Barry Eitel

NASA’s Curiosity rover landed safely on our neighbor planet late Sunday night. The mission’s goal? Find signs of life. This life would be most likely microscopic and very, very dead, but an in-depth, lengthy exploration of Mars will add to our understanding of Earth.

After interest in the nation’s space program has flagged and some wondered what’s the point of spending billions on exploring space, it is very good news that Curiosity has been a success. The color pictures and video the rover has already broadcast back to mission control is breathtaking—alien, actually.

How can earthlings follow along with the rover? I recommend Google Mars, a test program Google quietly released a couple of years back. Containing an impressive amount of data, it’s perfect for the laptop astronaut.

Google Mars was included in the 2009 update of Google Earth, alongside Google Moon. Google collaborated with Arizona State University to bring the Red Planet to your fingertips.

No longer will you need to spend hours staring into a telescope (like Percival Lowell did in the late 19th Century) to get an accurate idea of Mars’ surface.

Google’s vision of Mars is initially color-coded to show elevation (so, no, Mars is not a Technicolor wonderland). You can also view the gorgeous images of Mars in black and white. The surface was photographed by NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor.

Google also included an infrared view option. These photographs were taken by NASA’s Mars Odyssey in 2001. Google boasts that this view is the most accurate depiction of Mars ever because the infrared camera photographed past clouds and dust.

For real color images of the planet, check out the photos taken by Curiosity. In color, Mars looks like gobs of butterscotch, claims Google, so they opted to show more surface details.

While the images are gorgeous, Google Mars is also great because it can direct you to the Martian mountains, craters and “sand seas.” You can also see the location of Earth spacecraft left on the planet. Unfortunately, the images aren’t detailed enough to actually show the old crafts that litter the surface. Maybe in the update.

While not as ready for primetime as Google Earth, Google Mars is an easy way to kill a few hours learning about the planet closest to us. Even if all the science you don’t understand, the beautiful topography of Mars will rekindle a desire to be a rocket man.