Lost in the Candy Store: Exploring Raw Space Data

A small volcano and collapse pits in the Elysium region of Mars. Credit: ESA/G. Neukum/Bill Dunford

Taking the advice of Emily Lakdawalla from the Planetary Society, I’ve been exploring the Solar System first hand. Well, humanity’s fleet of robotic spacecraft and the teams who fly them did all the hard work, but I’ve been wandering through the raw data returned by several of those missions. Almost all of them make their unprocessed scientific data publicly available online. There is decades of material from almost every planet, from the early Mariner probes right through to the Mars rovers. We’re talking about gigabytes. With a few software tools and little poking around, there are treasures to uncover.

Some talented amateurs take this raw information and craft it into spectacular images. All I’ve done is scratch the surface. In fact, my first few forays into this world have been literally random. I just went to ESA’s online repositories and dove in arbitrarily.

The amazing part is that my unplanned wandering yielded some pretty cool stuff. Here are a couple of things I found (it’s unlikely that these particular images have ever been published anywhere before):

The swirling clouds of Venus. I constructed this sequence from raw images taken in ultraviolet light by the Venus Monitoring Camera on board the Venus Express orbiter. Credit: ESA/W. Markiewicz/Bill Dunford
Volcanoes in Elysium on Mars
At the top of this swath of land is Hecates Tholus, the northernmost of the Elysium volcanoes on Mars. To make this roughly natural-color view, I combined raw images from the Mars Express orbiter that correspond to the red, green and blue channels of the picture (you can see where they don’t quite overlap around the edges). Credit: ESA/G. Neukum/Bill Dunford
A grayscale close-up of the volcano itself. Credit: ESA/G. Neukum
The caldera in color. This is more or less how your eye would see it if you were there. The ‘more or less’ part is tricky; color in planetary images is an art and a science and can be controversial. But pretty cool, right? Credit: ESA/G. Neukum/Bill Dunford

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