First image from Mars orbiter!

By Phil Plait | March 26, 2006 10:32 pm

‘Back on March 10, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter successfully entered orbit around Mars (so it could do reconnaissance). Once the orbit was established, scientists and engineers needed to make sure everything was okay before turning on the cameras, but finally on March 24 they got their first image. Here it is!

Actually, this is only a tiny piece of the full image. This image shows an area of Mars about 1.5 x 1.5 kilometers on a side. The full image is 50 x 23.6 kilometers (and would be 20,000 x 9500 pixels in size, so forgive me for not displaying it here). The image displayed above is actually resized, so it’s not at full resolution– click it to see the highest res version of the image.

There’s lots of cool stuff to see. It looks to me (but I’m not an expert) like that gully has had multiple episodes of flooding of some liquid (water? lava? clathrates?), or either freezing or evaporating to leave that step-like structure. You can see lots of craters too.

It’s always hard to tell when looking at Mars what scale you’re seeing. Craters come in all sizes, and the weird features look too weird to guess at their size. In this case, we know that the scale of this image about 2.5 meters per pixel. It’s hard to see the pixels in that image, so the scale is still hard to see. Let’s zoom in on the medium-sized crater in the lower left and see if that helps.

You can see the pixels pretty well now. I measure the crater as being about 12 pixels across, making it 12 x 2.5 = 30 meters across.

OK, read that again: 30 meters across. That’s small. Positively tiny. I’m used to thinking of craters being kilometers across, but this one is smaller than a football field! In fact, take a look at this picture:

This is a satellite image from Google Earth of a baseball field not too far from my house. You can see cars lining the streets to the east, to give you a sense of scale. That image is at the same scale as the crater image above. Comparing them, you can see that the crater would pretty much fit in the infield (the circular wedge lined with dirt) of the baseball field.

Look at that again. A decent runner could stand on the edge of the rim of the crater and run straight across it in just a few seconds. Geez, I could. That’s how small that crater is. Each pixel is about the size of a car.

May I remind you that that crater is on Mars? You know, the planet, the one really far away?

Wow. The camera that took this image — called HiRISE, for the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera — is the most powerful ever flown to Mars. But this gets better: MRO is still in a highly elliptical orbit. Engineers are slowly lowering the spacecraft (by repeatedly dipping it into Mars’s atmosphere!) to put it in a "mapping orbit". So in a few months the orbit will drop enough that the camera will be able to take images at a resolution of 28 centimeters per pixel. That means that if those cars were on Mars, MRO would be able to see people in them. 30 cm is about the size of a human head, more or less, depending on the head.

Wow again. I can’t wait to see pictures at that scale. What will they reveal? The rovers have done a magnificent job, but Mars is big and they’re slow: we only have super-high-resolution images of a very small fraction of Mars. MRO and HiRISE together will map a large portion of Mars with incredible detail– even better than you can get with Google Earth. Will there come a day when we have another planet mapped better than we do our own?

Maybe when that day comes, Earth won’t be referred to as “our own” any more. I think we may just have to include other planets in that list.’

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, NASA, Science

Comments (27)

Links to this Post

  1. 2020 Hindsight » First image from Mars orbiter! | March 27, 2006
  1. Wow. . . just. . . wow.

    If I don’t wear my glasses, I have as good optical resolution at five meters as the MRO has from orbit.

  2. AstroSmurf

    Ironically, this means that we’ll have better maps of Mars than of the Moon. And at a guess, Hoagland et al will *still* be pushing that Cydonia tripe.

  3. Marissa

    If the Mars orbiter will be able to snap photos @ 28 centimeters per pixel, do you think it might be possible to take a picture of either the Spirit or Opportunity rovers on Mars’ surface? Does NASA have any plans to attempt that just for the historical importance (i.e. – first time that a man-made surface unit is photographed by a man-made orbital unit on another planet)? I think that would be so cool!

  4. P. Edward Murray

    I guess that will mean that finally, we will be able to look for our missing Landers? Too bad we can’t have one of those for the Moon!:)

  5. George

    Major! Yeah this is good stuff Phil! The detail in this image is simply… well, THERE!

    Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but does the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera have filters such that we’ll eventually see color images? Or is there some known calibration benchmark the engineers have on Earth that can determine the correct colors?

    I like the comparison with the baseball diamond. It really puts the scale in perspective.

  6. Angus McPresley

    >Too bad we can’t have one of those for the Moon!:)

    Or for Australia :-( The Google Maps data for down here is practically unusable.

    I love things like this that give you a sense of scale. There needs to be more of this associated with astronomy pictures.

  7. baric

    There’s an interesting shape in that photo… Could it be Noah’s Ark?!?

  8. gopher65

    baric Says:
    “There’s an interesting shape in that photo… Could it be Noah’s Ark?!?”

    Personally I can clearly seen an image of Stephen Hawking’s wheel chair. Some power must be at work here.

  9. DIguana

    So, how long until the Google Mars page goes up? We’ve already good a Goole Moon, after all.

  10. aiabx

    I’m glad someone is telling us the good news about science at NASA. All those mission cuts were getting me down.

  11. ericnh

    P. Edward Murray said:

    >I guess that will mean that finally, we will be able to look for our missing Landers?

    I don’t see why not. In fact, at 28cm/pixel (about 1 foot) we should be able to see the Sojourner rover, which I believe was between 1 and 2 feet long. But I’m with you, I’d love to see what happed to the Polar Lander and the ESA’s Beagle lander.

