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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    HiRISE captures new images of Mars

    UA’s Martian project sends back snapshots of Hawaii-like lava rock

    The UA’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment released 930 new images of Mars terrain to the public, including images that show the existence of lava rock.

    Previously the images, which were taken between May and July and released to the public Aug. 29, pointed toward the existence of a dark pit that was originally believed to be a cavern or cave.

    “”It was suggested, based on thermal temperatures, to be an opening of caverns or caves, but we couldn’t see the floor because it had a dark shadow on it,”” said Alfred McEwen, a UA planetary geology professor and a HiRISE principal investigator. “”So, we took a second picture looking obliquely at the side, and we found that they were vertical walls, not overhanging walls.””

    The walls seem to be made of lava rock, McEwen said, similar to that found in Hawaii.

    Also among the findings is a display of layers composed of water, ice and dust in the South Polar region, which could clue in scientists to recent changes in the planet’s climate.

    Although scientists and observers cannot yet determine with certainty what is significant in the images, their importance will be further realized in the future when more information about Mars is known, McEwen said.

    One of the more interesting aspects to the new pictures is the view of the South Pole, he said.

    “”We’re looking at the changing of seasons there, mini geysers and things like that.””

    Other images show a clear view of what is known as Mars’ “”Swiss cheese”” terrain, so named because of the scattered depressions along the smooth land, an effect thought to be caused by the alteration of material that changed to a gas from a solid, he said.

    NASA accepted the $40 million HiRISE project in 2001. The camera took more than four years to build and was launched aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in August 2005.

    The HiRISE began photographing Mars’ surface in March 2006 and took its first high-resolution shots last September.

    The HiRISE is the most powerful camera ever sent to another planet, said Yisrael Spinoza, a support systems analyst for the HiRISE project.

    “”This is a two-year project,”” Spinoza said. “”We aren’t even up to a year yet, and we already have so many incredible photos.””

    As part of the project, individuals who work on the project have begun sending images to the Mars Lander to determine a safe place to land, Spinoza said.

    “”We are collecting and using data that can be used in past and future missions,”” he said.

    Some images are taken seasonally, Spinoza added, which allows experts to scan images of the same areas to search for any changes over time.

    Leaders of the project expect the HiRISE to continue to photograph Mars for at least another decade, McEwen said.

    Being involved in such a large-scale project is more of a joy for McEwen than a high-pressure responsibility, he said.

    “”Right now, it’s just a lot of fun,”” McEwen said. “”I really enjoy doing it.””

    The unprecedented availability of the camera’s images to the public on its Web site,, has prompted the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory to anoint the HiRISE “”The People’s Camera.””

    “”It’s because of public support for the exploration of Mars that this camera was made possible in the first place,”” McEwen said. “”They helped us, so we’re happy to make them happy.””

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