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Zooming in on the Martian surface

Credit: NASA/JPL/Arizona State University

By James Dacey

For a period around the turn of the 20th century, a number of people began to believe that the Martian surface may be patterned with a network of canals created by some kind of intelligent civilization. This theory emerged after primitive observations by the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1877 revealed a series of long straight lines around the planet’s equatorial region.

Telescopes have come a long way since then and I think we can say fairly confidently that the surface markings are more likely due to natural geological processes. However – as is often the case in observational astronomy – the truth is just as awe-inspiring.

This image shows Valles Marineris, the “Grand Canyon of Mars”, which sprawls wide enough to reach from Los Angeles nearly to New York City, if it were located on Earth. It is a snapshot taken from a new interactive global map of the Martian surface produced by stitching together nearly 21, 000 images captured by the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) – a multiband infrared and visual camera on board NASA’s Mars Odyssey Orbiter.

The map allows you to zoom in on specific geological features, such as craters and volcanoes, to a resolution of 100 m. It could be used by scientists to study the mineralogy and physical geology of the Martian surface.

NASA says that the map will also help with the selection of a landing site for its Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, which is due to launch in 2011. Once this craft has landed, a NASA rover will collect samples to see whether the planet could have supported life at some point in its history. So you never know – it may turn out that the Martian surface has been sculpted by little green men after all.

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