  12. Dan Gerhards

    Google Mars IS up!

    http://www.google.com/mars/

    It appeared a month or two ago.

  13. Carolarnt

    Again I ask, how will these pics be different than the Mars Odyssey Themis images we’ve been getting back for quite some time now?

  14. Berkeley

    For a planet, Mars isn’t that far away, is it? I mean, I’ve heard it is one of the closest ones to us…

  15. Dan Gerhards

    >Again I ask, how will these pics be different than the Mars Odyssey Themis images we’ve been getting back for quite some time now?

    Do you mean *besides* 68 times higher resolution?

  16. Berkeley sez: “For a planet, Mars isn’t that far away, is it? I mean, I’ve heard it is one of the closest ones to us… ”

    True and not true. True it is one of the closest to us (only Venus is closer), but at a distance of 50 million (closest) to 150 million miles (that’s 80 to 240 million Km), it’s faaaaaaaaar away. I mean, I wouldn’t want to walk it…

    - Jack

  17. P. Edward Murray

    Actually Jack, Mars is more like less than 35 Million Miles Away at Perhelic Oppostions as in 2003. Mars orbit is roughly twice that of our own Earth so you have an Oppostion roughly every two years plus an odd number of months. So every 15 – 17 years you get a close Oppostion.

  18. P. Edward Murray

    Actually these hi-definition photos should pretty much give Mr. Hoagland some pause, at least for a little while.

    I would hope that the good folks at JPL/NASA would make it a priority to snap some of Mr. Hoagland’s favorite objects:)

  19. Timothy

    Re: Marissa’s question about imaging the Rovers

    Yes. But not simply to image the rovers. It is scientifically important to image the rover sites with HiRISE because they are areas that are now well documented at incredibly high resolution (via the rovers). It’s important to put that information in the context of the capabilities of HiRISE. *All* the previous lander sites (Vikings, Pathfinder, MERs) are scheduled targets for high resolution imagery.

  20. TheBlackCat

    P. Edward Murray Says:
    “Actually these hi-definition photos should pretty much give Mr. Hoagland some pause, at least for a little while.”

    Are you kidding? All these do is give him more pictures for him to see his imaginary aliens in. The worst possible thing we can do is give him more data, if he looks at enough pictures he is sure it find something that interests him. Even if he does give up on Cydonia he will find what he is looking for elsewhere. That is how this sort of person works. Naturally the scientific benefits far outweight the detriments From giving hoagland more ammo (the difference is so great to be beyond measure), but it will still do nothing but help him.

    Timothy Says:
    “Yes. But not simply to image the rovers. It is scientifically important to image the rover sites with HiRISE because they are areas that are now well documented at incredibly high resolution (via the rovers). ”

    That’s a good point. If we can compare what we see from the air to what we see from the ground, we may be able to better interpret satellite images from areas that weren’t visited.

  21. bassmanpete

    baric, what you see as Noah’s Ark is a pirate’s cocked hat. Look below and you can see the nose, eye & bearded chin – Captain Blood got to Mars centuries ago and left his image for us to find. I could build a web site around this :)

  22. Kaptain K

    I agree with TheBlackCat. Hoagland already sees industrial detritus in the (sub-centimeter resolution) rover images. No matter what happens, Hoagland will find what he wants to see.

  23. Tom

    Carolarnt:

    While there is a tremendous difference between the resolution between the MRO camera and the Mars Odyssey camera, each is designed to look for different things.

    Mars Odyssey was looking more in the infra-red band of light. This was important for determining the make-up of a scene. For example, by comparing how areas of a plain cool after sunset, it can be determined whether that plain is mostly dust or rock.

    MRO’s camera major claim to fame is its ability to image in incredible detail. This will be important for scouting landing sites for rocks that could cause a bad day for a lander.

    There’s another potential ‘conflict’ that you may have heard about, in that both Europe’s Mars Express and MRO have ground-penetrating radar to look for water. Each orbiter’s radar works at a different frequency, however, and the two working together will provide a much richer picture of the Mars subsurface.

    It’s by combining the information from the suite of instruments orbiting Mars that we’ll get the best data.

  24. Mila

    Hmm, just to remind you, there IS a High-Resolution camera on Mars Express in orbit which since 2 years takes pictures with a resolution of up to 2.5 meters per pixel AND since it has three channels which look at the same time at a slightly different angle at Mars it is even able to make 3D-pictures. And these are really, really cool images, where on some you even see such details as sand falling into a craters and auch things… And they are currently mapping the whole surface as well:
    See for example here:
    http://www.dlr.de/mars-express/en/desktopdefault.aspx/tabid-0/httpstatus-404/
    and here:
    http://www.esa.int/SPECIALS/Mars_Express/
    I certainly do not want to diminish the accomplishments of the Mars Rovers, Mars Odyssey and of course not of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. It just seems to me that people always forget Mars Express…Yeah, I know ESA has not such a tremendously successful PR-section than NASA does (I really envy you for that)- but still.

  25. DJ

    Well, I’m no expert either but it looks to me like that gully has been touched by the FSM’s noodley appendage.

  26. Very nice blog. I also liked your writeup for the images. It’s good to remind us of exactly what we are looking at in terms of resolution. The view of the baseball diamond really brings it home – good example.

    Like you, I can’t wait for those high resolution images to phone home.

    To a first time visitor, Bad Astronomy Blog appears to be a quality site. I’ll be back.

    Have a nice day

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