A Spin Through the Inner Solar System

More than 50 years of planetary exploration have yielded a rich harvest of data, including many volumes of pictures. These images have revealed the faces of nearly all the nearby worlds, which have turned out to be both forboding and inviting, alien and familiar. Everywhere there is beauty.

We have enough images, in fact, that for many planets, moons, and small bodies we can construct full, global maps. This has been true for places like Mars for decades. For others, such as Mercury and the asteroid Vesta, it has become possible only in the past few years, thanks to the ongoing work of robotic scouts throughout the Solar System and the dedicated people on Earth who fly them.

Following is a series of short videos showing the worlds of the inner Solar System spinning to show their various faces. With two exceptions, each video resulted from taking thousands of individual observations from spacecraft, and combining the data into a 3D computer model.

This look at the Sun comes from the Solar Dynamics Observatory in orbit around the Earth. It shows the Sun as it appeared over the course of the past few days, as seen by sensors tuned to three different wavelengths of extreme ultraviolet light. Later in the decade, new missions will actually fly close to the Sun for even more detailed shots.

This globe comes from thousands of obesrvations by the MESSENGER spacecraft in orbit around Mercury. MESSENGER carries cameras that can observe many wavelenths of light as it bounces off the planet, in order to spy different minerals on the surface. This map shows greatly exaggerated colors in order to highlight the diversity of geology.

Venus is entirely shrouded in dense clouds, of course, but in the 1990s the Magellan spacecraft mapped the surface anyway using radar. The video highlights two large “continents,” or highlands, Aphrodite Terra and Ishtar Terra, the Maxwell Montes mountain range, and Maat Mons, a large, currently dormant volcano. Notice the motion of the clouds at the beginning. Venus is the one inner planet that rotates “backwards” to the other planets.

This map of the moon comes from thousands of photos sent by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Each was taken when the Sun was nearly directly overhead at the moment the image was taken. When all stitched together, they make a globe of striking crispness and clarity.

Here is Mars, showing both the actual relief of its surface features, and a version where the topographical data has been wildly stretched to draw out the planet’s complex landscapes.

Finally, we have Vesta, a tiny place compared to these other worlds, but a giant among the members of the asteroid belt. This rotation is not a computer model, but a series of images stitched together from photos sent by the Dawn spacecraft.

These spinning globes show how much we’ve explored. On the other hand, they serve as a reminder of how much remains unseen. There is no rotating map of the largest asteroid Ceres, or of Pluto. That situation will change next year. However, there are many other worlds in the outer Solar System where there are still blank spaces on the map. Sadly, there are no missions even on the drawing board to explore most of them.

There is still much to do.

This article originally appeared as a guest post on The Planetary Society site.


Riding Along With Mars Express

This article originally appeared as a guest post on The Planetary Society site.

It’s always nice to receive a postcard from an old friend. When that friend is a robotic spacecraft orbiting Mars, those postcards are especially interesting. Pretty good scenery, too. The European Space Agency recently released some new shots from the Visual Monitoring Camera on board the Mars Express orbiter. Sometimes called the “Mars webcam,” the VMC is a low-res engineering camera, not a scientific instrument. But it has a great view. As a bonus to the main Mars Express mission, it lets us ride along as the spacecraft loops around the Red Planet in its polar orbit.

Here are some photos obtained in 2013 from the Visual Monitoring Camera on board the Mars Express orbiter, combined into an animation. This sequence simulates a speeded-up view of what it would look like to ride along with the spacecraft, watching the planet spin below.

Here are some single frames from the animation and other recent observations. The image quality is, um, webcam-like, but it’s more than enough to make out major features, like Valles Marineris, the polar caps, large craters, and dust storms.

vmc shots of mars
New Views from the Mars Webcam – Some recent views of the Red Planet from the Visual Monitoring Camera, the “Mars Webcam” on board the Mars Express orbiter. Left: the great Valles Marineris canyon can be seen near the upper right side of the disc, filled with mist or dust. Center: a clear view of the canyon, and all the way down to the south polar cap. Right: weather on the horizon. Credit: ESA / Bill Dunford

I included the Valles Marineris shots because the “webcam” images are not the only Mars Express data that ESA has released recently. We also have hard drives full of observations by the High Resolution Stereo Camera. One nice example: this view into a section of that vast Valles Marineris canyon complex.

valles marineris on mars
Misty Canyon – The Mars Express orbiter spies a light mist gathering in Valles Marineris, the vast system of Martian canyons. Credit: ESA / G. Neukum (Freie Universitaet, Berlin) / Bill Dunford

Tall cliffs over look the valley floor, which lies nearly 10 km below at some points in the canyon. The sun has released a whisper-thin fog of water vapor. It’s just one example of the remarkable scenes that Mars Express witnesses routinely–and sends home to us.

Video Retrospective: So Many Worlds, So Much Beauty

While working on some upcoming video/podcast projects for Riding with Robots, I watched these old videos for the first time in years.

They brought back a lot of good memories of the enjoyable exchanges we had with all the Robot Riders here on the site as we gaped at, and puzzled over, these amazing images. But one thing struck me more than anything else: we really are living in the golden age of exploration. So MANY jaw-dropping views of so MANY strange and beautiful worlds.

So, here’s a short walk through the recent past of robotic space exploration. I hope you might enjoy it as much as I did. Continue reading “Video Retrospective: So Many Worlds, So Much Beauty”