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NASA's past and future ... in 3-D!

Nathanial Burton-Bradford / NASA

Nathanial Burton-Bradford put together this 3-D view of the shuttle Atlantis' launch on July 8. Use red-blue glasses to see the stereo effect.

NASA's last space shuttle mission and its next Mars mission both look twice as awesome in stereo — and you can look forward to more 3-D goodness to come.

The picture of Atlantis' launch on July 8 comes courtesy of Nathanial Burton-Bradford, a British aficionado of anaglyph imagery. Burton-Bradford's Flickr page offers views of the launch as well as a panorama of the shuttle docked to the International Space Station, plus a space station view of Atlantis' descent last week.

Even though Atlantis' 13-day mission and the 30-year space shuttle program have ended, there are lots of 3-D views yet to come. Several professional stereo camera rigs were set up at the launch site, and Panasonic provided 3-D camcorders for Atlantis' crew to use during their training and spaceflight. The 3-D cameras are to be used aboard the space station going forward.

Vertical Ascent Productions captured the launch as well as the landing in 3-D, for use in a 45-minute special due to air on Aug. 5 as part of inDemand's "In Deep" series. The show was commissioned by Comcast, and other inDemand affiliates will have access to the special as well, Multichannel News reported.

3-D on Mars
If film director James Cameron had his way, we'd be looking forward to even more exotic 3-D video next year. At one time, the man behind "Avatar," "Titanic" and other Hollywood blockbusters was working with NASA to put a high-resolution 3-D zoom camera aboard the car-sized Curiosity rover.

Alas, it was not to be: Mission planners determined that the camera couldn't be ready in time for the probe's scheduled launch on Nov. 25. NASA had to go with the fixed focal-length system that was originally planned for the rover.

NASA / JPL-Caltech

This stereo image of NASA's Curiosity rover was taken on May 26 at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, about a month before the car-sized rover — also known as the Mars Science Laboratory — was shipped to Kennedy Space Center in preparation for its November launch to the Red Planet.

Even that dual-camera Mastcam system has stereo capability, so we'll still be seeing stereo views. In fact, both cameras are capable of taking high-resolution video at a rate of about 10 frames per second. But because the cameras have different focal lengths, 3-D imagery will not be "a major emphasis of the investigation," according to the camera's manufacturer, Malin Space Science Systems.

You don't have to wait until the Curiosity rover's landing next May to enjoy 3-D views from the Red Planet. Spirit and Opportunity, the twin rovers that landed on Mars in 2004, have sent back loads of stereo images — and the vistas are likely to get even more dramatic once Opportunity reaches the 14-mile-wide Endeavour Crater.

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is also taking stereo pictures of Mars, from high above. You can click through more than 2,000 3-D images from the orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE.

As you graze through the nearly 19,000 pictures in HiRISE's catalog, you'll occasionally come across image pages that offer "anaglyph" versions of the scene — and that's a tip-off that 3-D goodness is available. 

This picture of the central mound at Gale Crater, the top target for Curiosity's $2.5 billion mission, is a good example:   

NASA / JPL-Caltech / Univ. of Ariz.

This stereo image shows the northeast section of the central mound within Gale Crater on Mars, which appears to include layers of sulfate minerals. Gale Crater's mound rises 3 miles (5 kilometers) above the floor of the crater and has been selected as the target for NASA's $2.5 billion Curiosity rover mission.

How to see in 3-D
By now you're probably wondering where to get the red-blue glasses you need to see the 3-D effect. Inexpensive cardboard spectacles are generally inserted in 3-D books or DVD packages — but for the pictures that you see on this page and on most other websites, you'll want to make sure you have the red-blue (or red-cyan) filters rather than amber-blue or green-magenta filters.

The red-blue glasses may be available at novelty shops, and you can also order them online. Here's a list of vendors from NASA. In addition to the outlets on NASA's list, there's Amazon.com and 3DGlasses.net. NASA even provides instructions for making your own 3-D glasses.

I've been known to give away 3-D glasses that are provided courtesy of Microsoft Research, which includes 3-D imagery in its WorldWide Telescope astronomy software. (Microsoft and NBC Universal are partners in the msnbc.com joint venture.) This week, I'm sending out more than 20 free sets of cardboard glasses to readers who asked for them on the Cosmic Log Facebook page. The giveaway glasses are already spoken for, so please click on the "like" button to become part of Cosmic Log's Facebook community and be ready for the next giveaway.

Once you have your glasses, click through these links to sample more 3-D goodies from outer space:

And while you're at it, check out the 2-D images in the latest installment of our "Month in Space Pictures" slideshow. Many of the pictures this month are from Atlantis' mission, but there are lots of other gems to enjoy. Click on these links for larger versions of the images, suitable for printing or turning into wallpaper for your display devices:


Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page or following @b0yle on Twitter. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.