, never get to the point where I’m comfortable with doing an actual build. But the source code’s all available.”
On Gill’s Mars, an ocean fills almost an entire side of the planet while the planet’s huge volcanoes, including Olympus Mons, the tallest known mountain in the solar system, dominate the scene. It looks like Earth and yet it doesn’t, providing an unsettling beauty.
“I tried to envision how the land would appear given certain features or the effects of likely atmospheric climate,” he wrote in an online post. “(For) desert-like areas, I mostly used textures taken from the Sahara in Africa and some of Australia. Likewise, as the terrain gets higher or lower in latitude I added darker flora along with tundra and glacial ice. These northern and southern areas’ textures are largely taken from around northern Russia. Tropical and subtropical greens were based on the rainforests of South America and Africa.”
A week ago he posted some images to a Google Plus community that discusses space issues, including files with titles like “Mars floral layer” and “elevation testing.”
The community is moderated by an editor at UniverseToday.com, who was so interested that he had the site publish a story.
Next thing Gill knew, there were items online about his work from sources as diverse as Smithsonian, Fox News and The Atlantic.
“It was tweeted by a couple of NASA groups, which was really neat,” he said.
The image also drew the attention of Elon Musk, the software billionaire who is CEO of SpaceX, the first private company to deliver a payload to the space station, and who is famously interested in Mars.
Within a week after releasing the image, a Web search of “Mars Kevin Gill” finds dozens of news items, blog posts and other references to his work. He has heard from many people, including a few wanting to buy posters of his images.
“It’s kind of a surprise,” he said. “You don’t expect something like this.”
Gill is a Nashua native who graduated from Nashua High in 1998, then got an undergraduate degree from UMass Lowell and, last year, a master’s in computer engineering from Rivier University. His senior thesis at Rivier helped lead to the Mars project, said his wife, Stephanie Moskal Gill.
The two met at Nashua High; she graduated in 1999, and ended up also getting a master’s at Rivier last year, in special education. They have three children in their Conant Road home: 6-year-old Ethan and 1-year-old twins Elizabeth and Liam.
Kevin Gill, 33, has long been interested in computers.
“If they remember me doing anything (at Nashua High), it’s writing games on a graphing calculator,” he said, laughing.
“I’d like to render an animation, spin the panel around, rather than a still image,” he said of his Mars.
That effort is complicated by the desire to make sure that the image is compact enough to be processed on home computers.
As for other planets, he’s a little uncertain about targets, since Venus is pretty flat, Mercury too close to the sun and the gas giants don’t really have surfaces, so he’s unsure about a successor image.
And then, of course, there are the new twins. “That’s why I don’t have time to play video games anymore,” he said.
David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashua telegraph.com. Follow Brooks’ blog on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).