A new image from a NASA orbiter shows an unusual view of Mars that shows off the planet’s cloud-filled horizon. It is similar to the views of Earth that astronauts get from the International Space Station, showing what Mars would look like if viewed from the same vantage point.
The image was taken by NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft, which has been orbiting the planet since 2001. In its more than 20 years of operation, the orbiter made important discoveries, including the first discovery of subsurface ice on the planet. It also created a global map of the planet’s surface using its Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) instrument.
“If there were astronauts in orbit around Mars, this is the view they would have,” Arizona State University’s Jonathan Hill, head of operations for Odyssey’s Themis camera, said in a statement. “No Mars spacecraft has ever had a view like this before.”
The THEMIS instrument is the same one that was used to capture this image from about 250 miles above the planet’s surface. The spacecraft took a series of 10 images that show the planet’s horizon from below the cloud layer, a difficult feat that took months of planning to achieve. A major challenge for capturing this image was dealing with the Themis camera, which is attached to the spacecraft and pointed directly at the surface.
“I think of it as a cross-section, looking at a slice through the atmosphere,” said Jeffrey Platt, Odyssey’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “There’s a lot of information you can’t see from above, which is how THEMIS typically makes these measurements.”
To capture a better view of the atmosphere which included layers of clouds and dust, the entire spacecraft needed to roll on its side with its solar panels facing the Sun. To get into the right position, the spacecraft’s communications antenna had to be pointed away from Earth, so the team was out of communication with the spacecraft during the entire maneuver.
The spacecraft spent the entire orbit rotating towards itself and during this time it also took pictures of Phobos, one of the two small moons of Mars.