Unprecedented image captured of the largest volcano in the solar system

Unprecedented image captured of the largest volcano in the solar system
Unprecedented image captured of the largest volcano in the solar system

Mars Odyssey, NASA’s longest-running Martian robot, has taken an unprecedented image of Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the solar system, which covers much of the horizon in orbit.

The image is part of an ongoing effort by the Mars Odyssey team to provide high-altitude views of the planet’s horizon. (The first such view was released in late 2023.) Similar to the perspective from which astronauts on Earth board the International Space Station, the view allows scientists to learn more about clouds and dust on Mars.

Taken on March 11, the image captures Olympus Mons in all its glory. With a base stretching over 600 kilometers, the shield volcano rises to a height of 27 kilometers.

NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter captured this unique image of Olympus Mons, the tallest volcano in the solar system, on March 11, 2024.


“We normally see Olympus Mons in narrow strips from above, but as we turn the spacecraft toward the horizon we can see in a single image how big it looms over the landscape,” Odyssey project scientist Jeffrey Plaut of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which manages the mission, said in a statement. “The image is not only spectacular, but also provides us with unique scientific data.”

In addition to providing a frozen image of clouds and dust, these images, when taken over several seasons, can give scientists a more detailed understanding of the Martian atmosphere.

A blue-white band in the lower atmosphere gives a clue to the amount of dust present here in early autumn, a period when dust storms typically begin to form. The purplish layer above it was probably caused by a mixture of the planet’s red dust with some blue-coloured water ice clouds. Finally, towards the top of the image, a blue-green layer can be seen where water ice clouds rise about 50 kilometres into the sky.

The orbiter, named after Arthur C. Clarke’s classic science fiction novel “2001: A Space Odyssey,” captured the scene with a heat-sensitive camera called the Thermal Emission Imaging System, or THEMIS, which was built and operated by Arizona State University in Tempe. But because the camera is designed to look down at the surface, taking a picture of the horizon requires extra planning.

By activating thrusters located around the spacecraft, Odyssey can point THEMIS at different parts of the surface or even slowly rotate to view Mars’ tiny moons, Phobos and Deimos.

Some of the photos revealed by the Odyssey.

Photo:Nasa: nave Mars Odyssey

The recent horizon image was conceived as an experiment many years ago during the landings of NASA’s Phoenix mission in 2008 and the Curiosity rover in 2012. As with other Mars landings before and after those missions touched down, Odyssey played an important role by transmitting data as the spacecraft sped toward the surface.

To transmit its vital engineering data back to Earth, Odyssey’s antenna had to be pointed toward the newly arrived spacecraft and its landing ellipses. Scientists were intrigued when they noticed that positioning Odyssey’s antenna for the task meant THEMIS would be pointed toward the planet’s horizon.

“We decided to just turn on the camera and see what it looked like,” said Odyssey mission operations spacecraft engineer Steve Sanders of Lockheed Martin Space in Denver. Lockheed Martin built Odyssey and helps run day-to-day operations alongside mission leaders at JPL. “Based on those experiments, we designed a sequence that keeps THEMIS’ field of view centered on the horizon as we circle the planet.”


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