How Anyone Can Explore Mars Through Virtual Reality

December 21, 2015, 1:59 PM UTC

Although NASA isn’t planning on sending astronauts to Mars until the 2030s, anyone with a virtual reality headset will be able to walk on the Red Planet next year.

The Mars 2030 Experience, a collaboration across NASA, Fusion, and MIT’s Space Systems Laboratory, will debut in March 2016 at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas.

The free virtual reality experience will be playable on Google Cardboard, Facebook’s Oculus Rift, and Samsung Gear VR. Versions of the experience also are expected to launch on PlayStation VR and HTC Vive in the future.

Jason Crusan, director of advanced exploration systems at NASA, says the space agency already uses virtual reality technology in astronaut training and spacecraft simulations, so it was logical to extend that successful model to inspire and educate the next generation of space explorers and scientists.

“We saw this as an opportunity to share elements of our human Mars surface exploration concepts using today’s advanced virtual reality technologies,” Crusan says.

Justin Sonnekalb, a technical designer at Irrational Games who is working on this project, says the game play experience will allow users to walk or drive the Mars Rover prototype across several square miles of actual Martian terrain while pursuing research-oriented mission goals. More details about the experience will be revealed during a SXSW panel, which will explore the intersection of science, education, and technology.

One thing that has been revealed is that this virtual reality version of Mars will be different from Hollywood interpretations. Sonnekalb says when people play The Mars 2030 Experience they will be seeing the team’s best efforts to re-create what it would look like if someone was actually standing on Mars today.

“We’ve been taking enormous care to provide the most realistic Martian environment possible, using real topographic data and accurate color reference,” Sonnekalb says. “Most images from Mars are either raw data that hasn’t been color-corrected to match human eyesight, or has been tuned to reflect Earth’s lighting conditions because it both affords greater visual contrast and appears more natural. There’s something inherently cool about the authenticity of that, particularly with the additional immersion afforded by VR.”

The team is using Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 4 technology, which is used in upcoming games such as Capcom’s Street Fighter V and Chair Entertainment’s Spyjinx, to re-create Mars’ completely alien atmosphere. The planet’s sky is a reddish-butterscotch hue at noon, but blue around sunset.

As part of the development process, Sonnekalb’s team visited Johnson Space Center to talk shop with the NASA simulator team and get a test drive on the Mars Rover prototype alongside an astronaut.

“Beyond practical uses for training, virtual reality offers us a compelling method to share the work we’ve been doing to design sustainable human missions and to inspire the next generation of pioneers in space,” Crusan says.

Crusan says physics-based simulations are helping NASA planners on the Journey to Mars mission, providing virtual environments to test vehicle and system performance in simulated deep space environments.

Julian Reyes, virtual reality producer for Fusion, hopes that the Mars 2030 project is the first of many such VR experiences. Fusion, a multiplatform media company, signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA to produce cross-media content.

In addition to the virtual reality experience, this content will be distributed digitally across Twitch and YouTube Gaming. And there will be a television component for the Fusion cable network, which was launched in 2013 as a joint venture between Univision Communications and the Disney/ABC Television Group to target millennials.

“We do want to capture the television audience and bring them into this exciting new medium,” Reyes says.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has Mars on his mind too. See why he proposes nuking the Red Planet in this Fortune video:

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