The Inside Story of How NASA’s Odyssey Saw Mars in a New Way

“This uncommon view of the horizon of Mars was captured by NASA’s Odyssey orbiter utilizing its THEMIS digital camera, in an operation that took engineers three months to plan. It’s taken from about 250 miles above the Martian floor — about the identical altitude at which the Worldwide House Station orbits Earth.” | Credit score: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

NASA’s Odyssey orbiter has captured a never-before-seen view of Mars, mimicking the attitude of Earth astronauts have from the Worldwide House Station.

PetaPixel mentioned the achievement and the expertise that made it attainable with Jeffrey Plaut, Odyssey’s undertaking science at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California. Plaut has been with Odyssey all through its mission lifetime, nearing its twenty third yr in Mars’ orbit.

Because the Odyssey spacecraft has been orbiting Mars since October 24, 2001, why did the workforce wait so lengthy to seize pictures like this? Plaut explains that he and the workforce must return to NASA each few years with a mission plan and aims. This has quite a few penalties.

That is an animated collection of pictures exhibiting Phobos, certainly one of Mars’ two moons, shifting throughout the sky. Phobos was additionally imaged as Odyssey was pointed in the direction of the horizon. | Credit score: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Maybe most significantly, a mission workforce should persuade the powers that the mission deserves further time and funding. Whereas an unique mission plan might embody a prolonged operational window, it isn’t a given {that a} mission will final so long as meant, and loads of missions have gone on for much longer than initially anticipated.

These semi-regular conferences with NASA additionally imply {that a} mission’s workforce should keep on with the plans it gives when soliciting extra money and time. Each NASA mission should have worthwhile scientific objectives and ship on its guarantees.

Crop from the brand new THEMIS picture of Mars | Credit score: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Within the case of Odyssey and its new orbital pictures, the workforce needed to take these photographs as a result of it mentioned it might when pitching its mission plan to NASA. Nonetheless, simply because the photographs have been essential to uphold a promise doesn’t imply that the photographs are enterprise as regular as a result of they aren’t.

“Each few years, we have to give you a plan for what we’re going to do scientifically with the subsequent a number of years of the mission. Proper now, we’re on a three-year cycle,” Plaut tells PetaPixel. “A few years in the past, we needed to write a proposal doc to NASA to proceed the Mars Odyssey mission for 3 extra years. Among the many issues we put in that proposal have been new sorts of observations, together with precisely this.”

By “this,” Plaut means the complicated planning and picture seize that resulted within the novel new views of Mars, which incorporates “Pointing the spacecraft off to the limb, monitoring the horizon to take a look at cloud buildings and to take a look at the floor within the foreground to see how that perspective modified our understanding of the thermal emission from the floor and from the ambiance. These issues have been in our proposal, and we’re on the hook to do them.”

The scientific neighborhood and the world are higher for it, no much less. Past ticking off a vital field on his to-do checklist, his workforce’s achievement personally means rather a lot to Plaut.

“It’s a kind of issues that’s the reason I like to be in this sort of work as a result of it’s simply tremendous cool. We’re Mars, a special planet, in a means no one has ever checked out it earlier than,” he explains enthusiastically.

“And that’s all the time a really thrilling side of being a planetary scientist. No human eyes have actually been laid on this a part of the photo voltaic system on this specific means earlier than, and we’re studying and seeing issues otherwise for the very first time. In order that’s actually cool and will get you excited and will get you to return again to work every day when you are able to do stuff like that.”

Crop from the brand new THEMIS picture of Mars | Credit score: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

That is such an important level to zero in on. Odyssey has checked out Mars in a means that no imager ever has earlier than. Additional, reaching this feat was something however easy.

The Odyssey orbiter has a highly-specialized digital camera onboard referred to as “THEMIS,” which stands for Thermal Emission Imaging System. The digital camera is designed with a selected objective in thoughts: it’s constructed to measure thermal emissions, therefore the title, on the Martian floor to find out completely different mineral compositions on the planet’s floor and the way these minerals and the general topography of the planet and its geology relate to one another.

With out getting too deep into the weeds, the character of the digital camera signifies that, in contrast to one thing like a daily digital digital camera, which resolves particulars due to seen mild, THEMIS measures non-visible mild — particularly infrared wavelengths. If somebody has seen thermal night-vision goggles earlier than, that’s just like how THEMIS works.

