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Western University science team shares amazing, vibrant false-colour pictures from Mars

Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona and MRO/HiRISE

Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona and MRO/HiRISE

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Monday, December 8, 2014, 6:56 PM -

The views of Mars coming out of the Western University's Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration (CPSX) over the past week have been pretty amazing, but the latest batch really take things to the next level, showing off some of the vibrant 'colours' of the Red Planet.

Starting back on November 30, a team of four scientists - one faculty and three students from the University of Western Ontario - began an orbital tour of Mars via the HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. This spacecraft, which has been in orbit of Mars since 2006, has been returning high-resolution images of the planet's surface to investigate the geology there and to 'scout out' landing zones for various other missions. Since then, the CPSX team -  in conjunction with the UA-HiRISE team, and Targeting Specialist Anjani Polit in particular - has been gathering images of various targets in their imaging campaign, and they've even been sharing some with the public.

CHECK OUT THE FIRST RESULTS: MRO goes Canadian: Sometimes if you smile at Mars, it smiles right back

While some images from MRO are held in reserve for scientists who requested them, for specific locations and objects that they're researching, the CPSX team - PhD candidate Eric Pilles, grad student Ryan Hopkins and undergraduate Kayle Hansen, led by Adjunct Research Professor Livio L. Tornabene - have continued to share what they could, and the latest ones are just incredible.

Recent Impact Crater

Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona and MRO/HiRISE

From a black & white version of the image on the CPSX Facebook page:


HiRISE image of... A Martian? Looks like a bug on Mars... this astounding feature is a recent impact crater formed within the last two years on Mars. How do we know? We have an image here from about two years ago that shows no sign of this smokin' impact!


This isn't the first recent impact crater that MRO has spotted. In late May, NASA announced that MRO's MARCI camera - the one that provides day Martian weather reports - discovered a new crater, though the images released for that one weren't quite as dramatic, or vibrant as the one above. The colour in this picture isn't the real colour of Mars, though. Instead, it's a 'false-colour' image, processed to look this way based on what the scientists know of Mars and the part of the spectrum of light that HiRISE 'sees' in. So, although the camera didn't actually capture these colours, they are as close to what it would look like to us as possible.

The 'Cobalt Blue' Planet?

Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona and MRO/HiRISE


HiRISE Image of a portion of Cerberus Fossae. Here we see two intersecting rifts ~5km across. The deep blues are sands inside the rift, and the surrounding terrain is dust-covered.


The Cerberus Fossae are a series of fissures, or cracks, in the Martian surface, possibly caused by some kind of a volcanic activity. The view above is located roughly 1,700 kilometres northeast of where the Mars Curiosity rover is exploring Gale Crater. The colour in the image, again, isn't real. If you were sitting in a spacecraft at MRO's altitude, or even standing on the surface there, you'd probably just see shades of rust red, orange and brown, with perhaps some dusty basalt blue mixed in, but nothing so vibrant as this cobalt shade of blue. What they've done with this image is that they've taken the normal Red-Green-Blue (RGB) colour scheme, they've shifted it over and they've inserted Infrared. So, now it's an IRB colour scheme.

"IRB, which refers to Infrared-Red-Blue/Green," Dr. Tornabene wrote in a Facebook post back in Nov 2010. "Ever heard of R-G-B (Red-Blue-Green)? These three primary colors essentially combine to make all the perceived colors that we know of. By substituting a wavelength that is normally invisible to the human eye, like infrared for red colors, and Red for green colors, we create what is called a false-color image."

According to Dr. Tornabene, inserting the infrared spectrum into the image gives scientists information about the materials in the image, especially how much iron the minerals and dust contain, and how much that iron has been oxidized to produce rust. The red and yellow colours indicate minerals that are more oxidized, while the blue show off less oxidized materials. Thus, while the surfaces on either side of this fissure are highly oxidized, the minerals that line the bottom of it are far less so, leading to that vibrant blue colour.

Martian Mesa

Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona and MRO/HiRISE

On the group's Facebook page, this one is simply noted as "HiRISE Image of Dunes hiding behind a mesa in Arabia Terra." However, this particular false-colour image is one of the best (and this author's personal favourite so far!), and is quite evocative. If we could stand on the surface of Mars near this mesa, it might bring to mind the northern face of Mount Conner in central Australia - seen below - although with much less green and blue in the view, and a lot smaller (Dr. Tornabene estimates that this Martian mesa is only about 200-300 m long, compared to 2.5 km long for Mt. Conner).

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Hungry for more images from Mars?

The CPSX team's mission continues until December 12, with more images likely showing up on their Facebook page before then, and plenty of their work already showing up on Twitter (@westernuMars). Some of the most recent examples highlight a site specifically chosen by Kayle Hansen - who just happens to be the cousin of Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen. Focusing in a different part of the Cerebrus Fossae than above, the image below shows of even more details, including a beautiful set of ripples down the middle of the fissure, excellent contract with the shadowed parts of the 'canyon' and even giving hints at just how deep it is. Incredible!

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