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Both scientists and the public can navigate a new global image of the Red Planet that was created at Caltech using data from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Cliffsides, impact craters and dust devil tracks are captured in mesmerizing detail in a new mosaic of the Red Planet made up of 110,000 images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Images taken by the spacecraft’s black-and-white context camera, or CTX, cover a surface of about 270 square feet (25 square meters) per pixel.
that makes Global CTX mosaic of Mars The highest resolution global image of the Red Planet ever. If printed, this 5.7 trillion pixel (or 5.7 terapixel) mosaic would be large enough to cover the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California.
A product of Caltech’s Bruce Murray Laboratory for Planetary Visualization, the mosaic took six years and tens of thousands of hours to develop. It’s so detailed that more than 120 peer-reviewed science papers have already cited a beta version. But Mosaic is easy enough for anyone to use.
“I wanted something that would be accessible to everyone,” says Jay Dixon, the image processing scientist who led the project and directs the Murray Lab. “School kids can use it now. My mom, who just turned 78, can use it now. The goal is to lower the barriers for people interested in exploring Mars.”
CTX is among three cameras on the MRO, which is led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. One of these cameras, the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), provides color images of surface features as small as a dining room table. In contrast, CTX provides a broader view of the terrain around these features, helping scientists understand how they are related. The ability to capture larger expanses of the landscape makes the CTX particularly useful for identifying impact craters on surfaces. A third camera, the Mars Color Imager (MARCI), led by the same team that operates CTX, produces a daily global map of Martian weather at a much lower spatial resolution.
Mars up close
Shot since MRO’s arrival at Mars in 2006, CTX has documented nearly all of the Red Planet, making its images an excellent starting point for scientists as they build a map. Like hunting for a needle in a haystack and putting together a puzzle at the same time, creating maps requires downloading and sifting through a large selection of images to find images with similar lighting conditions and clear skies.
To create the new mosaic, Dixon developed an algorithm to match the images based on the features they captured. He manually stitched together the remaining 13,000 images that the algorithm didn’t match. The remaining gaps in the mosaic represent parts of Mars that were not imaged by CTX until Dixon began working on the project, or areas obscured by clouds or dust.
Laura Kerber, a Mars scientist at JPL, provided feedback as the new mosaic took shape. “I’ve wanted something like this for a long time,” Kerber said. “It’s a beautiful product of art and also useful for science.”
Kerber recently used the image to visit his favorite place on the planet Mongolia: the Medusae Fossa, a dusty region the size of Mongolia. Scientists are not sure how it was formed; Kerber proposed that it could be an ash pile from a nearby volcano. With the click of a button on the CTX mosaic, he can zoom in and admire the ancient river channels, now dry, winding through the landscape.
Users can also jump into areas like Gale Crater and Jezero Crater—areas being explored by NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance rovers—or visit Olympus Mons, the tallest volcano in the solar system, which has been added to topographic data from NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor Mission. by One of the mosaic’s coolest features highlights impact craters all over the planet, allowing viewers to see just how scarred Mars is.
“For 17 years, MRO has been revealing Mars to us as it’s never been seen before,” said JPL’s Rich Jurek, the mission’s project scientist. “This mosaic is a great new way to explore some of the images we’ve collected.”