The picture on the prime of this text might look “regular,” for lack of a greater time period, however is way from it. The craters, bumps, and undulations on the floor are seen solely due to how floor aberrations on Mars have an effect on how infrared wavelengths, or warmth, journey from the planet’s floor to THEMIS.

“Mainly, [THEMIS] gives pictures of the temperature of no matter goal it’s . The story this week is about this commentary that we made just a few months in the past now the place we pointed that digital camera not down in the direction of the floor the place it’s usually pointed, however all the best way off to the facet. So, it captured the foreground of the terrain out to the horizon, after which the a part of the sky above the horizon that incorporates the cloud layers,” Plaut explains.

“The colours within the foreground aren’t all that significant,” Plaut provides, noting that the picture processing workforce was primarily centered on the colours within the clouds above the Martian floor. The picture is constructed of three completely different infrared coloration channels, all nicely exterior the spectrum that human eyes can see, so it’s a false-color picture. THEMIS has 9 varied thermal infrared bands it may use to attain its mineral-peeking mission.


The identical purpose that THEMIS is so adept at evaluating mineral compositions on the planet’s floor can also be why it is ready to, with this new skewed view of the purple planet’s ambiance, decide one thing concerning the chemical substances within the clouds above Mars.

“However one other functionality that it has by having these a number of channels is it may have a look at the ambiance and it may distinguish the composition of the supplies within the clouds. We chosen the bands in order that they’d distinguish between a number of completely different cloud sorts and they’d wind up in colours which might be form of intuitive as a result of they want the seen colours, that are the mud layers which might be decrease and sort of hugging the bottom. Listed below are these reddish-brown layers. These are mud clouds. After which these increased altitude clouds, that are bluish, are water-ice clouds, just like the clouds within the Earth’s ambiance,” says Plaut.

Plaut is a useful useful resource for not solely understanding Odyssey’s mission and Mars itself but in addition totally appreciating the most recent pictures.

Whereas some folks might even see the brand new picture and assume, “Oh, it’s simply one other picture of Mars,” there’s a lot extra happening right here that’s scientifically fascinating and engaging from a picture expertise perspective.

Trying on the terrain, Plaut explains that what folks see is temperature. “It form of appears like {a photograph} that’s illuminated by the Solar, and these are all craters. You may see that lots of them have a vivid edge and a darker edge. And that’s as a result of the afternoon Solar was or nonetheless is shining on one facet of the crater. We’re in a late afternoon orbit, and the Solar may be very low within the sky, and so it’s solely lighting up one half of the crater and the opposite half is in shadow, however you’re seeing the temperatures, that’s what the digital camera is delicate to,” Plaut explains.

Crop from the brand new THEMIS picture of Mars | Credit score: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

What THEMIS sees is just not daylight in an bizarre sense, the best way that folks see it, however the thermal results of the Solar’s radiation.

“You’re seeing the nice and cozy facet that’s nonetheless being illuminated or was lately illuminated by the Solar, and it stays heat by way of the night and into the evening, after which all the things sort of equilibrates in temperature. In order that’s lots of what you’re appears like a topographic picture, however actually, it’s a picture of the temperature and the topography controls the temperature.”

“Now then there are some craters the place there are vivid spots, heat spots on the ground of the crater…that could be a results of these surfaces being considerably completely different than the environment in the best way that they preserve their warmth. So once more, I believe this a part of the picture is within the late afternoon or night round 6:00 PM native time. And so a few of these surfaces have been warming up all day lengthy they usually’re nonetheless heat.”

What Plaut is saying right here is that the seen topographic element is just not the results of the best way that seen mild interacts with the floor of Mars, however how the warmth from the Solar strikes the planet, is retained by completely different minerals and soil compositions, and is affected by the coarseness of sand and rock. Whereas the element right here is reflective of and affected by daylight, it doesn’t present daylight in and of itself.

“So that you see this every day cycle of modifications in temperature, and lots of it relies on the fabric. We use that data in these thermal pictures to say, ‘Oh, is that this a dusty space of Mars? Is that this rock outcrop? Is that this some sort of coarse sand or high quality sand?’ And so apparently, within the flooring of a few of these craters, there’s some sort of most likely coarser, increased density materials that’s retaining its heat nicely into the afternoon or the early night in comparison with among the environment which might be darker and due to this fact have cooled off extra.”

As is all the time the case, NASA’s missions signify unimaginable and essential scientific work and exhibit the various methods through which completely different imaging applied sciences can push the restrict of human understanding additional.

Picture credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

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