Virtual Reality and Mars: 4 Ways Tech Will Change Space Exploration

Virtual Tour of Mars
A visitor to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex takes a virtual tour of Mars, in the new exhibit "Destination: Mars," debuting in the summer of 2016. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Microsoft)

Virtual-reality systems under development could train astronauts, maneuver the Mars rover and support explorers on their long journey to Mars.

Yesterday (May 17) at the Humans to Mars Summit in Washington, D.C., panelists described four virtual-reality projects and research that are poised to aid space exploration. (The conference runs from May 17 through May 19, and is streaming online here.)

NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California began work on early virtual-reality goggles in the mid-1980s, and the technology has played an important role in training and guiding astronauts, NASA researcher Larry Dungan said at the panel. Dungan presented a hybrid reality system where people on the ground interact with real-life environments that correspond to a simulation of the International Space Station — for instance, picking up a real-life box that's replicated within an HTC Vive virtual-reality system and placing it on a railing. Eventually, trainees could use real tools to practice repair work on the space station. (See the best VR headsets of 2016 here, as reviewed by our sister site Tom's Guide.)

"Imagine doing an EVA [spacewalk] or an on-orbit repair in VR before you ever had to go forward and do it on the space station," Dungan said.

And to go one step further: Dungan is also project manager and electrical designer for NASA's Active Response Gravity Offload System (ARGOS), which uses a crane system to replicate the gravity in different space environments. By combining that technology with the hybrid reality system, Dungan said, astronauts could practice taking measurements on Mars in their spacesuit by this summer, immersed inan accurate environment and gravity.

Where Dungan's work brings otherworldly conditions down to Earth, David Lavery's focuses on "beaming" researchers to the Martian surface itself in order to better direct the Curiosity rover's explorations.

Lavery is a program executive for solar system exploration at NASA, and he described OnSight, a software tool that would let researchers strap on Microsoft's augmented-reality HoloLens to look at photographic data from Curiosity in 3D and plot out the route the rover should take. 

Researchers can spend 20 years trying to get the hang of interpreting 2D rover images to judge how far away and how large objects are before getting some kind of mastery, Lavery said, and even then they could seriously benefit from seeing the scene in three dimensions.

"People who have been doing it for 20 years, who are really, really good at it, actually suck at it, to be honest," Lavery said. "Their understanding of the real world versus the mental model that they were reconstructing — and this is after years of practice — is massively error-prone."

The setup would allow researchers to maneuver in three dimensions through the reconstructed surface of Mars, point out features to one another and direct the rover in an intuitive way, by selecting a path and objects to investigate. Each would wear a HoloLens, and they could all collaborate from different locations. While the interaction with Curiosity wouldn't be instantaneous — as now, instructions would be transmitted once a day — directing the rover would become more accurate and easier to do. [Aliens Attack! Space Station Astronauts Fight VR Invasion With Hololens (Video)]

Using that same technology, Buzz Aldrin will soon give visitors to NASA's Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida virtual tours of the Red Planet, which is currently scheduled to begin this summer. (They removed the rover commanding part for this version, Lavery added.)

Later in 2016, the public will be able to get a different 3D experience of Mars — this time, a highly produced series of missions built to make the most of virtual reality's immersive qualities.

The project "Mars 2030" started as a discussion between developer Fusion Media and MIT's Aeronautics and Astronautics department, lead producer Julian Reyes said at the panel. To make the virtual missions as realistic as possible for participants, it subsequently included collaboration with NASA. Later, the project brought in game designers, including designers from the game "Bioshock Infinite."

The virtual-reality missions follow guidelines set out in NASA's Mars Surface Reference Mission, Reyes said, which set out detailed plans for human and robotic Mars exploration.

"The goal here is to create an experience that everybody can have, and go to Mars and be an astronaut and go on missions that unlock what Mars is," Reyes said.

The project, which will feature an original score performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, is set to be released in November for the VR platforms Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR versions might be available later on, and it will also be possible to complete the missions on an ordinary computer screen.

The last to speak at the panel, Peggy Wu, is studying immersion in virtual reality for a different reason — rather than taking humans to Mars virtually, the technology she described could give astronauts on their way there a break from the isolation and monotony of space. 

Wu is a senior research scientist at the research and development company Smart Information Flow Technologies, and she is overseeing a 12-month study of what the company's technology can do at HI-SEAS, NASA's mock Mars mission in Hawaii. The technology, called Ansible, lets the mock astronauts explore nature, go on vacation, share a (prerecorded) meal with their families and navigate collective virtual spaces like a movie theater. [Living on 'Mars': A Mock Space Mission in Photos]

"We've got some preliminary data results, this is just based on the first six months of the study, and they're very promising," Wu said. "We're showing that they're feeling closer to their family members compared to the control group, they're feeling more satisfied with their social relationships, there's potentially reduced stress in this crew, and also a change in the perception of time."

Planning space missions, practicing them, experiencing them from afar and even enduring the trip there and the long stay on alien territory — the panelists' projects show how VR can address all aspects of space exploration.  

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Sarah Lewin
Associate Editor

Sarah Lewin started writing for in June of 2015 as a Staff Writer and became Associate Editor in 2019 . Her work has been featured by Scientific American, IEEE Spectrum, Quanta Magazine, Wired, The Scientist, Science Friday and WGBH's Inside NOVA. Sarah has an MA from NYU's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program and an AB in mathematics from Brown University. When not writing, reading or thinking about space, Sarah enjoys musical theatre and mathematical papercraft. She is currently Assistant News Editor at Scientific American. You can follow her on Twitter @SarahExplains.