Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

A Google Earth Grand Tour of the Terrestrial Planets

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

A Google Earth Grand Tour of the Terrestrial Planets

Article excerpt


For over a decade, avant garde geoscience instructors at primary, secondary, and tertiary levels have leveraged the three-dimensional (3D) visualization and active-learning affordances of Google Earth (Table I). Conference presentations describing Google Earth applications in geoeducation are too numerous to list. A search for ''Google Earth'' in the Geological Society of America's Abstracts and Programs yields 1,229 results, and there are 1,209 teaching resources listed in a search of the Science Education Resource Center (SERC, 2016). Google Earth is clearly a favorite teaching tool across a wide range of geoscience subdisciplines, and virtual globes are critical to professional geoscience research, especially with the ability of Google Earth Engine to analyze Big Geodata using tens of thousands of parallel processors (Hansen et al., 2013; Google Earth Engine, 2016). Our tours differ from prior work in comprehensively covering the terrestrial planets, efficiently delivering large image files via image tiling, and including multiple planet-scale 3D COLLADA models. (COLLADA is the format used for 3D building models in Google Earth, and models can be made up to twice Earth's diameter.)

Planetary science is one of the subdisciplines that potentially can benefit most from a Google Earth-based curriculum. The desktop application includes virtual globes only for Earth, the Moon,4 and Mars, but Hirshon et al. (2010) created a tour of Mercury based on National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Messenger mission data, and De Paor et al. (2012a) created a Google Earth model of Venus using Magellan's synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery. Both of these resources were designed with professionals and geoscience majors in mind. The tours presented here target introductory major and nonmajor general education students but could be readily adapted for primary, secondary, and informal education. Although the present paper is concerned with the terrestrial planets, for the sake of completeness, links to models of the outer planets and their moons are also listed in Table II. The latest addition to the collection is a Google Pluto model based on the New Horizons mission to that dwarf planet. Following the idea of Bennett (2016a, 2016b), we also created a virtual scale model of the solar system.

Our basic concept is a ''grand tour'' of the key features of each terrestrial planet (including our Moon, which can be thought of as a binary planet). Just as the elite social class of 19th century northern Europe embarked on a cultural grand tour to prepare for life in polite society, we want to send our students on a tour of places on terrestrial bodies about which scientifically literate citizens ought to know. Our argument is that, in the age of publicly funded space exploration involving several national space agencies, knowing about the highest mountain in the solar system is as basic to geospatial literacy as knowing about the highest mountain on Earth is to classical geography.

Each tour commences with an astronaut's overview from space, and then it zooms in on specific, media-rich placemarks, and ends with a concluding view from space. Surface imagery, geological maps, and other large draped images were processed through MapTiler(TM) software to create tiled image pyramids that load sequentially upon zooming, similar to the way the Google Earth terrain itself loads. This ensures the highest possible resolution without loading multimegabyte image files that would slow computer responsiveness, as has been done frequently by others in the past. In each tour, we include an option to view the outlines of Earth's continents. This is intended to help students develop a sense of relative position and relative size of features on other planets.


The Solar System to Scale

We recommend starting a classroom implementation with our Google Earth-based scale model of the solar system (available in the online journal and at http://dx. …

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