Scientists have achieved a groundbreaking feat by capturing the first-ever views of Mars from a perspective replicating what an astronaut would see from the International Space Station (ISS).
NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter, tasked with preparing for future human missions to Mars, took a series of panoramic images in May from an altitude of approximately 250 miles (400 kilometers) – matching the ISS’s orbit around Earth.
The stitched-together images reveal the Martian landscape beneath layers of clouds and dust, providing a unique and informative perspective.
The unprecedented view not only offers stunning visuals of Mars but also aids scientists in gaining new insights into the planet’s atmosphere. While no astronauts are currently on Mars, the captured imagery provides an approximation of the view they might have when orbiting the Red Planet.
Jonathan Hill of Arizona State University, operations lead for Odyssey’s Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS), highlighted the significance of the perspective, stating:
“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.”
Creating this view presented technical challenges that engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Lockheed Martin Space addressed during three months of planning. The THEMIS camera, which is sensitive to warmth, usually points straight down, limiting its ability to capture a broader view of the Martian atmosphere.
To overcome this limitation, the spacecraft had to be rotated almost 90 degrees, temporarily interrupting communication with Earth during the operation.
THEMIS, with its infrared capabilities, can map various features on Mars, including ice, rock, sand, and dust, and measure temperature changes. The captured images will contribute to improving models of Mars’ atmosphere by revealing the positioning of water-ice clouds and dust layers in relation to each other.
The Odyssey mission aims to capture similar images in the future, providing insights into the Martian atmosphere across multiple seasons.
Jeffrey Plaut, Odyssey’s project scientist at JPL, described the achievement as akin to “viewing a cross-section, a slice through the atmosphere,” emphasizing the added detail that this unique perspective provides for scientific understanding.