All Articles
All Articles
CULTURE

This is Mars

Art and science merge in a book of hi-res space camera images that reveals the red planet's beauty

by Nara Shin
on 04 October 2013
this-is-mars-cover.jpg

Eight years ago, the NASA space probe Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was fitted with the largest and most powerful camera (more commonly known as the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE for short) to ever be launched past Earth's orbit. The gains to the scientific community from this mission have been enormous, including the discovery of large amounts of ice on Mars and that the planet's topography undergoes seasonal changes. But one of the biggest public benefits is the collection of 29,000 (and counting) high-resolution images of Mars' surface that have been transmitted back to Earth and reveal the beauty of the enigmatic red planet.

this-is-mars-2.jpg

French designer and editor Xavier Barral has carefully whittled the number of images down to 152 black-and-white photographs in the oversized hardcover "This is Mars," from photo authority and publisher Aperture. Canyons, landslides, river deposits, cold jets, impact craters—the terrain of Mars is incredibly diverse and the extraordinarily detailed images from HiRISE change any preconceptions one might have had about what Mars "looks" like. The images are consistent, covering areas three miles across, with no post-production zooming. The book makes a planet 140 million miles away a little more tangible, and feel a little more closer.

Complementing the black-and-white images is an introduction from planetary geologist Alfred McEwen, an essay by French astrophysicist Francis Rocard, maps of Mars and a descriptive image index by Curiosity rover scientist Nicolas Mangold. Cool Hunting spoke with Dr McEwen, who is based at the University of Arizona in Tucson where the HiRISE images are processed, to learn more about the technology behind the captured images.

mcewen-portrait.jpg
What is your role in the HiRISE project?

So, I'm the principle investigator of HiRISE. I was involved from the beginning and proposing the whole concept—design, the build of the instrument, testing and launch. At this point it's an operating instrument, so we do two main things here. One is that we do the science planning, decisions about what to target and the uplink of the exact choices for the various camera settings, so we'll call that all "uplink." Then we do what we call "downlink." We get the data when it comes back and we do all the processing of the data and making our products that are on our website.

I read that the HiRISE camera was designed to last for a few years and that it's already surpassed that goal. Are the images you're receiving now considered a bonus?

That's right. The [MRO's] primary mission was only two years long, so that ended in around the end of 2008, but everything is healthy. The spacecraft has plenty of fuel and there's no reason not to keep going.

How long does it take for the HiRISE camera to send the photos back to Earth?

The light time between Earth and Mars varies from something like five to 20 minutes, if I remember right. That's not very significant, but when we take an image, we take it very rapidly. We've collected huge images within just seconds but then we store all the data within our instruments, then it takes 10 minutes or so just to play that data to the spacecraft, a solid state recorder. It then prepares the data in certain ways for transmission. And you know, the spacecraft doesn't always have antenna time with Earth, so it might have to wait until an antenna on Earth is pointed in the right direction to send data back. It does that for at least eight hours a day, and we usually get our images back within 24 hours of acquiring them.

this-is-mars-5.jpg
That's incredibly fast. The textures visible in these HiRISE images are almost unbelievable. If the cover didn't say Mars, I would have thought this was an art book.

Polar regions are where a lot of weird stuff is... [Page] 164 is a polar scene—a north polar scene—and all those little features there, those are barchan sand dunes, they're sort of crescent-shaped sand dunes. Most of these sand dunes are active; the wind is blowing the sand. The dunes move about a meter per year. There's also frost on the surface and some of the bright/dark streaking is where there's frost. This is one I always liked because the bright area of the dune with frost on it against the black background, it almost looks like a flock of birds or something.

In your essay, you write how each photo teaches something different about Mars. Through the HiRISE project, were there a lot of hypotheses that became disproved?

I think the HiRISE images have really changed the thinking of the science community about many aspects of Mars. It's had a big effect there—they're also beautiful images, which is great for people to enjoy. There's been—oh, I haven't got a good count, but several hundred scientific papers published based on HiRISE observations. And this is the basis for deciding where to land for the Phoenix mission, for MSL [Mars Science Laboratory] and for future landers, so it has indirect benefits there as well once it lands.

