The folks who brought you the amazing Google Earth and Google Sky have also created Google Mars, a virtual map of the Red Planet. All three are packed into one place, for easy download. If you've never used this, download it now! It's an extremely cool and fun way to explore the Earth, the sky, and now Mars. You can roam the surface, zoom in and out, take closer hi-res looks at some features, and just generally lose hours of your life to this... but in a good way. Today Google announced three new updates for Mars, and they're pretty nifty. One is an overlay that shows old historical maps, like the ones Percival Lowell made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when he fancied Mars was crisscrossed with canals dug by a dying race. You can take that trip to Victorian Mars, all without having to oustretch your arms and say, "Barsoooooom." The second is called Live From Mars, which is feature that will automatically update itself with the very latest imagery from NASA Mars probes. In other words, you can see the newest images of Mars pretty much as soon as the scientists do! You can also fly along with these missions and see where they've been and where they're headed as they map the surface of the Red planet. The third feature is canned guided tours: you open them and get a tour of Mars narrated by Ira Flatow from NPR and Bill Nye (whom I hear is some sort of Science Guy). When you open these tours, Google Mars will show you the spots being discussed, and zoom in and out to show you what's what on our neighbor planet.
You can even make your own tour! I decided to try out this feature, so I made one myself. You do need to do some minimal prep for it to work. First, download Google Earth. I'll rate that a 5 on the "duh" scale. Next, grab the KMZ file I made called Google_Mars_Intro_Tour.kmz (do NOT save this link; click it to go to a free file storage site, and click where it says "Download for free with FileFactory Basic"; it's an 800kB file). This file is just a set of instructions for Google Mars and has my tour encoded in it. Save it on your computer wherever you want but make it accessible.
Google Mars view of the volcano Olympus Mons (featured in my tour below; click to embiggen).
Now, open Google Earth. Once it's open and you see our lovely blue planet, go to the top where there is a menu bar of icons. One looks like Saturn. Click it, and then click Mars in the drop-down menu. Mars will suddenly appear!
Almost there. In the left sidebar is a menu called Layers. In there is a heading called Spacecraft Imagery. Click the little triangle, then click the button next to HiRISE Image Browser. That turns on the layer giving you images from the HiRISE camera. Right above Spacecraft Imagery is Global Maps. Click the triangle, then click in the circle next to Visible Imagery. That's it! Now double click the KML file you downloaded (by the way, you have to have Mars open before you open the KMZ file or else this won't work at all). When you do, you'll hear my dulcet but mildly goofy tones, taking you on a brief tour of Mars. Just sit back and let Google do the work for you. The whole thing is less than two minutes, and at the end I get a little conspiratorial. This whole package has obvious educational benefits; you can now show people what you want them to see, in the order you want them to see it, and even with your own narration! This works for Earth and for Sky as well. I can see this being used a lot in the classroom. Google Earth/Sky/Mars is so much fun. You can bookmark places, save them, send them to other people, and a lot more. This is an incredible tool, and it's lots of fun to play. So go! Explore Mars!