A new image from a NASA orbiter shows an unusual view of Mars that captures the planet’s horizon complete with clouds. It is similar to the kinds of views of Earth that astronauts get from the International Space Station, showing what Mars would look like if seen from a similar vantage point.
The image was taken by NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft, which has been orbiting the planet since 2001. In its over 20 years of operations, the orbiter made key discoveries, including some of the first detections of subsurface ice on the planet. It has also created a global map of the planet’s surface using its Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) instrument.
“If there were astronauts in orbit over Mars, this is the perspective they would have,” said Jonathon Hill of Arizona State University, operations lead for Odyssey’s THEMIS camera, in a statement. “No Mars spacecraft has ever had this kind of view before.”
The THEMIS instrument is the same one that was used to capture this image from around 250 miles above the planet’s surface. The spacecraft took a series of 10 images that show the planet’s horizon from beneath the cloud layer, which was a difficult feat that took months of planning to achieve. A big challenge for capturing this image was dealing with the THEMIS camera, which is attached to the spacecraft and points straight down toward the surface.
“I think of it as viewing a cross-section, a slice through the atmosphere,” said Jeffrey Plaut, Odyssey’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “There’s a lot of detail you can’t see from above, which is how THEMIS normally makes these measurements.”
To capture a better view of the atmosphere that included layers of clouds and dust, the entire spacecraft needed to roll over onto its side while still keeping its solar panels pointed toward the sun. In order to get into the right position, the spacecraft’s communication antenna had to be pointed away from Earth, so the team was out of communication with the craft throughout the maneuver.
The spacecraft spent an entire orbit rolled onto its side, and during this time it also captured images of one of Mars’ two small moon, Phobos.
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