NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft has captured a breathtaking panoramic view of the Red Planet’s horizon, offering an awe-inspiring vista no human has ever seen firsthand. The photo stitches together a series of images taken by the spacecraft’s Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) on November 18th, providing a view unlike any Mars surface image before.
Odyssey Snaps Images From Spacecraft Perspective
While most Mars images to date have been captured from orbiter perspectives high above the planet, the new photo offers the world the first glimpse of the Mars horizon from a hypothetical astronaut’s point-of-view. By combining multiple THEMIS images, researchers synthesized how the Martian landscape would look to future astronaut crews orbiting the planet aboard the planned Gateway space station.
"This is the first view of a Mars horizon that shows what an astronaut crew would see from orbit," said Dr. Leslie Tamppari, Deputy Project Scientist for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission which oversees Odyssey’s operations. "It shows the planet from a human perspective, taking in the view with their own eyes."
The image shows a slightly curved horizon line demarcating the rust-colored Martian surface below and the blackness of space above. Shadows at the terminator – the line separating night and day – highlight surface features stretching to the horizon. While no Martian moons are visible, their faint glow can be detected.
By matching the image scale to human vision, viewers gain an authentic sense of the sweeping Martian vistas exceeding anything captured by surface rovers.
"This is the first view of a Mars horizon that shows what an astronaut crew would see from orbit," said Dr. Leslie Tamppari, Deputy Project Scientist.
|Key Image Details
|November 18, 2022
|Mars Odyssey THEMIS
|Matched to human vision
Long-Lived Orbiter Still Making Discoveries
The newly released horizon images come courtesy of the Mars Odyssey probe which has orbited Mars since October 2001. As the longest-lived continually active spacecraft at the Red Planet, Odyssey acts as a vital communications relay for surface missions while making high-resolution maps of minerals, temperatures, and radiation levels.
Its THEMIS instrument – the camera system behind the new images – utilizes infrared light to detect surface heat variations indicative of specific materials. By building global mineral maps, THEMIS guides researchers towards sites meriting deeper study by surface rovers.
Now over 20 years into its mission, Odyssey continues making significant discoveries thanks to innovative imaging campaigns like the horizon mosaic.
"Odyssey has been a workhorse for Mars exploration, but after decades its also still making completely new observations," stated Dr. Jeffrey Plaut of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "These images of the horizon open up a vista most of us can only dream of seeing in person someday."
Mars Exploration Builds Towards Future Human Missions
The release of the Odyssey images comes amidst NASA’s preparations for returning humans to the Moon under the Artemis program. While crewed Mars missions likely won’t launch until the late 2030s at the earliest, Artemis will lay vital groundwork by testing key technologies and demonstration extended operations far from Earth.
The new horizon shots provide a preview of what future astronauts can expect to see upon reaching the Red Planet. Gazing out the window of their Mars-orbiting spacecraft, crews will soak in alien panoramas bounded by rugged ridges and sweeping dunes. Shadows accentuate surface features under the faint glow of Phobos and Deimos against pitch black skies.
"These images give our human explorers a preview of the alien horizon they’ll see out their window," explained Dr. Lori Glaze, Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. "In this vista from orbit, future Mars explorers can picture the world they’ll be adventuring across once they land."
While NASA still faces immense hurdles on the path to manned Mars missions, images like those from Odyssey help catalyze the imagination and underscore exactly why we explore space in the first place.
Gateway Station to Enable Game-Changing Science
A key component of future human Mars operations will be NASA’s planned Lunar Gateway – an orbital lunar outpost facilitating Artemis crewed Moon landings. While aiding Moon exploration, Gateway’s utility forMars missions could prove revolutionary.
The station’s position in lunar orbit rather than Mars orbit circumvents the harsh radiation environment encircling the Red Planet. Situated in deep space near the Moon, Gateway also permits steady communication with Earth impossible if orbiting Mars itself.
Most crucially, Gateway enables reusable landers ferrying astronauts between the outpost and Mars surface. These landers shorten mission durations and reduce risk versus expendable direct-to-Mars options. Gateway thus makes ambitious Mars missions conceivable versus previous projections.
|Gateway Station Vitals
|Near-rectilinear halo orbit by the Moon
|Launching components in late 2020s
|Science operations, Mars mission support
|Enables reuse of Mars landers
|Dramatically reduces costs/risks
"The Lunar Gateway changes the game for Mars exploration," said Jim Free, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development. "By staging missions from the Gateway rather than directly from Earth, we make reusable Mars landers possible. This single innovation vastly improves mission safety while cutting costs."
Pathfinder Mission to Scout Landing Sites
While Mars landers benefit from Gateway’s setup in lunar orbit, target landing sites must still be identified ahead of human missions. The ideal location would offer wide-open flat spaces for safe landings along with geological diversity for exploration.
NASA aims to launch an orbital pathfinder mission in 2026 to characterize candidate sites prior to human landings. The craft will assess terrain roughness, rockiness, and slope attributes to map hazardous areas and identity optimized landing ellipses. Permissible sites must offer touchdown zones at least 9 miles across devoid of landing hazards while also granting access to compelling regions warranting investigation.
In addition to scouting areas for the first human landing, the pathfinder will use ground-penetrating radar to hunt for subsurface ice deposits. Confirming substantial buried ice at a candidate site would identify locations supporting longer-term settlement. While no permanent Mars base appears imminent, ice reserves boost site desirability for crewed missions.
New Discoveries Strengthen Case for Mars Life
NASA’s Curiosity Rover recently detected unexpectedly high methane levels on Mars, strengthening the case for extant microbial life. Methane constitutes a potential "biosignature gas" on Mars since living organisms produce significant methane on Earth. While geology provides non-biological methane sources, the gas decomposes quickly in sunlight. Newly released methane likely stems from active ongoing production rather than slow geological seepage.
Curiosity’s findings build upon earlier methane detections by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express probe in 2004. Taken together, the discoveries indicate transient plumes of Martian methane emerging intermittently around the planet. These seasonal eruptions reach concentrations up to five times background levels before dissipating. The pulses implicate methanogenic subsurface microbes since geology alone struggles explaining such short-lived emissions.
"Mars methane is back, and the implications are intriguing," said Dr. Paul Mahaffy, Principal Investigator on the Curiosity mission. "Methanogens are leading candidates, indicating a dynamic subsurface world on present-day Mars."
While more work remains substantiating Martian life, Curiosity’s data boosts chances Mars still hosts simple microbial organisms today. Their presence would render Mars the only known planet besides Earth currently harboring native biology.
NASA’s new horizon images from Mars showcase both how far we’ve come in exploring Mars as well as how far we have yet to go. Long lived assets like Odyssey continue generating breakthrough discoveries even as next generation missions gear up in the Artemis program. The combination sets the stage for an expansive chapter Mars exploration possibly culminating in astronauts one day witnessing these alien vistas themselves. While immense obstacles persist, ongoing progress towards that goal proceeds one small step at a time.
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