The Faces of Mars

The planet Mars poses for a series of studio portraits.

The full exploration of Mars began in earnest in 1976, when the audacious Viking mission arrived at the Red Planet. Previous spacecraft had carried out an initial reconnaissance, but Viking went much further. It brought not just one, but two spacecraft, each of which dispatched a complex laboratory to land on the surface. What’s more, both of these Viking orbiters were designed not for a quick fly-by, but for a long-term mapping mission.

Viking 2 Approaches Mars
Viking 2 Approaches Mars – Mars looms before the Viking 2 spacecraft as it approaches the planet in August, 1976. Credit: NASA / JPL / processed by Bill Dunford

Together, the Viking 1 and 2 orbiters captured many thousands of high-quality images of the surface. To this day, Mars explorers consider the data Viking collected part of a valuable knowledge base. Viking 1 spent more than four years in active service, and toward the end of its life it snapped hundreds of pictures during the early northern Martian summer.

The U.S. Geological Survey combined those images into a series of extraordinary mosaics. Instead of focusing on one region or feature on the surface, these new compilations recreated how the entire face of Mars would look to an observer in a spacecraft flying about 2500 kilometers above the ground. These USGS hemispheric mosaics were prepared in high resolution and somewhat enhanced color. The result is a crisp, clear studio portrait of a planet. There’s a word that’s highly overused when describing pictures from space, but these images are, in fact, stunning.

The first mosaic below is one of the most commonly used pictures of Mars. It includes a couple of particularly striking features: the hemisphere-wide gash of Valles Marineris, and three towering volcanoes in Tharsis.

Mars: Valles Marineris Hemisphere
Mars: Valles Marineris Hemisphere – A mosaic of 102 Viking orbiter images of Mars, showing a hemisphere of the planet centered on the immense Valles Marineris canyon system. Prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey. Credit: NASA / JPL / USGS

But it’s not the only portrait in the series. Here are several more, some much less often seen. Together, they reveal the several faces of a world. For all the excitement of following the rovers as they pick their way carefully through an explorer’s playground in Gale and Endeavour, it’s refreshing to see a reminder of this planet’s grand, stark sweep.

Mars: Syrtis Major Hemisphere
Mars: Syrtis Major Hemisphere – Mosaic of 100 Viking orbiter images acquired in 1980, showing a hemisphere of Mars focused on the Syrtis Major region (the dark area at the right). Prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey. Credit: NASA / JPL / USGS
Mars: Cerberus Hemisphere
Mars: Cerberus Hemisphere – A mosaic of 104 Viking orbiter images acquired in February, 1980, showing a hemisphere of Mars featuring the Cerberus region (the large dark spot at the center left). Prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey. Credit: NASA / JPL / USGS
Mars: Schiaparelli Hemisphere
Mars: Schiaparelli Hemisphere – A mosaic of images from the Viking orbiters taken in 1980, showing a hemisphere of Mars centered on the large impact crater Schiaparelli. Prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey. Credit: NASA / JPL / USGS

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


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