In 2006, after a year-long journey through space, a NASA probe called the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter settled into a circular orbit around the Red Planet. Among the MRO’s various scientific instruments was a camera, known as the HiRISE. HiRISE stands for High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, and it’s the largest and most advanced camera ever sent to another planet.
Over the last 7 years, the HiRISE has sent back stunning images of the Martian surface Photographs of sand dunes and craters, dust devils and ancient riverbeds, frozen water and glaciers of CO2 have helped planetary scientists learn more about the dynamic surface of the Red Planet. The HiRISE images played a key role in choosing the landing site for the Curiosity rover, and they are sure to play an important role in identifying a landing site for humans, if and when NASA decides to plan the mission.
Earlier this year Aperture published This Is Mars, a fine art book of beautifully printed black and white photographs taken by the HiRISE camera. Flipping through it’s hard not to be sucked in by the almost erie detail in these pictures. Some, like the images of sand dunes and valleys seem almost familiar, reminiscent of desert landscapes on Earth. Others, like the Proctor crater and the abstract formations around the Martian polar regions, are positively alien.
According to one of the book’s authors, astrophysicist Francis Rocard, “the [HiRISE] camera equals a naked-eye view of the planet at a flight level of approximately one kilometer.” So looking at these landscapes you’re about ten times closer to the ground than when you’re looking out the window of an airplane.
The man who helped get the HiRISE camera of the ground and into orbit around Mars, is Dr. Alfred McEwen. He’s a professor of planetary science at the University of Arizona and the principal investigator for HiRISE. Last week I got a chance to speak with Dr. McEwen about the Red Planet and the book This is Mars.
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