January 11, 2004, Updated September 13, 2012

NASA scientists applaud the images from Mars beamed down by the explorer ‘Spirit’. (Photo: Reuters)Research by three scientists from the Haifa Technion made the transmission of video pictures from Mars by the NASA explorer “Spirit” possible, according to HP (Hewlett Packard) Labs, which was responsible for the image transmissions.

The ability to transmit the images was feasible thanks to a unique algorithm developed by Technion graduates living in the US as a continuation of work launched by two other Technion professors a quarter of a century ago.

Shortly after landing on the surface of the red planet earlier in the week, NASA’s explorer began sending black-and-white photographs of Mars’ rocky surface back to Earth, 106 million miles away. The sparkling clear images have been called “remarkable” by NASA officials and amateur astronomers.

These images and other color images will be used to help scientists select the most promising targets to search for signs of water that might once have sustained life on Mars.

The first set of black-and-white pictures show a vast expanse of what appears to be desert extending to the horizon in every direction. Scientists believe Spirit landed in a dried-up lake bed in Gusev Crater, south of the Martian equator. A lake bed could contain valuable clues to life on Mars, said NASA scientist Dr. Steve Squyres.

“The images are outstanding,” Mars Exploration Rover science manager John Callas said as the pictures from Spirit began to appear on a giant screen at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “The quality [is] the best that have yet been taken. The pictures are incredible,” he told Reuters.

The pictures captured Mars for the first time in stereoscope – offering unprecedented depth of field that will allow NASA to more accurately pinpoint areas of exploration.

Prof. Jacob Ziv innovated the mathematical formulas with Prof. Abraham Lempel and published them findings in three journal articles between 1976 and 1978. Today, Ziv is president of the Israel Academy of Sciences, and Lempel is a leading scientist at Hewlett-Packard’s research and development center in Haifa.

Their students, who work for HP in the US, are Gadiel Seroussi (director of the information theory research group at HP Labs); Marcelo Weinberger (electrical engineering); and Guillermo Sapiro (computer sciences, now with the University of Minnesota).

“The system that sends the marvelous video pictures from Mars is based on the algorithm developed at HP in Palo Alto, California. All three are Technion graduates, and they are involved in research at HP headed by Prof. Lempel. I am very proud of all of them,” Ziv told The Jerusalem Post.

The achievement was made possible by highly efficient data compression. “Because of the great distance between Earth and Mars, the signals are very weak, thus data can be transferred very slowly. Thus the way to speed it up is to compress the data and translate it into another form with many fewer bits without harming the quality of the image,” Ziv explained. “NASA adopted the algorithm originally developed by our graduates, who are the second generation of our original work.”

The formulas save “billions of dollars,” continued Ziv, “as the more data you have coming in, the larger the antenna farms you have to build. If the data is compressed, the number of antennas and the amount of space they cover is much smaller.”

The Technion, he said, “remains among the top five institutions in the world in information science… and we are the world leaders in data compression. The three graduates moved to the US because that’s where the international company is based, but it’s two-way travel, as experts come to us to learn as well.”

The Israeli algorithm is called LOCO-I (LOw COmplexity LOssless COmpression for Images). “This lossless compression is mandatory in cases where the images are very precious, as in the case of space imagery, where data is very costly to obtain and must be accurately preserved for scientific exploration,” Seroussi said.

In a related development, a plaque commemorating the astronauts who died in the accident of the space shuttle Columbia, including Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, is mounted on the back of Spirit’s high-gain antenna.

The astronauts are also honored by the new name of the rover landing site, the Columbia Memorial Station.

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said, “as team members gazed at Mars through Spirit’s eyes, the Columbia memorial appeared in images returned to Earth, a fitting tribute to their own spirit and dedication. Spirit carries the dream of exploration the brave astronauts of Columbia held in their hearts.”

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