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Access Mars screenshot
“Access Mars” provides 3-D views of the Red Planet as captured by NASA’s Curiosity rover. (NASA / JPL Illustration)

NASA has been offering virtual-reality tours of Mars for years — but now, with Google’s help, the space agency has come up with one of the most accessible tours yet.

“Access Mars” lays out a 3-D terrain for five of the spots scanned by NASA’s Curiosity rover, ranging from its landing site to the place where it’s hanging out now, more than five years later.

The tour can be experienced via a desktop browser, on mobile devices as a head-tracking display seen through a Cardboard-style viewer, and on virtual-reality and augmented-reality headsets.

You can jump from one spot to another, teleport between the five tour stops, or check out explanatory placards that are accompanied by audio narration. There’s even the sound of wind in the background to give you an eerie sense of Martian aloneness.

NASA says the experience was adapted from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s OnSight software, which is used to help scientists visualize the rover’s surroundings as they plan its route. The software was developed using WebVR, an open-source standard, with support from Google’s Creative Labs team.

“We’ve been able to leverage VR and AR technologies to take our scientists to Mars every single day,” Victor Luo, lead project manager at JPL’s Ops Lab, said today in a NASA news release. “With ‘Access Mars,’ everyone in the world can ride along.”

NASA’s other forays into VR and AR include “Mars 2030,” an immersive VR experience created in collaboration with Fusion Media Group; “Destination: Mars,” a mixed-reality presentation that NASA and Microsoft put together for NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center in Florida; and ProtoSpace, a Hololens application that JPL is using to tweak the design for NASA’s 2020 Mars rover.

But wait … there’s more!

If you’re hankering to roam beyond the solar system, check out the 360-degree YouTube video created by Engine House VFX and “We the Curious,” an interactive science center in the English city of Bristol.

The 11-minute video takes you on a tour of six extrasolar planets, ranging from Osiris, a storm-ravaged “hot Jupiter” that orbits a star 154 light-years from Earth, to Kepler-62e, a potential water world that’s 1,200 light-years away and is thought to have a super-ocean.

Like “Access Mars,” the exoplanet tour can be experienced on a desktop, a mobile phone or with a headset in head-tracking 3-D. There’s a running commentary that’s provided by planetary scientists from the University of Exeter Astrophysics Research Group. Funding was provided by the University of Exeter.

We won’t really know what these exoplanets look like until we create telescopes big enough to get a snapshot. But the views come close to scientists’ conceptions — so close that NASA used the imagery of WASP-121b to illustrate a report about the weird planet’s stratosphere in August.

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