The first infrared image of Mars transmitted to Earth shows the Red Planet's polar ice cap in new detail and raises hope that new imaging technology could reveal water to sustain life or new life forms.
The image was taken as part of a calibration process from an imaging system aboard NASA's 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft.
"You sell a concept; then you cross your fingers and hope you were really right," said Phil Christensen, professor of geological sciences at Arizona State University and the primary researcher behind the infrared imaging technology. "Will the science be there and will the instruments work?"
"It's beautiful," Christensen said of the image. "You see clouds blowing off the polar cap. At the edge of the planet you actually see the atmosphere of Mars."
The rainbow-colored image reveals nighttime temperatures on the planet's surface in springtime. The temperatures in the southern hemisphere range from nearly 32 degrees Fahrenheit to minus 184 degrees Fahrenheit. The carbon dioxide south polar ice cap, which is 540 miles in diameter, is especially clear and cold.
Jim Neuman, mission operations manager at Lockheed Martin, said, "You've got water and warmth. Those two things are very conducive to life. The eventual goal here is humans on Mars."
The spacecraft, launched from Cape Canaveral in April, was 13,600 miles above the surface of Mars when the image was shot. By February, scientists hope to have tightened the orbit so new images can be taken at a distance of 240 miles.
"The images will be 100 times more detailed at that time," Christensen said. "What we have now is just a glimpse of what we're going to get."
The image released this week is the first for the $300 million Odyssey spacecraft, which arrived in Mars' orbit 10 days ago after traveling 286 million miles.
The spacecraft is controlled from Lockheed Martin's Waterton Canyon facility southwest of Denver, and NASA navigators are stationed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. The Thermal Emission Imaging System ("THEMIS" after the Goddess of Justice) was developed at Arizona State with Raytheon Santa Barbara Remote Sensing.
The spacecraft weighs 1,600 pounds when fully fueled and is 10 feet across. It's equipped with two other major instruments: One will look for ice beneath the surface of Mars; the other will analyze radiation levels to determine whether humans could survive a similar voyage.
During the probe's 2 1/2-year mapping mission, scientists also will be looking for minerals that could reveal the presence of ancient lakes or oceans.