March 4, 2024

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The stunning Martian skyline captured by NASA’s Odyssey orbiter

The stunning Martian skyline captured by NASA’s Odyssey orbiter

NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter has captured stunning images of Mars and its moon Phobos, providing a unique perspective on the planet’s curving landscape and atmosphere. This technical achievement advances our understanding of Mars and aids future exploration. Image source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA‘s Mars The Odyssey orbiter has provided new panoramic images of Mars and its moon Phobos, providing new insights into the landscape and atmosphere of Mars.

The Odyssey orbiter captured clouds and dust in the sky of the Red Planet, along with one of its two small moons.

Astronauts often react with awe when they see the curvature of the Earth below them International Space Station. Now Mars scientists are getting a taste of what that’s like, thanks to NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter, which completed its mission. Year 22 on the red planet Last month.

The spacecraft captured a series of panoramic images that showed the curved Martian landscape beneath translucent layers of clouds and dust. Stitched end-to-end, the 10 images not only provide a stunning new view of Mars, but also provide insight that will help scientists gain new insights into the Martian atmosphere.

Mars Horizon NASA Odyssey Themis Orbiter Camera

This unusual view of the Martian horizon was captured by NASA’s Odyssey orbiter using the THEMIS camera, in a process that took engineers three months to plan. It was taken from approximately 250 miles above the surface of Mars, the same altitude at which the International Space Station orbits Earth. Image source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University

The spacecraft took the images in May from an altitude of about 250 miles (400 kilometers), the same altitude at which the space station flies above Earth.

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“If there were astronauts in orbit around Mars, this is the perspective they would have,” said Jonathan Hale of Arizona State University, operations lead for the Odyssey camera, called the Thermal Emission Imaging System. Themis. “No Martian spacecraft has ever had this kind of vision before.”


NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft has captured the first-ever views of Mars showing the curved horizon and layers of the atmosphere, similar to what an astronaut would see Earth from the International Space Station. Although there are no astronauts on Mars yet, this view gives us an idea of ​​what they might see. Laura Kerber, deputy project scientist for NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter, explains how and why the spacecraft captured a view of the Red Planet similar to the International Space Station’s view of Earth. Credit: NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory-California Institute of Technology

How was it done?

The reason this offering is not popular 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 Corporation, which built Odyssey and co-leads day-to-day operations, spent three months planning THEMIS observations. The infrared camera’s sensitivity to warmth enables it to map ice, rocks, sand and dust, along with temperature changes, on the planet’s surface.

It can also measure the amount of water ice or dust in the atmosphere, but only in a narrow column directly below the spacecraft. This is because THEMIS is fixed in place on the orbiter; It usually points straight down.

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The mission wanted a more expansive view of the atmosphere. Knowing where layers of cloud, dust and water ice lie relative to each other — whether there is one layer or several layers stacked on top of each other — helps scientists improve models of the Martian atmosphere.

“I think it’s like viewing a cross-section, or a slice, through the atmosphere,” said Jeffrey Plaut, Odyssey project scientist at JPL. “There are a lot of details that you can’t see from above, which is how THEMIS typically makes these measurements.

NASA Mars Odyssey Orbiter THEMIS Camera Phobos

In 2001, NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter used the THEMIS camera to capture this series of images of Phobos, one of the Red Planet’s two small moons. Image source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Since THEMIS cannot rotate, adjusting the camera angle requires adjusting the position of the entire spacecraft. In this case, the team needed to rotate the orbiter by about 90 degrees while ensuring that the sun would still shine on the spacecraft’s solar panels but not on sensitive equipment that could overheat. The easiest direction turned out to be the direction in which the orbiter’s antenna was pointing away from Earth. This meant that the team was out of contact with Odyssey for several hours until the operation was completed.

The Odyssey mission hopes to take similar images in the future, capturing the Martian atmosphere across multiple seasons.

Over the moon

To make the most of their efforts, the mission also took images of Mars’ small moon Phobos. This is the seventh time in 22 years that the orbiter has pointed THEMIS toward the Moon in order to measure temperature changes across its surface.

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“We got a different angle and lighting conditions for Phobos than we’re used to,” Hill said. “This makes it a unique part of our Phobos dataset.”

The new images provide insight into the Moon’s composition and physical properties. Additional studies could help resolve the debate over whether Phobos, which is about 16 miles (25 kilometers) across, is a captured asteroid or an ancient piece of Mars that was ejected from the surface as a result of the impact.

JAXA MMX spacecraft at Mars

An artist’s concept of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s MMX spacecraft at Mars. Credit: JAXA

NASA is partnering with JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) on a prototype return mission to Phobos and its sister moon Deimos, called Mars Moon eXplorer, or MMX. Images of Odyssey’s Phobos will be useful to scientists working on both Odyssey and MMX.

More about the mission

THEMIS is built and operated by Arizona State University in Tempe. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.