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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Mars Is Heaven!

By Phil Plait
The north pole of Mars, seen by the Mars Express orbiter. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

You probably hear a lot of news from NASA's many amazing Mars missions: the Curiosity rover, InSight, MRO, and more. NASA is good at promoting their stuff, of course, but also the images returned from all these missions are truly wonderful.

You may not hear as much from the European Space Agency's Mars Express mission. Well, you may have heard about the lander Beagle 2: It set down safely on the surface, but two of the four solar panels didn't deploy, dooming that part of that mission.

But the orbiter part of the spacecraft has been running now for nearly 16 years. It takes images of the surface, maps the minerals there, and has lots of other instruments to poke and prod at the Red Planet to learn what's there. The science from the mission has been extremely valuable.

And so have the images. A lot of sweeping imagery has been returned by the mission, but one recently released made me literally gasp when I saw it. It's incredible:

An image of Mars, pole-to-pole, taken by the Mars Express mission on June 17, 2019. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

This was taken on June 17, 2019, so just a couple of months ago. Now have a care here: The original image is a massive 2,772 x 7,526 pixels. I had to shrink it by a factor of two to fit the blog here, and I also dropped the resolution (i.e. used JPEG compression) to keep the file size from being so big our servers would've choked on it. Grab the full-res version and just scan around it. It's magnificent.

The colors are exaggerated; what's shown as blue here is mostly grayish basaltic regions, though the wispy clouds seen near the north pole (top) do tend to look blue.

Speaking of, here's the north pole of Mars at near full resolution to give you a taste of this:

The north pole of Mars, seen by the Mars Express orbiter. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Wow. The north polar cap is mostly water ice with dust mixed in, with a thin layer of carbon dioxide ice that sublimates (turns to gas) every Martian summer. There are deep canyons there that you can see radiating away from the pole. Off to the right, just off the edge of the planet, are more clouds seen edge-on.

Farther south, near the equator, is this incredible region:

The heavily cratered Arabia Terra region near the equator of Mars. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

This is the northeast corner of the vast Arabia Terra, a huge plain on Mars about 4,500 kilometers wide. The crater on the left is Cassini, which itself is over 400 km across. Whatever hit Mars to form it was big. Way bigger than the Dinosaur Killer that hit Earth 66 million years ago.

The 170-km-wide crater on the right (with the two smaller craters on its edge) is called Flammarion, named after astronomer Camille Flammarion, who studied Mars. He was quite an interesting character, and thought the canali seen by the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli were truly canals dug by a Martian civilization. Wealthy American astronomer Percival Lowell thought so as well, and built an observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, just to observe Mars. He popularized the idea of Martians as a dying species, and, wrong as it was, even today that idea still resonates.

I urge you to grab the big image and just look around it. The ESA page has a lot more information about it, including a description of the weird topography of the planet. Head over there and give it a read; you'll get a deeper (haha) appreciation for how strange a world Mars is.

P.S. If you're wondering about the title of this article, you should read more Ray Bradbury.