We've learned a great deal about Mars from this data, especially about active Mars today. There were debates about whether or not these sand dunes were active today because the air is so thin. Now we know for sure they're definitely active. And there were debates about gullies and how they formed, but now we've observed that they are active in forming almost exclusively in the winter and spring when there's frost on the ground. So it isn't water today that's forming, it's a process related to this dry ice [frozen CO2] that condenses from the atmosphere.

You've learned a lot about Mars today; have you learned anything more about Mars' history?

Yes, certainly we have, in particular when coordinated with the CRISM, the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars. They're identifying the minerals and then from our images you can see exactly which layer or which sort of surface texture and rock corresponds to which minerals. So then we have the information to determine the geological processes and histories of ancient Mars.

this-is-mars-3.jpg
How did HiRISE pave the way for the Curiosity Rover? Could Curiosity have been possible without this project?

We've aided them a great deal by learning where to land safely and where to go explore. It might have been more risky [without HiRISE] because in particular, they wouldn't have known for sure where or not there were things like boulders that would be. If you happen to land right on top of one them, that could be the end of the mission right there. And you could land someplace where it's just very difficult to drive the rover over. For example, the Opportunity Rover got stuck in some sand dunes for like several weeks. They use our images to decide exactly where to drive so they haven't gotten stuck now ever since HiRISE has gotten there and provided data for them to use.

Generally, what are the differences between the HiRISE camera and the cameras on the Curiosity Rover?

It's a much bigger camera. It's a telescope, it's a half-meter diameter, primary mirror. The cameras on Curiosity are much smaller—more of a wide angle—but of course, they're on the surface and can get much closer to the rocks that they're imaging, so they get higher resolution for things that are close to the rover. [Curiosity's] is not a more powerful camera, but they have the great advantage of being on the surface.

this-is-mars-4.jpg
Do you expect to do a similar hi-res imaging project for another planet any time soon?

Maybe—we should do this for the moon. I'm a co-investigator for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, which has got a huge number of high resolution images. And then future missions, that's a great idea. There aren't very many new missions that NASA has planned right now, unfortunately. They've cut back Mars quite a bit. They've cut back other things even more, given the political problems in this country.

That's so unfortunate. I can't imagine what the other planets might look like up close, seeing how Mars looked completely different than I expected.

Yes, hopefully they'll change that, but we do have all the new images of Mercury from the Messenger mission. I wouldn't be surprised if they produce an atlas at some point. And for Saturn, there's certainly lots of possibilities there. And we need new missions to Jupiter because the Galileo mission that was there, the antenna didn't unfurl properly and so we had very low data rates. We got little bits and pieces only from Jupiter's system, which is just spectacular...[but] we need to go back there.

this-is-mars-8.jpg
How can people view the images that didn't make the cut for "This is Mars"?

It's available to everyone. Go to our HiRISE website—all the images and products at full resolution are available. It takes us a few weeks after we get the data to process it and check it before it's available to the whole public, but you know, except for the last few weeks, it's all there. Go there and spend the rest of your life browsing those images.

There's also something called HiWish. Anybody in the world can go there and suggest images for us to take. Anywhere on Mars, pick your place for a reason. Tell us why you think it's of interest and submit that, and that goes into our system and it depends on how they get prioritized and what the opportunities are, when you can see things and so forth, but we've taken something like 2,000 of those public suggested images already, so they get taken. [HiRISE] was all funded by NASA, taxpayers' money, and we try to give the public something back for it.

How does the public know what to request?

There's a number of ways of doing that. One of those ways, there's another camera on MRO called the Context Camera. It's six meters per pixel, so it's like 20 times coarser resolution than HiRISE, but it has a much wider field of view, and so most of Mars has been imaged by that. You can look at that and see wow, that feature looks really interesting, but I wish I had higher resolution, that's the place to suggest a HiRISE image.

"This is Mars" is available from Aperture for $85.

Photos by Nara Shin

The CH25 is a showcase of creators and innovators from a broad range of disciplines who are currently working to drive the world forward.

