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3D fun with meteors

Speed read
  • Visualization uses data from SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center
  • New technology allows improved 3D rendering and saves time on computing performance
  • Users simply click and drag to view comets and asteroids in space 

Every day, nearly 40 tons of meteorite debris falls to Earth.

With so many meteors passing within our orbit each day, tracking them can be a challenge for those concerned with their impact on the planet.

One visualization seeks to solve this problem by making meteoric data fun and interactive.<strong>Star crossed.</strong> Webster's interactive meteor visualization and WebGL help you navigate this December Geminids' visitation in 3D with ease. Courtesy Peter Jenniskens and Ian Webster.

Ian Webster, an engineer at Zenysis Technologies, developed a meteor shower visualization that seeks to put “science in a context everyone can understand.”

“My visualizations portray scientific data accurately, but in a much more beautiful and captivating light than a scientific paper,” Webster says. “Almost anyone can browse and begin to understand complex NASA databases using these visualizations."

Webster developed the project using data from Peter Jenniskens, senior research scientist at the Carl Sagan Center of the SETI Institute and at NASA Ames Research Center

One important tool Webster used to compute orbits for thousands of asteroids was WebGL, a recent technology that enables 3D rendering in browsers and saves time on computing performance.

“The key to WebGL is that it allows me to send commands to the computer’s graphic processing unit, which is optimized for graphical rendering,” Webster says. “This can produce a nearly 1,000-fold increase in performance compared to a typical central processing unit calculation.”

Users click and drag throughout the solar system to track different comets and asteroids hurtling in the cold vacuum of space. The orbits of Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars are included, showing how frequently these out-of-space objects reach each of these planets.<strong>Time travel. </strong>What did the Earth look like 600 million years ago? No need to wonder — Webster's visualization flies you through time, showing you how the continents evolved to their present placement. Courtesy Ian Webster.

The meteor project is not the only visualization Webster has worked on. He’s also developed an interactive globe of Earth tracing its continental movements throughout millennia, an interactive map of different missions to the Moon, and a database of asteroid and mining rankings.

The interactivity of the visualizations was an end goal for Webster, as he believes it allows for an everyday audience to easily understand complicated scientific topics, such as meteoric material falling on Earth.

“Interactivity helps make the data more relatable, allowing people to manipulate and understand it on their own terms,” Webster says. “People care a lot more about the underlying science when they can actually reach out and touch it.”

What are you waiting for? Get to clicking – there’s plenty to explore out there. 

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