Mars Rover Technology Yields Mega-Photo of Obama Inauguration
This is a small version of a massive Gigapan photo of U.S. President Barack Obama's Inauguration on Jan. 20, 2008 was taken by photographer David Bergman.
Credit: David Bergman via NASA.

Millions of Americans used their personal cameras to snap photos of U.S. President Barack Obama?s inauguration last month, but one photographer borrowed a lesson from NASA?s Mars rovers to record the moment.

Photographer David Bergman used the same technology behind the panoramic vision of NASA?s Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars to capture a massive panoramic photo of President Obama?s inauguration on Jan. 20.

The ultra high-resolution picture is a stunning 1,474 megapixel panorama. Most ordinary digital photographs contain less than 10 megapixels.

"Covering the inauguration of President Obama was one of the biggest thrills of my life," said Bergman. "Little did I know that it would be topped by the reaction to a photo I made that day. ?With the ability to zoom in and move around the photo, it turned into an international game of 'Where's Waldo?' In the first 5 days, the image was viewed by millions of people in 186 countries."

To capture the image, Bergman used a camera system called Gigapan, which evolved from the mast-mounted Panoramic Camera (Pancam) system developed by NASA?s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Cornell University to give the rovers Spirit and Opportunity their high-resolution vision.

Each of the rover?s Pancam systems can tilt 180 degrees and rotate 360 degrees, which allows Spirit and Opportunity snap photos in all directions. The individual 1-megapixel digital images are then stitched together using computer software to create a high-resolution panorama that smoothes out anomalies.

On Spirit and Opportunity, the Pancam system sits atop a mast at about the eye-level of a human and yields high-resolution images that allow scientists to zoom in on rocks or other Martian topics of interest. The rovers have used their camera eyes for more than five years and continue to explore the Martian surface at their respective landing sites on opposite sides of Mars.

Gigapan was designed by Randy Sargent at NASA's Ames Research Center and Illah Nourbakhsh at Carnegie Mellon University, who were inspired by the Pancam system?s success on Mars and wanted to apply the technology on Earth. Sargent worked with Rich LeGrand of Charmed Labs LLC to design and produce the Gigapan products.

For Bergman?s inauguration photo, 220 individual photographs were combined into a single image. The process took about 15 minutes to capture all of the photographic pieces.

"I'm really a traditional, still photographer," Bergman said. "I had seen the Gigapan system but never used it. Up until the day of the inauguration, I had no idea how to set it up. I fiddled around with it for a while in the hotel room to figure it out. That's a testament to how easy it is to use."

Getting through the Inauguration Day security was the biggest challenge, he added.

"I had to be there at 6:00 in the morning and had to pass through three capitol police security checkpoints. I didn't have to face any Martian dust storms like the rovers do, but it was bitterly cold, and the ceremony didn't start until 11:30 a.m. I had no room for a tripod, so I had to clamp the Gigapan assembly to a rail and hope it worked."

Gigapan has been used for more than President Obama?s inauguration. Relief workers have used Gigapan-generated overlays on Google Earth to pinpoint areas in the most distress after natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina and the 2005 Kashmir Earthquake, while other scientists employed it to document Earth?s cultures and ecosystems, NASA officials said.

Click here to see Bergman?s ultra high-resolution Inauguration Day image.

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