The app, called Spacecraft 3D, uses animation to show how the Curiosity rover and twin GRAIL spacecraft maneuver and wield their external components.
The computer models used in Spacecraft 3D were originally generated for NASA's "Eyes on the Solar System" Web app, a 3-D environment that lets users explore space from a computer.
[ The commercial space industry is preparing to take a more active role in the U.S. space program. Read more at NASA Cranks Up Its Rocket Science. ]
Curiosity is scheduled to land on Mars early next month. The GRAIL (Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory) mission involves two spacecraft, Ebb and Flow, that are creating a high-resolution map of the Moon's gravitational field.
Augmented-reality apps provide views of a real-world environment where the experience is improved with user input. With Spacecraft 3D, the user prints an augmented reality target on a piece of paper. Then, with the device's camera pointed at the target, the chosen spacecraft "materializes" on the screen, according to NASA. The app also lets users take an augmented-reality picture of the Curiosity or the GRAIL spacecraft.
"Like Hollywood directors sizing up their next shot, you move your camera-equipped iPad or iPhone in and out, up and down and the spacecraft perspective moves with you," said Kevin Hussey, manager of visualization technology at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
While Spacecraft 3D is currently only available in Apple iOS formats, the space agency plans to release other versions. NASA also says it will incorporate other spacecraft into the app, including the Cassini, which is orbiting Saturn; Dawn, now in the asteroid belt; and the Voyagers, launched in 1977 and now at the edge of our solar system.
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