Scientists have captured the first-ever views of Mars replicating what a space station would see.
The unprecedented aspect showcases the curving horizon and layers of atmosphere, similar to what an astronaut sees of Earth from the International Space Station (ISS).
NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter captured the newly released panorama as humans work towards preparing towards a trip to the Red Planet.
The spacecraft took images in May from an altitude of about 250 miles (400 kilometres) – the same altitude at which the space station flies above Earth.
A series of ten panoramic images were stitched end to end to show the curving Martian landscape below gauzy layers of clouds and dust.
The space agency explains: “The images offer not only a fresh, and stunning, view of Mars, but also one that will help scientists gain new insights into the Martian atmosphere.
“While there are no astronauts yet at Mars, this view gives us a sense of what they might see.”
Jonathon Hill of Arizona State University, operations lead for Odyssey’s camera, called the Thermal Emission Imaging System, or THEMIS, adds: “If there were astronauts in orbit over Mars, this is the perspective they would have.
“No Mars spacecraft has ever had this kind of view before.”
NASA say the reason why the view is so uncommon is because of the challenges involved in creating it.
Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which manages the mission, and Lockheed Martin Space, which built Odyssey and co-leads day-to-day operations, spent three months planning the THEMIS observations.
The infrared camera’s sensitivity to warmth enables it to map ice, rock, sand, and dust, along with temperature changes, on the planet’s surface.
It can also measure how much water ice or dust is in the atmosphere, but only in a narrow column directly below the spacecraft. That’s because THEMIS is fixed in place on the orbiter; it usually points straight down.
The mission wanted a more expansive view of the atmosphere. Seeing where those layers of water-ice clouds and dust are in relation to each other – whether there’s one layer or several stacked on top of each other – helps scientists improve models of Mars’ atmosphere.
Because THEMIS can’t pivot, adjusting the angle of the camera requires adjusting the position of the whole spacecraft. In this case, the team needed to rotate the orbiter almost 90 degrees while making sure the Sun would still shine on the spacecraft’s solar panels but not on sensitive equipment that could overheat.
The easiest orientation turned out to be one where the orbiter’s antenna pointed away from Earth. That meant the team was out of communication with Odyssey for several hours until the operation was complete.
The Odyssey mission hopes to take similar images in the future, capturing the Martian atmosphere across multiple seasons.
“I think of it as viewing a cross-section, a slice through the atmosphere,” said Jeffrey Plaut, Odyssey’s project scientist at JPL. “There’s a lot of detail you can’t see from above, which is how THEMIS normally makes these measurements.
Produced in association with SWNS Talker