Can't go to Mars? NASA brings you the 'Next Best Thing to Being There'

Mankind is moving at a steady pace towards uncovering the secrets that Mars has been holding onto. The Pancam (panoramic camera) on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover, Opportunity, has caught on lens the elusive red planet - its fresh rover tracks, an  impact crater blasted billions of years ago, among a host of other things in an expansive panoramic image, called 'Mars Panorama Next Best Thing to Being There' . The 'full-circle scene' is in fact, 817 images combined that were captured by the Pancam - depicting "the ruddy terrain around the outcrop where the long-lived explorer spent its most recent Martian winter", as per an official statement. Describing the scene in more detail, the statement reads, "This scene, recorded from the mast-mounted color camera, includes the rover's own solar arrays and deck in the foreground, providing a sense of sitting on top of the rover and taking in the view."

'Greeley Panorama' from Opportunity's Fifth Martian Winter (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ.)

'Greeley Panorama' from Opportunity's Fifth Martian Winter (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ.)



The image, as you can see above, has been showcased in false colour to clearly depict the differences between materials in the scene. As aforementioned, the image has been put together by combining 817 'component' images that were captured between between Dec. 21, 2011, and May 8, 2012. During this time, Opportunity was on an outcrop, informally called "Greeley Haven," on a segment of the rim of ancient Endeavour Crater. The outcrop was named Greeley Haven, in tribute to Ronald Greeley (1939-2011), a team member who taught generations of planetary science students at Arizona State University'


Jim Bell of Arizona State University, Tempe, Pancam lead scientist, was quoted as saying, "The view provides rich geologic context for the detailed chemical and mineral work that the team did at Greeley Haven over the rover's fifth Martian winter, as well as a spectacularly detailed view of the largest impact crater that we've driven to yet with either rover over the course of the mission."


NASA's Mars Exploration Rover, Opportunity, in the release week of the expansive panoramic image completed its 3,000th Martian day (on July 2) and in the same week. NASA, too is now moving forward its 15 years of 'robotic presence at Mars' - plotted by Mars Pathfinder, NASA's Mars Global Surveyor orbiter, Mars Odyssey orbiter and now Opportunity.


It was in the January of 2004 that Opportunity and Spirit, its twin, landed on Mars, for three-month-long missions, as per the original plans. NASA also launched their ambitious Curiosity Mars rover placed atop the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, in November last year. Curiosity is scheduled to be in flight for nine months from the date of its launch before it is to begin work on the surface of the red planet. According to the official statement, Curiosity is expected to land on Mars next month. 


Recent reports indicated that a network of tunnels that have formed of a result of underground lava flows and non-existent volcanoes may be capable of sustaining life, hence rekindling hope that the red planet may be habitable, after all. The report further cites that the presence of 'distinctive pit chains' on the surface of the red planet surrounding the Tharsus Montes volcanoes only indicate that the tunnels and depressions on the surface collapsed after the underground lava flows stopped. Researchers are now of the opinion that the other tunnels on the surface are likely to have had running water ages ago and are also the locations where they could look for microbial life on the planet and which could indicate the planet's ability to sustain life.


(Image credit: Getty Images)