In Orbit Around Mars? This Is What You Could See

The Mars Odyssey probe sent back to Earth an incredible image of the Martian horizon. Nasa, JPL-Caltech, ASU

The Mars Odyssey probe was placed in orbit around the red planet over 20 years ago. It has just sent a spectacular view of our neighbor back to Earth. A series of panoramic images captures the curved Martian horizon beneath layers of clouds and dust. Unprecedented until now, it is reminiscent of the awe-inspiring images astronauts capture of our own planet from the International Space Station (ISS).

Through the Eyes of an Astronaut Around Mars

The images of Mars were captured when the Mars Odyssey probe was approximately 400 kilometers above the Red Planet, a similar altitude to that of the ISS orbit. Jonathan Hill, the operations manager for the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) on Mars Odyssey, stated in a NASA release, ‘If there were astronauts in orbit over Mars, this is the perspective they would have.’

This image is particularly remarkable because researchers had to employ engineering ingenuity to obtain it. THEMIS, designed to point downward, measures quantities of water, ice, or dust in Mars’ atmosphere, but only within a narrow column directly beneath the probe. However, understanding the relative positions of these cloud layers could aid scientists in refining Mars’ atmospheric models.

Delicate Maneuvers for a Sensational Image

To achieve this cross-sectional view, Mars Odyssey had to be rotated nearly 90 degrees, ensuring the Sun continued to shine on its solar panels while avoiding sensitive equipment overheating. The simplest orientation proved to be where the orbiter’s antenna pointed away from Earth. Consequently, the team lost communication with the probe for several hours until the operation was completed. Fortunately, everything went smoothly, and researchers now hope to obtain more images of this kind in the coming months to capture Mars’ atmosphere in different seasons.