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Thanks to NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, you can now circumnavigate the Martian surface

On your left, you'll see even more red rocks!

By Cassidy Ward
After The Ark: Episode 11

In SYFY’s The Ark (airing Wednesday nights on SYFY, and streaming next day on Peacock!), the surviving crew of the colony ship Ark One are on a one way trip to Proxima Centauri b, humanity’s new home, but only if they can get there alive. While the circumstances of their departure from Earth weren’t ideal, there is something appealing about the opportunity to see another world up close. One way to do that is to hop a ship off planet and endure the grueling trip to another world. Another option is to stay on the couch, crunching popcorn, while you globetrot around Mars in your jammies.

Jay Dickson, an image processing scientist at the Bruce Murray Laboratory for Planetary Visualization at Caltech, led the project to build a global mosaic of Mars, using data from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The project was funded as part of NASA’s Planetary Data Archiving, Restoration and Tools (PDART) program, whose aim is to develop new tools and resources from existing NASA data.

RELATED: 'The Ark' writer Rebecca Rosenberg on perspective as only woman in SYFY series' 4-person writers' room

“I wanted something that would be accessible to everyone. Schoolchildren can use this now. My mother, who just turned 78, can use this now. The goal is to lower the barriers for people who are interested in exploring Mars,” said Dickson in a statement.

The mosaic was created by stitching together more than 110,000 images taken by the MRO’s black and white Context Camera. In fact, the MRO has three cameras onboard, each of which is useful for different types of work. The Mars Color Imager (MARCI) produces a low-resolution global map of Mars every day. It doesn’t have the sorts of surface features that are fun to look at, but it’s useful at tracking weather patterns across wide areas and over extended periods. The High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) provides full color, high-detail images of small areas, on the same scale as a kitchen table. If they represent two extremes of the imaging spectrum, the CTX sits somewhere in the middle. It doesn’t provide color, but it does gather data at the right scale for this kind of global surface map creation.

The Global CTX Mosaic of Mars

Images from the CTX have a resolution of roughly 270 square feet (25 square meters) per pixel, making this mosaic the highest resolution global image of Mars ever created. If you tried to print the whole mosaic to make your own scale model of the red planet, you’d need an area about the size of the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, according to JPL. That’s about 900 feet in diameter, in case you’re not a fan of collegiate level athletic architecture. Suffice it to say, you could spend a while walking around the virtual red planet.

Building the mosaic was no easy feat and took tens of thousands of hours over the course of six years to complete. The MRO has been in orbit around Mars since 2006 and has been absolutely crushing its job as space paparazzi ever since. In the course of its orbit, it has seen the planet from almost every conceivable angle, and there aren’t any instructions for stitching thousands of images into the ultimate planetary panorama. Building a mosaic like this is like putting a puzzle together, except most of the pieces have duplicates, some pieces are the wrong shade, and others are missing entirely.

RELATED: See Mars’ Jezero Crater for yourself in this stunning video tour

To make the job manageable, Dickson created an algorithm to sift through images, identify features, and use those features to stitch images together. When it was done sifting through the MRO data, Dickson had the foundation of his mosaic, but there were still 13,000 images the algorithm couldn’t parse. He stitched those together himself manually, one at a time. By the time the project was finished, every single image had been put in its proper place. Any remaining gaps represent areas which hadn’t yet been imaged at the time of the project or images which were obscured by clouds or dust.

Already, more than 120 peer reviewed scientific papers have reverenced the mosaic, demonstrating the value of these sorts of tools for research, but you don’t need an advanced degree to use it. The MRO mosaic is designed to be as user friendly to as many people as possible. Users are presented with a list of popular destinations, including Jezero Crater, hometown of the Perseverance Rover, with the click of a button. Once you land at your destination, you can click around, zoom in and out, then jump to the next port. You could even circumnavigate Mars manually, like some sort of virtual interplanetary Magellan. Embark here for Gale Crater, Olympus Mons, and all stops between! What are you waiting for? The water is… frozen and mostly trapped underground. But still!

If Mars is too near a destination, you can catch the last ship to Proxima Centauri b on The Ark! The Season 1 finale airs on SYFY this Wednesday, April 19, at 10 p.m. ET. Catch up on the story thus far with Episodes 1-11 streaming on Peacock. The series was officially renewed for a second season earlier this week.