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Wow! See Mars as ISS astronauts would see it

Mars: A pale gray horizon, with thin layer of reddish dusty atmosphere, with black skies above and cratered terrain below.
View larger. | Space engineers with NASA’s Odyssey orbiter mission took 3 months to plan and capture this unprecedented view of Mars’ horizon and thin atmosphere. It’s Mars as seen from about 250 miles (400 km) above the surface. That’s about the same altitude at which the International Space Station (ISS) orbits Earth. Image via NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ ASU.

Unveiling Mars from ISS-like heights

NASA’s Odyssey orbiter treated space fans to a new perspective of Mars yesterday, November 28, 2023. The Odyssey team stitched 10 images end to end to create a panorama that showcases the Martian horizon from an altitude of approximately 250 miles (400 km). That’s the height of the International Space Station (ISS) above Earth. So this new view of Mars is the view ISS astronauts would get, if the space station orbited Mars instead of Earth.

In the new panorama (above), you can see Mars’s thin atmosphere above the planet. Beautiful!

Space engineer Jonathon Hill, who is operations lead for the THEMIS imaging system – which acquired the raw images last May – said:

No Mars spacecraft has ever had this kind of view before.

The 2024 lunar calendars are here! Best Christmas gifts in the universe! Check ’em out here.

A challenging feat of engineering

According to NASA, obtaining the image was a challenging feat. Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Lockheed Martin spent three months planning Odyssey’s maneuvers to capture the expansive view of Mars’ thin atmosphere.

To do it, they had to rotate THEMIS, which typically points straight down, nearly 90 degrees for an entire orbit. Before now, they had never attempted it, not in all Odyssey’s 22 years of orbiting Mars. In fact, this spacecraft – which entered Mars orbit in 2001 – is currently NASA’s longest-lasting spacecraft at Mars. Maybe the engineers felt they could take some risks?

And, though it might sound simple task to rotate the camera, in fact it wasn’t simple at all. The task required careful coordination to ensure the spacecraft’s sensitive equipment wouldn’t overheat while exposed to sunlight.

Also, communication with the orbiter was temporarily severed until the process was complete.

That must have caused some nail-biting!

A small, potato-shaped, pale gray rock drifts in black space.
NASA used Odyssey’s THEMIS camera to capture the images in this animation of Phobos, 1 of Mars’ 2 tiny moons. Via NASA/ JPL-Caltech.

Phobos’ enigmatic origin

The THEMIS imaging system didn’t just point downward at Mars. It also directed its focus toward Mars’ tiny moon, Phobos, providing insight into where it came from and what it’s made of. NASA said this new data might help settle the ongoing debate among scientists about Phobos’s origin: Is it a captured asteroid or an ejected fragment from Mars?

More than just pretty

Spacecraft images can be breathtaking. But they’re more than just pretty. In the case of Mars, especially, the images taken from orbit and from the ground serve as valuable assets for future space exploration efforts.

The team managing Odyssey already plans to replicate these observations in the future, capturing the Martian atmosphere across various seasons. That’ll be exciting!

Bottom line: What if the International Space Station orbited Mars? Space engineers took three months to plan this amazing new view of Mars, as ISS astronauts would see it.

Read more from EarthSky: Best places to find ice on Mars revealed in new NASA map


November 29, 2023
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