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The Glory of Mars…

There are many Bad sites on the internet, that’s common knowledge. Everyone knows that you have to be very, very careful which links you click on; you’re only ever one casual tip-tap of a finger on a mouse away from a website that will download something wicked and, yes, I’ll use the word, evil onto your hard drive…

Earlier this year, when I (finally) got broadband, I naively clicked on one such link and was taken to one such site, and my life was ruined, RUINED I say! A program downloaded onto my PC that cast a spell on me and soon had me hopelessly addicted to it, showing me pictures that, despite myself, I just couldn’t look away from.

What was this site? Well, ok, I’ll tell you…

It was the HiRISE site, and the evil, EVIL application of which I speak is the IAS Image Viewer, which lets people examine those OMG-Mb HiRISE images in staggering detail. With IAS Viewer you can zoom in on an image… and in again… and in again… and in AGAIN… until you can see individual boulders and rocks on the surface of Mars. You can see the skip-skip tracks of stones down the inside slopes of craters. You can see the feathered tops of wind-blown dust dunes; you can see each and every crack and fracture and break in the great slabs of sedimentary rock that cover huge areas of the Red Planet. You can, essentially, see Mars as it would appear if you flew over it.

And yes, I’m rather a fan, as you’ve probably gathered…! Addicted? well, no, not quite… I hope not… but whenever I find myself with a few minutes to spare I can quite happily spend those minutes exploring Mars, virtually, through the amazing IAS Viewer.

Today was one of those days. I came home from work rather shattered, to be honest, and although I had a To Do list longer than ET’s arm I thought “Stuff it!” and decided to take a closer look at the latest release of images from HiRISE. Half an hour later, I loaded up image PSP_009446_1650, which was simply labelled “Capri Chasma Floor Traverse” on the HiRISE site. I already knew a little about Capri – it’s one of the small canyons that make up that chaotic, huge jumble of canyons and valleys on the eastern side of the Mariner Valley – so I thought it was worth a look. What I found on that image literally took my breath away.

I’ve seen lots – and I mean LOTS – of images of Mars, as you can imagine. But every now and again, like most space enthusiasts and armchair martians, I stumble across an area, or just a single image, that makes me fall in love with Mars all over again. Today was one of those days. I looked at that image in the IAS viewer and was stunned by the sheer glory and beauty of Mars.

The image itself is a long, loooong strip, and in itself isn’t that impressive simply because it’s so big, and covers such a wide area. But looking at small areas of it, zooming in on its features and landforms reveals a landscape of startling beauty. The image must have been taken when the Sun was at a very low angle, because the shadows cast by the rocks and cliffs are long and jagged, and with so much light and dark, and contrast, and vertical relief, the floor of the canyon appears so detailed it really is like flying over it in a glider or airplane – or a descending Mars lander, maybe…?

Hmmm…. just imagine you’re on the first manned mission to Mars. Your lander fell away from the Mothership half an hour ago, and is now heading down towards the surface. Your pilot is scanning the ground below for a landing site. Looking out of the window, as you pass over Capri Chasma, you see this

capri-cliffs-2

Time passes… your lander drops towards the surface… now you look down at this

capri-cliffs4b

More minutes pass… you fall faster and faster towards Mars… you’re painfully aware that you’ll have to land soon or abort and climb back up to orbit… You hear the pilot hiss a relieved “Yesss!” under his breath, and gaze out the window to see this beneath you…

capri-cliffs3b1

Each of those is a crop from the HiRISE image, a small piece of it blown up and enlarged to bring out the detail. (As usual, please click on each image to bring up a full size version.) I’ve colourised them to make them look a bit more, well, martian – the ‘colour’ image of this area on the HiRISE is not that realistic – but all the detail you see is real.

People often ask me why I love Mars so much, why it moves and inspires me so much. Well, the answer is right there, on those pictures. How could you NOT fall in love with a planet that looks like that..?

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