Gigapan: Big Tech Meets Tiny View

Gigapans are panoramic photos containing billions of pixels. Developed by scientists at Carnegie Mellon and NASA’s Ames Research Center for use in Mars Rover expeditions, Gigapan technology captures images with a robotic camera mounted on a tripod. As the mount slowly and automatically swivels, hundreds or even thousands of individual images are captured. Gigapan software stitches the images into enormous files hosted on Gigapan’s website.

When equipped with a telephoto lens, Gigapan cameras can allow you view an entire mountain range, then zoom in for close look at a a single tree. Try it with this Mount Greylock Gigapan, captured by Paul Karabinos, the Charles L. MacMillan Professor of Natural Sciences.

gigapan2A few years ago Karabinos and his students started using Gigapan technology in research projects, photographing inaccessible cliff faces and making measurements on high-resolution images.

Karabinos began to wonder what this technology, designed to capture very large panoramas, might reveal if applied to very small ones—particularly “thin sections,” slices of rock cut thin enough to allow light to pass through. Thin sections are really small—only 30 microns thick, 40 millimeters long, and 25 millimeters wide. They’re used to identify minerals and study their textures to understand how rocks form.

Karabinos collaborated with Bronfman Science Center design engineer Michael Taylor to create an automated microscope stage that moves a thin section by precise increments to capture 225 to 400 individual high-magnification photos. These images are then stitched together using the Gigapan software.

Pan in, out, and around on the thin section image below. Karabinos captured it from an igneous rock called norite from the Bushveld igneous complex in Bosspruit, South Africa. The slice is tiny, about 20 by 30 millimeters. And it comes from the rock that was used to make the Science Quad’s J. Hodge Markgraf ’52 Memorial bench, which honors the beloved alumnus, teacher, scientist, mentor, and administrator. (Visit Clark Hall to see a full-size print of this image, displayed on the Main Street level near the front door.)

Those light gray and white grains you can see with thin parallel black stripes are plagioclase. The brightly colored grains are clinopyroxene, and the dark gray grains with brightly colored inclusions are orthopyroxene. The coarse interlocking texture of the grains shows that the crystals grew slowly in a deep magma chamber.

Since Karabinos began to share thin-section images (including lunar ones) on, he’s received requests from geoscientists (around the world) who want to emulate the process. He’s even been approached by an architectural firm about enlarging a thin-slice image to decorate building interiors.

Meanwhile, the technology he and Taylor have developed offers a new and valuable way to study rocks and share the excitement with students.

You can view Professor Karabinos’ entire Gigapan collection here.