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Go planet-hopping in 3-D

G. Neukum / FU Berlin / DLR / ESA

A stereo image from the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter, based on data acquired in 2004, shows the shield volcano known as Tharsis Tholus. Use red-blue glasses to see the 3-D effect.

NASA's 3-D video of the asteroid Vesta is a stunner, but there are other places you can go in the solar system using red-blue glasses.

Take Mars, for example: Last month the European Space Agency released pictures of the semi-gigantic Tharsis Tholus volcano, which rises 5 miles (8 kilometers) above the Martian surface and spans 75 miles.

G. Neukum / FU Berlin / DLR / ESA

This image of the 5-mile-high Martian shield volcano known as Tharsis Tholus is color-coded to reflect elevation. The lowest elevations are in green, violet and purple. The highest elevations are in red and brown.

It's no Olympus Mons, which is 16 miles high and as big as the state of Arizona, but it's big nevertheless.

The stereo image from ESA's Mars Express orbiter looks right down the wide throat of Tharsis Tholus' caldera. ESA notes that at least two sections have collapsed around the volcano's eastern and western flanks during 4 billion years of geological history, leaving behind scarps that are several miles high.

The color-coded elevation map at right provides another way to get a sense of the terrain, but you can't beat 3-D glasses for giving you the sense that you're hanging right over the caldera's 20-mile-wide maw.

Stuart Atkinson, an educator and amateur astronomer from Britain, has mastered the trick of producing 3-D imagery from NASA's Opportunity rover on Mars, and he regularly posts pictures to his "Road to Endeavour" website. In last week's status report on Opportunity's progress, Atkinson shared several red-blues, including the vista shown below.

S. Atkinson / NASA / JPL-Caltech / Cornell

Ridges rise up in this Martian vista, seen by NASA's Opportunity rover as it studies Endeavour Crater.

Here's what Atkinson says about the picture:

"Just imagine you’re there. ... Imagine you’re slogging up that ridge in your heavy, bulky spacesuit, with your ragged, exhausted breathing rasping in your helmet. ... Eventually you reach the top of the ridge and pause for breath, hands on your knees, bent over. ... When you look up you find yourself looking down at the floor of Endeavour, at the dark dust dunes rippled across it, at the waves of wind wafting gently over it. ... Then you lift your eyes and see, on the far side of the great crater, the eastern hills, shining orange and gold in the sunlight. ...

"People will actually do that for real one day.

"How I envy them."

Me too.

Mercury was another target for stereo pictures, this time taken by NASA's Messenger probe. The picture below is a red-blue combination showing the floor of 19-mile-wide Kertesz Crater. Messenger acquired the image data in July, but the photo was released last month. The floor of the crater is covered with the "hollows" that made headlines during a recent Messenger science briefing, and the 3-D effect gives the imagery an extra dimension.


This is an anaglyph created from two images of Mercury's Kertesz Crater. Use red-blue glasses to see the 3-D effect. With this anaglyph, better results may be achieved by tilting the head slightly to the left.

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.

Today I gave away free 3-D glasses to the first 10 folks to go to the Cosmic Log Facebook page and post a comment specifically asking for them.  Don't worry, there'll be another 3-D giveaway once I scrounge up some more of the cardboard glasses. The red-blue specs 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.)

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

Last updated 11:50 p.m. ET.

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