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NASA spacecraft beams back trippy views of Mars

The planet's atmosphere dramatically changes with the seasons.
NASA spacecraft beams back trippy views of Mars

Some days NASA sees the Red Planet, and it wants to paint it rainbow colors.

In these new images of Mars, the planet's rusty crust takes on strange, psychedelic hues. The global photos were taken by the space agency's Maven mission, shorthand for "Mars atmosphere and volatile evolution."

Rendered in ultraviolet wavelengths so the data is easier to perceive visually, the atmosphere's ozone appears splashed in Kool-aid Purplesaurus Rex, and Martian clouds and hazes look like a frothy cappuccino foam or antifreeze blue. And that signature red surface, caused by heavy doses of oxidized iron in the ground? More like khaki or verde marble.

This isn't random eye candy for space lovers. Scientists can learn valuable information about Mars' atmosphere by studying it through this lens.

Maven's Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph instrument measures wavelengths of light invisible to human eyes. Astronomers use this data to determine how the loss of volatiles from the Martian atmosphere — molecules such as water and carbon dioxide that easily evaporate — has affected the planet's climate over the ages. These molecules got thrown into the atmosphere from Mars' interior and crust through volcanic plumes.

The insight gained from the mission helps scientists understand Mars' history of liquid water and possible prior habitability.

Maven snagged these pictures this January and in 2022 when the planet was on opposite ends of its oval-shaped orbit around the sun.

NASA's Maven captures Mars in ultraviolet in July 2022.

In the first image, taken during the southern hemisphere's summer, the Argyre Basin, at the bottom left, is filled with rosé pink, indicating atmospheric haze. At the top left of the planet, Valles Marineris, a canyon system longer than the United States, appears tan because it's filled with clouds. The southern polar ice cap at the bottom is stark white, but shrinking from the warmer weather.

"Southern summer warming and dust storms drive water vapor to very high altitudes," the agency said, bolstering MAVEN's previous discovery of greater hydrogen loss from the planet during this time of year.

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NASA's Maven captures Mars in ultraviolet in January 2023.

The second image shows just how much the atmosphere changes with the seasons. The northern polar region appears white, chock full of clouds, and Valles Marineris, now in the lower left, remains tan along with lots of craters.

"Ozone, which appears magenta in this UV view, has built up during the northern winter’s chilly polar nights," according to NASA. "It is then destroyed in northern spring by chemical reactions with water vapor, which is restricted to low altitudes of the atmosphere at this time of year."

The Maven mission, planned to last two years, has now studied Mars for nearly a decade. The orbiter has enough fuel to operate through 2030.

Topics: Science, Space, NASA

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