Meredith Perry

How searching the Internet helped a 22-year-old invent wireless electricity

Read More
It’s not about where the information is, it’s about how you use the tools

Alex Kalman

The tiny museum in Manhattan that’s redefining museums

Read More
The mission is to put this small simple and powerful tool into the hands of as many people as possible

Joshua Harker

Pushing the boundaries of sculpture with intricate 3D printing

Read More
My intent was to explore and depict the architecture of the imagination, to interpret and share forms evident in the mind’s eye

Roxie Darling

From un-shampoo to transgender identity, the NYC colorist boldly defining the next chapter of hair

Read More
Hair color is as much a science as it is a craft

Tarren Wolfe

The next-generation appliance making kitchens greener—literally

Read More
Our goal is to provide food for everyone in the world, and the best place to start is in our very own community

Corinne Joachim Sanon

The chocolatier bringing social change to Haiti and bean-to-bar chocolate to the world

Read More
Seeing the poverty surrounding me and the lack of jobs and opportunity bothered me

Melissa Kushner

Addressing the needs of orphans and vulnerable children in Malawi through microenterprise

Read More
Poverty is complicated, there is an increasing temptation and pressure in the development space to oversimplify things

Kegan Schouwenburg

Revolutionizing orthotics through 3D-printed insoles

Read More
What orthotics do is they effectively change the geometry of what your alignment is like

Lulu Mickelson

A civic leader bringing change to NYC through design

Read More
Human-centered design is one of the many tools that we can use to better engage the public

Cynthia Breazeal

How an emotional, empathetic robot named Jibo stands to revolutionize communication

Read More
The thing that's so provocative about social robots is that it's fundamentally a community technology

LaToya Ruby Frazier

Documenting the slow, troubling change in Braddock, Pennsylvania

Read More
I am not a journalist, I am a conceptual documentary artist using my visual expression for building narratives that are unseen and unheard

Sarah Kunst

The entrepreneur single-handedly changing the landscape for women in tech

Read More
People who live on a planet that is half women but can never seem to find any when they need one, I have solved your problem

Dan Barasch + James Ramsey

A quest to make the future brighter—underground

Read More
We both share a passion for groundbreaking technology and a shared love of New York

Marcus Weller

Using technology to turn motorcycle helmet design on its head

Read More
I was taken aback both by the number of people that doubted it, and by the equally large number of people that got behind it

Kathleen Supové

The NYC performance artist who’s radically reinventing the piano recital

Read More
I like pieces that are virtuosic, that show off the piano and what it can do, and are awe-inspiring

Sabine Seymour

A future where smart clothes are as ubiquitous as zippers

Read More
In the future you will not buy a piece of 'functional' clothing without SoftSpot

Douglas Riboud + Justin Guilbert

How a mission to create great coconut water led to a whole new way of doing business

Read More
We’ve made a conscious decision to be as transparent and honest as we can, and let people decide for themselves

Pauline van Dongen

The Dutch designer blazing the wearable technology path

Read More
I’m fascinated by concepts of change, movement, energy and perception; since they are closely related to the way we experience the world

Vanessa Newman

Redesigning pregnancy for the post-gender generation with Butchbaby & Co.

Read More
I want my customers to feel comfortable and unchanged, in that becoming pregnant didn't take away from or compromise their identity

Leopoldine Huyghues Despointes

The young filmmaker and non-profit founder who just wants people to follow their dreams

Read More
I feel confident and ready to accomplish so much more, the movement is on

Eelke Plasmeijer

The locally driven restaurant that’s upending Balinese food culture

Read More
We really try to keep things simple and let the produce do the talking

Jonathan Sparks

Reinventing electronic music by inventing multi-disciplinary instruments

Read More
Recorded music is becoming so cheap, so the value of music is now in live performance

George Arriola and Monohm

An heirloom electronic for the post-smartphone era

Read More
We agonized during the design process as all hyper-obsessed craftspeople should

Tal Danino

The bioengineer who’s programming DNA to fight cancer

Read More
[Manipulating genes] is very new, people are just learning how to program these organisms

Matt Kenyon

Fusing art and technology to disrupt concepts of corporate America

Read More
I want the work to live in the world and circulate, so it can generate more dialogue
Loading More...