NASA’s Odyssey captures unseen view of Olympus Mons, the solar system’s tallest volcano

Odyssey, NASA’s longest-running robotic explorer at Mars, is about to hit a major milestone: 100,000 trips around the Red Planet! To celebrate this impressive feat, Odyssey has snapped a truly out-of-this-world photo. Using its heat-sensitive camera, the orbiter captured a breathtaking view of Olympus Mons, the solar system‘s tallest volcano, in all its glory.

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Since launching in 2001, this tireless orbiter has been a workhorse, mapping minerals and ice, scouting landing sites for future missions, and even acting as a data relay station for rovers and landers on the surface. The recent image, taken on March 11, reveals a wealth of information about the Martian atmosphere. A bluish-white band at the bottom hints at dust levels, while a purplish layer suggests a mix of dust and water-ice clouds. Finally, a blue-green layer at the top shows water-ice clouds reaching a staggering 31 miles high.

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Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Imagine seeing this behemoth stretch across 373 miles – that’s the kind of perspective this new image offers. It’s similar to the view astronauts aboard the International Space Station have of Earth, and it’s helping scientists learn more about Martian clouds and dust.

This “horizon view” technique isn’t new for Odyssey. They started capturing these stunning vistas in late 2023. But getting the perfect shot takes some work. “Normally we see Olympus Mons in narrow strips from above, but by turning the spacecraft toward the horizon we can see in a single image how large it looms over the landscape,” said Odyssey’s project scientist, Jeffrey Plaut of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which manages the mission. “Not only is the image spectacular, it also provides us with unique science data.”

This long-distance photography wasn’t part of the original mission plan. It all started as an experiment during the landings of the Phoenix mission (2008) and Curiosity rover (2012). When Odyssey repositioned its antenna to relay data from these landers, scientists noticed the heat-sensing camera was pointed at the horizon. They decided to give it a shot, and the results were spectacular!

So, what’s the secret to Odyssey’s longevity? A combination of careful planning and engineering magic. The team has to manage fuel (they don’t even have a fuel gauge!), solar power fluctuations as the spacecraft dips behind Mars, and temperature control for all its instruments. “It takes careful monitoring to keep a mission going this long while maintaining a historical timeline of scientific planning and execution — and innovative engineering practices,” said Odyssey’s project manager, Joseph Hunt of JPL. “We’re looking forward to collecting more great science in the years ahead.”

Explore the full-resolution image here, and read more about it on NASA’s website.

[via Techeblog; image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU]

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