The 2016 Europlanet Prize for Public Engagement with Planetary Science has been awarded to François Civet and Stéphane Le Mouélic of the CNRS/University of Nantes for their outstanding efforts in the development of immersive visualisation techniques for experiencing the Martian landscape.

They have developed a system that allows both groups and individuals to experience an immersive visit to Mars. The Mars Cave Automatic Virtual Environment (CAVE) is an immersive three-metre cube facility with a four-3D projector system that displays high-resolution imagery from ESA and NASA past and current missions, including Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Express, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and Mars rovers. Up to 15 people can enter the Mars CAVE to experience flights over Martian terrains using active 3D glasses. The group visits can be further enhanced with a guided tour from a Mars researcher, who can interpret the areas visited and give background information on the missions that have provided the data.

Le Mouélic and Civet have also developed an experience for individuals wearing Virtual Reality headsets to explore the surface of Mars using imagery from NASA’s spacecraft and rovers. They use an Oculus Rift to fly over the Spirit rover landing site and discover 360° panoramas along the pathway, or an HTC Vive to walk around Curiosity rover.

More than 20,000 visitors and classrooms have had the opportunity to experience their Mars immersive systems at events including the Voyages Planétaires 2015 exhibition in Nantes, TEDx Rennes, Maker Faire Nantes and the Utopiales Science Fiction Festival. A free smart-phone app is also available for download, which can be used with a Cardboard headset.

The Europlanet Prize, which includes an award of 4,000 euros, was presented to François Civet and Stéphane Le Mouélic during the joint 48th meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences and 11th European Planetary Science Congress in Pasadena on Thursday 20th October.

Thierry Fouchet, Chair of the Europlanet Prize Judging Panel, said: “The judges were impressed by François and Stéphane’s practical approach of developing an immersive experience for exploring Mars within different ‘Earth-bound’ environments, such as an exhibition, a classroom or at home. Such systems are a creative way of engaging the general public directly and profoundly with real spacecraft imagery. The feedback from people that have experienced these setups to date has been extremely enthusiastic, particularly from young people and children. We are delighted to award the Europlanet Prize to a project that is proving so effective in inspiring the next generation.”